What the Wildfires Tell Us about the Shortcomings of California’s Electric Grid

Brenner: What are some ways California could realistically address those problems?
: Adopting distributed renewable energy generation and storage would have a number of potential benefits, in terms of both mitigating hazards and reducing exposures.

In the former case, generating energy renewably avoids the emissions of greenhouse gases. This would help slow the rate of climate change and reduce the likelihood of more severe wildfires occurring in the future. In the latter case, generating energy in a distributed way helps reduce our reliance upon transmission infrastructure, and it would provide some capacity to continue making power available to consumers in the event of a transmission infrastructure failure.

Brenner: What would it take to make those things happen?
: There are a number of barriers to achieving a more renewable, more decentralized energy future. Some of them are technical and some are legal and administrative.

On the technical side, the grid will require extensive modernization upgrades to support higher levels of distributed energy resource penetration and, even further down the road, fully bi-directional power flows. These efforts will need to be supported by a dramatic expansion in the grid’s capacity to store and share the energy that is produced by renewable sources — such as with batteries. This will be necessary to address problems related to many types of renewables’ only intermittent ability to produce electric power.

On the legal and administrative side, there needs to be a recognition of the benefits associated with decentralized energy solutions. And these benefits should be considered during long-term energy system planning.

Utility companies have extensive experience building, operating and maintaining the grid as it currently exists. The proposed alternative represents a paradigm shift within this sector and will have to be supported with strong policy mandates. Otherwise, it is highly likely that in the future we will simply replace our existing, large-scale, remote, fossil fuel generation facilities with new, large-scale, remote, renewable generation facilities. That would mean that we would be retaining all of the same systemic vulnerabilities to climate change and wildfire that are inherent to the current system.

Finally, relative to this idea that we should promote greater decentralization: It is crucial that questions of equity be considered in the process. These solutions will fundamentally not work if they are only the provenance of the rich. Thus, we need to be forceful about ensuring that residents of disadvantaged communities are not left behind due to the cost or other difficulties associated with the adoption of these types of new technologies.