Legislation Supports Wildfire Prevention by Norris McDonald

A state bill aimed at making big utilities' power equipment cause fewer fires, the Utility Infrastructure Safety, Reliability and Accountability Act,  SB1088, sponsored by Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) would change the long-standing practice of determining negligence.  The Center supports the legislation.  We support the legislation because California needs more wildfire prevention programs and activities.  Moreover, the current state of affairs leaves utilities open to bankruptcy due to payouts for wildfire damages.  Prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Some of California’s worst fires have been ignited by power lines owned by investor-owned utilities. The companies can be liable for millions or even billions of dollars in damages for lost lives, homes and businesses.  When the utility is found to be negligent -- like failing to replace rotting poles or securing lines -- ratepayers are protected from paying the uninsured costs. That burden falls on shareholders and company profits. 

Wildfire4.jpg

The bill would require the state Office of Emergency Services to set new fire safety criteria for investor-owned utilities to meet. Utilities would have to submit a plan to the California Public Utilities Commission every other year describing how they would make their equipment less likely to start wildfires.

The utilities would be allowed to pass the cost of the safety improvements in their plans directly to ratepayers. Currently,  costs for safety improvements are calculated every three years during lengthy rate-paying procedures before the PUC.

Under the bill, utilities that  comply with their plan would be deemed by the PUC to have performed in a prudent manner. That finding means the PUC could not find the utility negligent if its equipment caused a fire. And the cost of utility-caused fires in those cases would be passed on to ratepayers.

The bill passed through the Senate Committee on Government Organization Tuesday. It must still clear the Appropriations Committee, the full Senate and Assembly before it can be put before the governor to be signed into law.

The bill affects only the ability of the state PUC to find  that a utility was prudent or negligent. It does not directly affect individuals who sue an investor-owned utility contending that its equipment started a fire and that the utility was negligent. However, that finding before the PUC that a utility had acted prudently because it followed its fire safety plan might influence a jury in the utility's favor.  (KPCC, 4/25/2018)

California Wildfires Produce Pollution of 35 Million Cars in Two Days by Norris McDonald

Wildfire3.jpg

In California alone more than 140,000 acres are burning in large, wildland fires throughout the state. In just the past two days, fires in California’s wine country are thought to have produced as much small particulate matter as all the vehicles in the state produce in a year.

Although the early estimates are rough, the fires in the wine country have probably produced about 10,000 tons of PM 2.5, an air pollutant that’s the main cause of haze in the United States.

By way of comparison, it takes the approximately 35 million on-road vehicles in California a year to generate a similar amount of PM 2.5.

The amount of smoke is significant because PM 2.5 is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular problems in people.  

Smoke from the thousands of structures burned in some of the fires can be even more hazardous than typical wildfire smoke.  It is a little bit different because they had so many structures burn, that is a different fuel mixture ... a lot of that stuff has toxic emissions associated with it.  The smoke and fumes will be most hazardous to the people closest to the burning.  (USA Today, 10/11/2017)

Utility Scale Solar Reaches 40% Grid Power by Norris McDonald

On March 11, utility-scale solar generation in the territory of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) accounted for almost 40% of net grid power produced during the hours of 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. This is the first time CAISO has achieved these levels, reflecting an almost 50% growth in utility-scale solar photovoltaic installed capacity in 2016. The large and growing amount of solar generation has occasionally driven power prices on the CAISO power exchange during late winter and early spring daylight hours to very low, and sometimes negative, prices. However, consumers in California continue to pay average retail electricity prices that are among the highest in the nation.

Utility-scale solar generation includes solar photovoltaic (PV) systems as well as a few solar thermal plants. Additional generation from customer-sited solar generators installed in California (such as those on residential and commercial rooftops) further adds to the total solar share of mid-day electricity generation, while displacing demand for power from the grid. As of December 2016, utilities in CAISO reported 5.4 gigawatts (GW) of net-metered distributed solar capacity. (EIA reports installed electric capacity data in alternating current terms, which are typically 10% to 30% lower than the direct current capacities sometimes reported for PV systems.) EIA estimates that this capacity would have generated approximately 4 million kilowatthours (kWh) during the peak solar hours on March 11. This level of electricity reduced the metered demand on the grid by about the same amount, suggesting that the total solar share of gross demand probably exceeded 50% during the mid-day hours.

Total solar capacity in California (including both distributed and utility-scale systems) has grown from less than 1 GW in 2007 to nearly 14 GW by the end of 2016. Solar generation follows daily and seasonal sunlight patterns, peaking during the long summer days and reaching its annual minimum during the winter.

Electricity demand in California also tends to peak during the summer months. However, in late winter and early spring, demand is at its annual minimum, but solar output, while not at its highest, is increasing as the days grow longer and the sun gets higher in the sky. Although the sun is at a similar angle in September and October, electricity demand is still relatively high, leading to lower solar generation shares than seen in March.

Consequently, power prices on both the day-ahead and real-time CAISO markets were substantially lower in March compared with other times of the year or even March of last year. In March, during the hours of 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., system average hourly prices were frequently at or below $0 per megawatthour (MWh). In contrast, average hourly prices in March 2013–15 during this time of day ranged from $14/MWh to $45/MWh. Negative prices usually result when generators with high shut-down or restart costs must compete with other generators to avoid operating below equipment minimum ratings or shutting down completely.

Large price spikes immediately before and after mid-day periods when both utility-scale and distributed solar generation reaches its peak level suggest a need for dispatchable generation sources to help cover ramping periods, when the need for power from the grid to meet load is rapidly changing. Beyond solar output, the mix of generation on the system also affects prices. Notably, above-average rain and snowfall this winter in California has supported high levels of hydropower generation that may also be contributing to recent pricing patterns.

  Source:  U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on  LCG consulting

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on LCG consulting

  Source:  U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on  LCG consulting

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on LCG consulting

  Source:  U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on  LCG consulting

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on LCG consulting

  Source:  U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on  LCG consulting

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on LCG consulting

California grid operators have been concerned over the effects of the increase in solar generation on system operations for several years. The generation and pricing patterns that occurred in March and that may continue through the spring highlight some of the issues California grid operators will face in integrating large amounts of solar into their power markets.  (SatPRNews, 4/7/2017)

Aliso Canyon by Norris McDonald

A four-month gas leak at the facility near Porter Ranch from October 2015 to February 2016 spewed nearly 100,000 metric tons of methane into the air and displaced thousands of residents.  There is currently a moratorium on gas injections and withdrawals at the Southern California Gas Co. facility until an independent study determines the cause of the leak.

Officials with the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and the California Public Utilities Commission have recommended that gas injections resume but at reduced amounts and lower pressure levels than those requested by SoCalGas.  

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Monday announced her support for a state bill that would stop the reopening of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility until the root cause of a massive leak that occurred there is determined.

State legislation is pending that would allow the utility to resume injecting natural gas at Aliso Canyon San Fernando Valley residents want to stop the reopening. (Los Angeles Daily News, 2/6/2017)