November 5, 2019

California Wildfires

“Strong winds fanned new fires in Southern California [last] Thursday, burning homes and forcing residents to flee in a repeat of a frightening scenario already faced by tens of thousands across the state.” AP News

Earlier this month, “The CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. told California energy regulators that the state will likely see blackouts for another 10 years.” NPR

See past issues

From the Left

The left blames climate change for exacerbating the fires and calls for policy changes to mitigate future damage.

“Critics like to point to human land-use practices as the cause. But they cannot explain the devastating infernos of the past decade—these would not be possible without human-driven climate change. Last year's National Climate Assessment made clear that climate change played a greater role in the observed increasing extent of these wildfires than land management or fire suppression efforts…

“In the Western US, climate change has increased the risk of fire weather fivefold and has doubled how much land has burned. Wildfire frequency has quadrupled since the 1980s, and fire season has lengthened by more than two months (78 days)… While any number of factors (lightning, a discarded cigarette, a campfire, or faulty power line) may ignite a fire, it's the underlying environment that matters once a fire starts… Without solving [the] problem at its source, the fires will only continue to rage bigger and spread further.”
Michael E. Mann, Newsweek

“A kind of toxic debt is embedded in much of the infrastructure that America built during the 20th century. For decades, corporate executives, as well as city, county, state, and federal officials, not to mention voters, have decided against doing the routine maintenance and deeper upgrades to ensure that electrical systems, roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure can function properly under a range of conditions. Kicking the can down the road like this is often seen as the profit-maximizing or politically expedient option. But it’s really borrowing against the future, without putting that debt on the books…

Climate change is calling in the debt on America’s infrastructure. The blackouts are already costing Californians billions of dollars. The status quo has been revealed to be expensive, as it will be elsewhere. When the true costs are calculated, more radical solutions will start to seem practical, even obvious—which is good, because we need them.”
Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic

“It is the 21st century now, the century of the climate change crisis, and the giant machine that was built to distribute electricity — a system of exposed overhead power lines that travel hundreds of miles over land — is more and more vulnerable to the rise in extreme weather. The imperative now is to reduce dependence on that increasingly brittle system, to strengthen the resilience and independence of local communities by enabling them to generate, store, and manage more of their own power…

“Good distribution-level planning will create microgrids within microgrids, each able to island from the level above, so that the system is more modular and less vulnerable to single points of failure. It will tie together solar panels, batteries, heat pumps, electric vehicles, and electric vehicle chargers with smart controls and software. It will bring economic development, jobs, and innovation to local communities. And a bottom-up energy system will complement and ease the pressure on California’s increasingly shaky and vulnerable top-down system…

"But it is only possible if utilities become partners in the effort. That will require fundamental change in the regulatory structure now governing PG&E, to bring its financial interests in sync with the social, environmental, and economic interests of California communities.”
David Roberts, Vox

“Is PG&E too big? Probably. Is there not enough money? Definitely. Is there a massive failure of operations? Obviously. Are more people dying every year and losing everything they have? Yes. Newsom has expressed interest in Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway making a bid for PG&E. Right now, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job of running PG&E than PG&E has done. It probably makes sense to put the company under some kind of new management…

“But that won’t fix the fact that policies that are supposed to govern the entity haven’t worked. And it potentially could keep the decision-making of how to clean up this mess off the governor’s desk. PG&E may be a villain to Californians in this case, but for leaders who don’t want to be responsible for blackouts affecting millions, they’re also a convenient one.”
April Glaser, Slate

Some critics note that “If we redesigned our cities for the modern world, they’d be taller and less stretched out into the fire-prone far reaches — what scientists call the wildland-urban interface. Housing would be affordable because there’d be more of it. You’d be able to get around more cheaply because we’d ditch cars and turn to buses and trains and other ways we know how to move around a lot of people at high speeds, for low prices…

“But the big things still seem impossible here. In a state where 40 years ago, homeowners passed a constitutional amendment enshrining their demands for low property taxes forever, where every initiative at increasing density still seems to fail, where vital resources like electricity are managed by unscrupulous corporations and where cars are still far and away the most beloved way to get around, it’s hard to imagine systemic change happening anytime soon. And so we muddle on toward the end. All the leaves are burned and the sky is gray. California, as it’s currently designed, will not survive the coming climate. Either we alter how we live here, or many of us won’t live here anymore.”
Farhad Manjoo, New York Times

From the Right

The right argues that the fires are exacerbated by the state government prioritizing climate change initiatives over basic maintenance and safety.

The right argues that the fires are exacerbated by the state government prioritizing climate change initiatives over basic maintenance and safety.

