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If California Goes All-Electric, What Happens in a Power Outage?

The state has ambitious goals to end natural-gas usage over the next several years as a way to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. But storms and fires are more routinely causing residents to go days or weeks without power.

(TNS) — California has ambitious plans for an all-electric future: No natural gas power plants are to be built. The state will ban the sale of new natural gas-fueled heaters by 2030, with Bay Area regulators looking to end sales even earlier. By 2035, Californians for the most part will not be able to buy new gasoline-powered cars.

The goal is to slash pollution linked to climate change and other ills. But there's one problem: The power keeps going out. Natural disasters like storms, heat waves and wildfires — or even the threat of fires — can leave residents in the dark for days or even weeks.

It's a predicament that Bruce McPherson, a supervisor for storm-hit Santa Cruz County, has spent altogether too much time thinking about. McPherson is "very supportive" of electrification but is also "very concerned" about the speed of upgrades to electricity infrastructure, as his constituents often face days or weeks without power at a time.

"I know ( Pacific Gas & Electric Co.) is on pace to do things as quickly as possible," McPherson said. "But it's going to be a tremendous long run to catch up to what the needs are to meet some of the deadlines that I'm hearing about for all-electric."

Over the past two months, McPherson said, the outages have come on "an every-other-day basis in one place or another. It's just hitting us in the face. It's not a jab punch, it's a knockout blow."

More than 2.6 million PG&E customers lost power in storms from New Year's Eve to Jan. 15, according to the utility. Tens of thousands of Californians lost power in the September heat wave when transformers and other equipment failed in the brutal temperatures.Years of wildfires have also taken their toll, especially on rural areas, which endure outages not only if there is a fire, but also if PG&E shuts off electricity to prevent its equipment from sparking a blaze on windy days.

In the Santa Rosa neighborhood of Bennett Valley, a January PG&E town hall on frequent power outages ended with a power outage. The outage was due to "old equipment," a PG&E vice president told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, underscoring yet another challenge to keeping the lights on in a region that frequently sees power outages to prevent wildfires.

Interestingly, frequent outages may hurt the state's electrification efforts. Residents who experienced public safety power shutoffs had a relatively high interest in buying fossil fuel generators, compared to residents in nearby neighborhoods without outages, according to research from UC Santa Barbara professor Leah Stokes. They also had less interest in buying electric vehicles, Stokes found.

Despite being in many public safety power shutoffs herself, Stokes is an electrification advocate and is in the process of electrifying her home. Many natural gas appliances require electricity to run, so those are vulnerable to power outages, too, she noted. Plus, living in a wildfire-prone area, Stokes said, means that it's more dangerous to power her home with flammable natural gas.

"(Electrifying your home has) got nothing to do with sacrifice or making your home less resilient. It's actually about making your home safer and more resilient," Stokes said.

One solution, Stokes and others argue, is electric vehicles. In the coming years, they could become a more mainstream way to cope with outages, as they can discharge power from their battery to serve as a backup electricity source for the house.

Only a few vehicles on the market currently have this capability, known as vehicle-to-home technology. Electric car batteries store enough electricity to power an average U.S. household for two days, according to the nonprofit Environment Texas; Ford's 2022 F-150 Lightning electric vehicle touts the ability to power a house for three.

In Santa Cruz County, many residents have installed solar panels to mitigate the effects of frequent outages, McPherson said. But "that's not the solution for the majority of the residents who live in the mountains where the trees block solar energy production," McPherson said. Residents have also paid out-of-pocket for home batteries or bought fossil fuel generators that can cost $300 a week in propane to run, he said.

Ultimately, the responsibility falls on utilities to upgrade their infrastructure, McPherson said.

Utilities are responsible for outages caused by damage to substations or power lines, such as those from toppled trees in the January storms. In response to both wildfire and storm risk, PG&E is undertaking vegetation management and building stronger poles, said Aaron August, PG&E vice president of utility partnerships and innovation.

The utility is also undergrounding 10,000 miles of power lines in high-fire-risk areas, August said. Undergrounding, though, is an expensive, and thus limited, fix: It costs PG&E up to $6.1 million per mile of power line, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Utilities are increasingly finding it cheaper and more effective to provide home batteries or local solar power rather than underground lines, according to retired UC Berkeley electrical engineering professor Sascha von Meier.

In one pilot project, PG&E has so far provided 100 customers who regularly experience wildfire-prevention outages with home batteries. These batteries switch on when the power goes out "to make outages invisible," August said.

Microgrids — electrical grids meant for smaller localities — are another possible solution for areas that face natural disaster threats, many electricity experts say. Some microgrids operate independently, while others are designed to be connected to the larger grid but disconnect from there when outages occur.

In some areas with high wildfire risk, PG&E is removing poles and power lines and instead building microgrids powered by locally operated solar, batteries and backup generators, August said. He pointed to the Redwood Coast Airport Microgrid, which he said kept the power on for the airport during a December earthquake in Humboldt County and during the January storms, even as power was out in the surrounding communities.

Microgrids are "probably the best solution" to maintain reliable power in areas that feel the brunt of climate impacts, von Meier said.

Questions remain as to whether microgrids can be widely used for climate-vulnerable communities across the state, particularly due to concerns that ratepayers — who already pay high electricity bills — would foot the bill for their construction.

"Microgrids are very expensive, and generally, our experiences are that they are more likely to be set up in communities that are more well-to-do. There's only so much redundancy and double-building that you can do and still keep the rates affordable," said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a nonprofit that advocates for cheaper utility bills.

Another concern for California is avoiding statewide rotating outages caused by high electricity demand that strains the power grid as a whole. While these grid-wide outages are exceedingly rare and tend to be shorter than the outages caused by damage to power lines or substations — 60 to 90 minutes, versus days — they are nonetheless disruptive on a broad scale.

During last September's brutal heat wave, the California grid operator narrowly avoided rotating outages — approximately hourlong outages that rotate through different neighborhoods — by sending out a text pleading with residents to conserve power. The state last saw rotating outages during parts of two days in August 2020, when air-conditioning demand during hot weather overwhelmed available power supplies.

Key to preventing grid-wide outages will be lowering power demand during times of stress, said Elliot Mainzer, CEO of the state's grid operator — which, in part, means optimizing when electric devices charge or are used during the day.

The goal is for "a whole suite of devices that we use in our day-to-day life to be able to take signals from the grid and respond automatically to the needs of the system without any kind of inconvenience or sacrifice or really even behavioral change on the part of electricity customers," Mainzer said.

California is pushing for all-electric appliances and other vehicles at a time when it is also trying to transition more fully to renewable energy sources. But Mainzer and the California Public Utilities Commission contend this is doable, as offshore wind farms and, crucially, more batteries that can store electricity for when it is needed, get built.

"I feel very confident that there's a clear-eyed understanding of the risks and also a very concerted effort to be as prepared as possible for them," Mainzer said.

(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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