Electric Utilities, Formed Decades Ago, Struggle to Meet Climate Crisis
In California, Pacific Gas & Electric is modernizing its extensive transmission network to avoid a repeat of 2018, when a broken power line sparked the camp fire, which killed 85 people and forced the utility into bankruptcy. But PG&E warned that it could take a decade to complete the work. In July, the utility told regulators its equipment may have started the Dixie Fire, which has already burned 200,000 acres north of Sacramento.
And adaptation will not be cheap. A recent report from ICF International, a consulting firm, estimated that utilities faced a $ 500 billion shortfall to fortify their systems against known climate risks.
To pay for wildfire protection, Pacific Gas & Electric has asked California regulators to approve a $ 5.5 billion rate hike for customers from 2023 to 2026, which could increase the average residential bill. ‘about $ 430 per year. Recently, PG&E pioneered the idea of burying 10,000 miles of power lines underground, which could cost up to $ 30 billion more. This comes at a time when the utility is already trying to invest in measures to reduce its global warming emissions, such as adding more solar power.
In the meantime, many residents are finding ways to keep the lights on when the utility cannot.
Maureen Kennedy has spent this spring investigating solar power and battery power at her home in Inverness, northwest of San Francisco, amid growing anxiety over PG&E power cuts. Ms Kennedy lost power for a week in October 2019 before PG&E restored her power, only to lose it again for a week, leaving it in the dark for half the month. Then, last year, homes in her community were evacuated due to fire threats.
“Your utility is so unreliable that you have to think about spending $ 18,000 on solar power and battery backup,” said Ms. Kennedy, a retired real estate broker.
A spokesperson for PG&E declined requests for interviews with utility officials.
Caroline Winn is the general manager of San Diego Gas & Electric, which pioneered many techniques that other utilities have adopted for wildfires. His company began receiving calls and visits from utility workers in Oregon and places as far away as Australia, seeking advice on fire prevention.
But now Ms Winn is worried about another threat from climate change: rising sea levels, which could flood four of the company’s coastal substations over the next several decades. “The climate does not stay the same,” Ms. Winn said. “It’s getting worse. It’s not just a California problem. It’s a global problem.
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