The Electrical Grid Knot in California

Photo by Kevin Faccenda,

By Frank Landis, Chair Conservation Committee

Until a few minutes ago (this would be a month ago, for you), I thought I was writing the last appeal for dealing with Otay Ranch Village 14, Lilac Hills Village Ranch, Warner Springs, ad nauseum. Fortunately, the County decided to not to go ahead with the last grand General Plan Amendment. Yay(!)(?), but that might be a while.

Anyway, since I spent a few days up in the Santa Monica Mountains with my mom, ready to help her evacuate if necessary (it wasn’t), I’ve got a few thoughts about this little problem we have with electrical utilities.

The problem we’ve got is that electrical utility companies like PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) seem to be responsible for some big fires. SDG&E, as we know, is still trying to get its ratepayers to cover some of the costs of the 2007 Cedar Fire, which it has been held responsible for. Southern California Edison’s (SCE) equipment may have sparked both the Woolsey Fire and the Thomas Fire, while PG&E is implicated as the cause of the Camp Fire, as well as 16 of the 18 fires that hit the Wine Country last fall. Note that, aside from the Cedar Fire, this is all speculation based on news reporting around the incidents. There are official reports and lawsuits still pending, and they’ll settle questions of official responsibility sometime in the future.

But doesn’t climate change cause fires? Not exactly, at least here in California. To have a fire, you need fuel, air, and an ignition source. The air’s here all the time, while ignitions generally get caused either by lightning, which is very rare in places like southern California, or human fire- starting, which is extremely common. What climate change provides is the fuel, in the form of vegetation dry enough to burn, thanks to long stretches of drought.

So that’s one side of the problem, that electrical grids seem to be causing fires through accident, negligence, or whatever.

There’s another side to the problem, though, which is that we need the electrical grid to deal with climate change. The problem here is that in California we are actively moving towards 100% renewable energy, which seems to mean 100% electricity. While there’s plenty of vacant roof space in cities, quite a lot of it is north-facing, flimsy, or otherwise inappropriate for solar panels, less still for big wind turbines. Because of this, we do and will need solar and wind generation plants outside of cities, plus wires to move the electricity around.

Then there’s the third part of the puzzle, who pays for it all, grid upgrading and disaster tolls alike? SDG&E, PG&E, and SCE are all ultimately owned by investors, although Sempra Energy owns SDG&E and Edison International owns SCE. Doing a bit of googling, it turns out that all three companies are largely owned by financial companies, and that the biggest investors in all three are Vanguard, and Blackrock, both of whom own between 7 and 9 percent of each company. T. Rowe Price comes in third on PG&E and Sempra, owning a bit over 5 percent of each. Know anyone who has an investment with any of these companies?

This ownership cuts two ways. First, if we punish the shareholders for the sins of the power companies, it appears that ultimately that ownership is invested in popular 401K funds across the country. The responsibility has been shared and diluted enormously, making many of us unknowingly complicit in owning this mess. The owners are certainly a bigger pool than the ratepayers, but there is an overlap between the two groups. Worse, perhaps, the institutional investors don’t appear to own enough stock to drive power company policy. We couldn’t simply launch a campaign to get Vanguard to divest itself from these power companies unless they clean up their act, for example. It’s not that simple.

And that’s why it’s a knot. Or perhaps it’s better to say that there are no easy solutions. We’re the problem, as some of us are also inadvertent owners of the companies that keep our refrigerators running but also torch homes. As Californians fighting climate change, we also need the electrical grid to exist to have any hope of transitioning to an entirely electrical society. So we need the electrical grid to get to 100% renewable power, but at the same time, it’s becoming our biggest fire hazard. What to do, what to do...

One solution is what SDG&E did this last red flag alert, when they cut off electricity to tens of thousands of people in the San Diego back country. I suspect this will become the norm. Unfortunately, what many of those people did during the last power outage was to fire up petroleum-powered generators. Since those generators don’t have fancy air filters and converters on their exhaust, this is really polluting, fairly inefficient, and does little to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

A better solution might be for everyone to have solar panels on the roof and a house battery in the garage. That’s what I’m building up towards, certainly. Unfortunately, a battery and panel assembly costs more than ten times what buying a cheap Honda generator does, so while getting a battery is important, it’s not a panacea. Solar panels and house batteries are also more vulnerable to fire than a small generator is, since they are not portable. And not everyone can afford them, or even own their own roof or have a roof that can support panels. Ironically, much of the affordable housing I’m also lobbying for probably can’t power itself through onsite solar panels. In advocating for affordable housing to deal with sprawl, am I also lobbying for a sparking electrical grid that ignites megafires?

Another part of the solution is to underground electrical cables, which is an ongoing process. Undergrounding cables is probably cheaper than $17 billion in costs for the Wine Country fires, but it’s far from free. Who pays for undergrounding? Is it on the ratepayers or the investors, like everything else? Can it be done fast enough to make a difference?

The only good news in this event is that PG&E went bankrupt in 2001, and the electricity still flowed. Moreover, PG&E has been convicted, fined, and lost litigation for most of $2 billion dollars due to the San Bruno pipeline explosion, and the electricity is still flowing. While I’d really like to get to a state where the electricity flows and we don’t worry about, say, 83% of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area burning again(!) because of some preventable electrical malfunction, I do have to acknowledge that the power grid companies seem to have a lot of ruin left in them, to misquote Adam Smith. We don’t have to worry about the grid going away any time soon, no matter who owns it. And in the meantime, I hope that a lot of very smart people will figure out how to make this whole kludge of a problem a little less sparky.