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US West confronts new era of climate-driven disasters, grid instability

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Power lines extend through heavy smoke on Sept. 10 in Estacada, Ore., as wildfires led to power outages across the West.
Source: Nathan Howard/Stringer via Getty Images

Widespread power outages rolled across the western United States in early September as another unprecedented heatwave scorched California, hurricane-strength winds scoured the Mountain West and catastrophic wildfires raged up and down the West Coast.

Lightning, heat and wind storms fueled three of California's four largest blazes on record. Infernos erupted from the drought-stricken forests of California's Sierra Nevada mountains and Oregon and Washington's Cascade range, engulfing 50 million people in an apocalyptic haze. Millions of residents lost power, pushing total U.S. blackout hours in 2020 near the 1 trillion mark through Sept. 11 — more than all of 2019, even before wildfire season reaches its peak — according to PowerOutage.US.

Coming on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fires and the blackouts added to the sense of 2020 as a uniquely calamitous year. One thing, however, seemed certain: Things are liable to get much worse in the coming years.

State officials, utility executives, energy experts and scientists warned that accelerating climate change poses a growing threat to the reliability of the aging patchwork power grid that serves more than 75 million residents from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. The next several years, they said, will present a generational imperative to finally build the long-overdue resilient grid of the future.

"Now, in the 21st century, we have much more extreme weather that is being driven by climate change," said Mark Dyson, an expert in renewable energy, distributed power systems, demand response and energy storage at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank based in Colorado. The vulnerability of long-distance transmission lines, often running through high-risk fire zones and carrying power from remote generating stations to faraway population centers, was fully exposed in the West in the second week of September. "The real vulnerability is this one-way street of electrons," Dyson said.

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Hoping for change

In Oregon, still-spreading wildfires forced Portland General Electric Co., the state's largest investor-owned utility, to de-energize some of its power lines over multiple areas beginning Sept. 7 in order to prevent even worse destruction, a last-ditch tactic imported from California.

"I think there's no question that the changing climate is exacerbating what we see on the ground," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a Sept. 11 news briefing. "I think it's incumbent upon all of us to be aware that climate change is going to impact how we live, our economy, our culture, and that we all need to be making changes accordingly."

Weeks earlier, the Oregon Public Utility Commission launched an informal process to detail utility wildfire safety plans, partly in response to an executive order on climate change that Brown, a Democrat, issued in March, after Oregon Republican lawmakers for the second time walked out of the capitol to prevent passage of a landmark climate law.

"I'm hoping the legislature can partner with me in that work as we move into the 2021 legislative session," Brown said.

Going broke rebuilding

In California, the Public Utilities Commission called on the state's big regulated utilities, including PG&E Corp.'s Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Edison International subsidiary Southern California Edison Co., and Sempra Energy affiliates San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Gas Co., to work with communities to create climate change "vulnerability assessments" and adaptation strategies.

"It's very important that the utilities take this very seriously," particularly when looking out beyond five to 10 years, said Adrienne Alvord, Western states director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Without comprehensive long-range planning, "we're going to go broke trying to rebuild things over and over again."

Increasingly frequent natural disasters are "a sign that we have to really invest seriously and quickly into a much more resilient system that takes into account more storage, better demand response, greater flexibility, [and] more renewables," Alvord said.

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Residents of Portland, Ore., suffered from heat and smoke as the entire West Coast has been drenched in a haze of toxic air since Labor Day.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

While dramatic conservation efforts in California helped to stave off more extensive blackouts in August and September, project developers and their financial backers say red tape impedes the transition to a more resilient grid — one that would feature energy storage stations located in major population centers and battery-backed solar arrays at homes and businesses that can be aggregated into virtual power plants or assembled into microgrids with other local resources.

"We'd love to go faster," said Benoit Allehaut, a managing director at Capital Dynamics Clean Energy and Infrastructure LP, a U.S.-based affiliate of Swiss private equity firm Capital Dynamics AG that has invested in some of the world's largest solar-plus-storage projects in California and recently announced a partnership with developer Tenaska Energy Inc. to build 2 GW of standalone battery storage near Los Angeles and other large cities. But new projects are slowed by interconnection agreement processes and permitting rules born of a cooler and less urgent era of energy development, he said.

Luis Amezcua, a Los Angeles-based senior representative for the Sierra Club's My Generation campaign, which advocates for transitioning to 100% clean energy in California, blames Gov. Gavin Newsom for failing to prepare California's energy system for this summer's crisis.

"Rather than just recognizing that climate change is real, he needs to take bold, meaningful action to make sure that we are putting words to action," Amezcua said.

Even as the state braced for more fires, regulators and the California ISO, the state's primary wholesale grid operator, undertook a sweeping review of California's approach to grid reliability and an ongoing probe into what went wrong.

Wake up call

Scientists, meanwhile, have forecast that unless global greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced, extreme weather events such as wildfires, hurricanes, droughts and flooding will continue to grow in intensity and frequency. A July 2019 study by a group of scientists from institutions including Columbia University, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UCLA found that hotter summer temperatures in California are likely the primary driver behind the rapid increase in the number and size of wildfires in the state.

Wall Street is increasingly concerned. Moody's in January cautioned that dozens of U.S. electric utilities are at a high risk of climate change-related physical or financial impacts over the next decade or two. Responding to these risks, an official with the North American Electric Reliability Corp. recently indicated that the organization may tweak its own reliability assessments and seek more weather-related outage event details from power plant owners and other jurisdictional entities to stay on top of the trends.

Like a forest fire drawing in oxygen, though, the coronavirus pandemic has sucked air out of the struggle to limit climate change, noted Alvord: "The COVID crisis has taken up so much space that ... it's taken pretty much a month of extreme conditions and these catastrophic fires and smoke conditions to remind people that we can't just solve one crisis at a time."