“Democrats for years have treated PG&E as their de facto political subsidiary. The wildfires and blackouts are the direct result of their mismanagement… For instance, the Legislature in 2015 mandated that utilities spend $100 million annually on solar systems in low-income communities. This is on top of the $2.2 billion in customer rebates for rooftop solar installations…

“Last year PG&E invested more than $150 million in battery storage and ‘sustainable’ technologies, which was paid for by a special charge on ratepayers. PG&E is also spending $130 million over three years to install 7,500 electric-car charging stations and offers drivers a $800 ‘clean fuel’ rebate. All of this has been part of a Democratic political strategy to use PG&E to advance their climate agenda without raising taxes. But Californians have instead paid through higher electric rates—PG&E rates are twice as high as in Oregon and Washington.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

“The same California that has boldly committed to transitioning to 50 percent renewable energy by 2025 — and 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 — can’t manage its existing energy infrastructure. The same California that has pushed its electricity rates to the highest in the contiguous United States through its mandates and regulations doesn’t provide continuous access to that overpriced electricity…

“The state could have, if it wanted, pushed the utilities to focus on the resilience and safety of its current infrastructure — implicated in some of the state’s most fearsome recent fires — as a top priority. Instead, the commission forced costly renewable-energy initiatives on the utilities… In 2016, then-governor Jerry Brown actually vetoed a bill that had unanimously passed the state legislature to promote the clearing of trees dangerously close to power lines. Brown’s team says this legislation was no big deal, but one progressive watchdog called the bill ‘neither insignificant or small.’”
Rich Lowry, National Review

“Between the drought and the bugs, millions of trees died—trees that had to be left in place because regulators, environmentalists, and politicians couldn’t muster the will to permit harvesting or clearing before they became worthless and deadly matchsticks. In 2012, the Forest Service estimated that 77 million acres, mostly in the West, was at risk due to insects and disease…

“Meanwhile, PG&E is struggling to find the qualified crews to do the dangerous work of clearing trees from almost 2,500 miles of powerlines across the vast northern reaches of the state. That isn’t surprising, given that California and federal regulators armed with anti-logging policies put most of those people in the unemployment line, and they’ve moved on to other jobs or even states.”
Chuck DeVore, The Federalist

“Because California accounts for less than 1% of global emissions, nothing it does will make a difference to climate, but its ratepayers shell out billions for wind and solar that might be better spent on fireproofing. A generation of ill-judged environmental activism has all but ended forest management in favor of letting dead trees and underbrush build up because it’s more ‘natural’… An activist state Supreme Court imposed on utilities responsibility for any wildfires started by their equipment regardless of negligence. At the same time, state policy obliges them to extend their networks to support housing developments in areas the state designates as ‘very high fire risk’…

“Entrenched one-party government has given California’s political class too much incentive to cater to the perpetual, year-round, full-time priorities of public-sector unions, green groups and the organized academic left rather than care about the quality of life for the average person in the state.”
Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., Wall Street Journal

“Could climate change be the reason for excessive winds and dry weather? Of course. But… it matters little that the governor is‘committed to addressing climate change’ when he’s not committed to preventing forest fires… [California] is dry. Not from climate change but from poor water management. Earlier this year the Sierra Nevada snowpack was 202 percent above the average (probably caused by climate change) with ski slopes operating into July. Where did the melt go? It is diverted, and California’s waterways do not run naturally. So much so that a proposal was introduced in 2010 to allow at least 60 percent of the rivers to flow unencumbered. Last year that was reduced to 40 percent, and the policy has still not been implemented. California doesn’t lack water; it lacks flowing water.”
Daniel Turner, Fox News

Some posit that “The technological answer [to the risk from exposed power lines] is the power lines should instead be buried beneath the surface… We are fully capable of providing an electricity grid year-round without burning down half the countryside. Other places in other countries manage it without problems. It is, though, more expensive… PG&E has asked for permission to charge higher rates so that it can clear the paths of those lines, replace old posts, and generally maintain the system better. They've also been told, so far at least, that they can't have them… California will keep burning until we accept higher prices for electricity.”
Tim Worstall, Washington Examiner

A libertarian's take

“Systemic blackouts are commonly associated with nations such as Haiti or Pakistan, not the United States. Yet here is California, America’s biggest and probably most innovative economy, treating a blackout as some kind of unavoidable natural event. Why is this development not seen as an unacceptable outrage? The No. 1 responsibility of a power company is to supply its users with power. So when the first-order response to a pending major problem is to cut the power for days, that is clear-cut evidence that the systems are badly designed

“America continues to innovate wonderfully in cyberspace, but when it comes to solving actual, physical-world problems, its record is deteriorating… My Twitter feed includes plenty of the world’s greatest (or at least best-known) economists. They love to debate Elizabeth Warren’s plan for a wealth tax, an idea that probably isn’t going to happen (just ask Mitch McConnell or, for that matter, any moderate Democratic senator). When it comes to designing a better incentive model for California power utilities — a concrete problem for which economics is remarkably well-suited — there has been close to complete silence… California has long been a bellwether for the country. Thus its inability to address problems with the physical environment is cause for concern. Is America really doomed to a future of complete incompetence?”
Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg

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