Adjusting to life with wildfires

California must build a reliable energy system, Cal Fire representative says

About this commentary:
The author, president of Cal Fire Firefighters, wrote it for CalMatters (

Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature tackled part of a critical challenge confronting California with legislation that stabilized electrical utilities, implemented new safety requirements and protected wildfire victims.

But now they must face up to this reality: In an era of climate-change-driven fires, they’re just getting started.

More than ever, the times demand that California have a robust, resilient energy system that ensures electrical power will always be available.

Without it, communications systems will collapse after power drains from cellphone batteries and towers. Transportation systems will be halted without power to pump gasoline or charge electric vehicles.

Extended power outages of more than three days could disrupt drinking water and sewage systems. All the smart devices upon which daily life relies become stupefied without electricity.

The electrical grid is foundational to life in the 21st century, and it’s not nearly as inviolate as we’d like to believe.

We’ve seen how wildfires and earthquakes can knock out power to entire communities for days. We’ve seen how quirky events—bird excrement and squirrels are often culprits—can trigger blackouts.

Ominously, we also know that the electrical grid is potentially vulnerable to malevolent hackers.

Now in California, there is also the very real—in fact, highly likely—possibility of experiencing public safety outages that are triggered when power lines are intentionally shut down as a precaution during extreme wildfire conditions (see Cover story and Newslines for more on this topic).

California simply cannot accept the risk of having to live with on-again, off-again electrical power. We must build greater resiliency into the system, and we need to move beyond the 20th century back-up technology of inefficient, dirty, diesel-powered emergency generators.

Cleaner, smarter and more durable technology exists. It’s technology that has successfully provided uninterrupted power after outages caused by hurricanes, extreme heat waves and wildfires.

Microgrids create islands of self-contained power that provide energy resiliency to businesses, health care facilities and community shelters. Using fuel cells that convert natural gas or biogas into electricity through a noncombustion process, they can operate off the grid indefinitely. Because they rely on underground fuel lines, they are not affected when power lines go down and they do not create the fire risks of sparks from wires or power poles.

In addition, they can be paired with other forms of distributed generation, such as solar.

With the advent of planned public safety shutdowns, the durability of backup systems has become a critical concern. Extreme wildfire conditions can persist for days, and so there could be five- to seven-day public safety blackouts.

California has been a leader in reinventing its electrical power framework. It has set, and met, aggressive standards to ramp up the use of renewable power generation, and the state is committed to reaching 100 percent clean power by 2045. It has incorporated rooftop solar and other forms of distributed generation into its infrastructure.

But it is shockingly behind in building resiliency into its system.

We cannot allow our commitment to renewable energy to cloud our judgment. To be sure, our electricity supply must be sustainable, reliable, safe, accessible and affordable. But it also must be resilient—and on that score, we are falling dangerously short.

For several years, experts have recognized the benefits of microgrids, but regulatory roadblocks and resistance from investor-owned utilities have stymied their deployment. Gov. Newsom and the Legislature must seize their opportunity to establish California as an energy leader that can incorporate both sustainability and resiliency into its electrical power systems.

They must acknowledge that there is an undeniable public good in creating safe zones in our cities in which power will always be on, regardless of disruptions in the grid, and then create market incentives that will provide microgrids with a rate of return for establishing this essential benefit.

They must recognize the huge economic losses and public safety risks that a prolonged outage will inflict on affected communities, and then create market incentives to encourage investment in solutions that will minimize those losses and risks.

California has never been a stranger to fires, floods, earthquakes and all manner of natural disasters. And it always has responded with a resilient spirit.

The specter of longer fire seasons and wildfires that grow more fierce by the year is now testing that spirit. We must summon our commitment to resiliency by building it into our electrical power systems.