Technology alone won’t solve our problems. We need people to also change in order to see improvements. If we think otherwise, then we may as well be putting duct tape on a cracked wall hoping everything will be okay.
Energy technologies involve the extraction, conversion, distribution, storage and use of electrical power. They also have to manage safety, environmental, and economic concerns.
If we want our energy industries to take leaps forward, we need people to create policies that support new and existing energy technologies and fix their weak points. If we don’t, we will repeat our same mistakes and continue to put people’s lives at risk.
Wildfires & People
California is the richest state in the United States yet it continues to face developing world problems—why? Because despite California’s progressive initiatives and economic might, with the 5th largest economy in the world at $ 2.7 trillion, people’s mindset about policies have not evolved as fast as technology.
I am from California and I love my state. What continues to baffle me is that California burns down in apocalyptic proportions every fall, and yet I feel like we forget each Spring. My condolences to the families affected, truly, but I am tired of seeing signs saying “pray for us”. I want action and I am not alone.
For real change to happen, decision-makers have to take ownership of their errors, learn from their mistakes, and modify their practices to support energy technology properly. If we don’t, we will continue to have fires like the ones in 2017–2018 where entire cities were engulfed by flames. The result? Lives lost, thousands evacuated, hundred of thousands of acres destroyed, and damages near $30 billion causing the utility responsible for the wildfires to file for bankruptcy.
In case you are wondering: California’s annual wildfires are due to the dry winds called the the Santa Anas. These winds cause trees to fall into the power lines, sparking fires. In other cases, the winds can snap the wooden distribution poles causing live wires to hit the ground and start fires. California is not alone. Australia, India, and China are all prone to similar fires.
Unintended Consequences—No Cell Service
“It’s not just a matter of inconvenience; it’s a matter of public health and safety. It’s a lifeline to many, many people.”Chris Ungson, Deputy Director of Communications and Water Policy for the California Public Advocates Office
To minimize wildfires, utilities will selectively shut off power to their distribution lines causing rolling blackouts. This is a last resort to avoid a total blackout of the power system. We have rolling blackouts for two reasons: insufficient generation capacity or inadequate transmission infrastructure to deliver sufficient power to the area where it is needed.
However, this safety measure also causes cellphone towers to lose power, putting the young, elderly and disabled at risk.
What if there is an emergency but the power is shut off? Now you can’t make an emergency phone call. What if your sleep apnea machine stops working? How long can these “at risk” people survive if their medical machines and devices are without power?
What if you are a not “at risk” person? Well, many people no longer have landlines, only cell phones. According to The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, more than 80 percent of emergency calls in California last year were made by cellphone.
We are dependent on our cell phone carriers, especially during emergencies, so shouldn’t they be more reliable?
Are Policies Around Renewables Partly to Blame?
Renewable energy remains one of our most powerful tools to fight climate change, but it isn’t perfect. Around the world, renewable energy generation is sometimes being prioritized over reliable distribution infrastructure. That has led to an increase in vulnerable power lines that connect distant wind farms to urban areas. Not surprisingly, many utilities are also prioritizing renewables to appease politicians.
“For years, the utility skimped on safety upgrades and repairs while pumping billion into green energy and electric-car subsidies to please its overlords in Sacramento. Credit Suisse has estimated that long-term contracts with developers of renewables cost the utility $2.2 billion annually more than current market power rates.”The Wall Street Journal, California Dark Ages
While promoting renewables is the correct path forward in the long term, we also have to think about the short term, including taking care of our existing infrastructure. Even before renewables became the new economic trend, the fuel for these fires was encourage by inadequate policies in forest management.
Fires need three three things: oxygen, debris, and a spark. California has an ample amount of all three, especially debris.
Misguided Forest Management
This is California’s big secret: it’s not climate change that’s burning up the forests, killing people, and destroying hundreds of homes; it’s decades of environmental mismanagement that has created a tinderbox of unharvested timber, dead trees, and thick underbrush.Wildfires Caused By Bad Environmental Policy Are Causing California Forests To Be Net CO2 Emitters, Forbes Magazine
Two decades ago, California was an economic hub for the timber industry. Practices included clearing brush and small trees during thinning efforts, which resulted in renewable biomass for electric generation plants across the state. I am not saying the timber industry is all good, but it did manage brush clearing, building access roads, and maintaining firebreaks.
As decades of policy decisions discouraged controlled burns, timber harvesting permits also became more expensive. This impacted those working in the forest product industry, who grew, managed and harvested trees on private and public lands. People who worked in this industry were forced out, and the debris crept in creating the perfect wildfire conditions.
Naturally Occurring Fires Are Healthy for the Ecosystem
The natural process of fire is as essential to many of the world’s ecosystems as sunlight or precipitationDr. Donald Hagan, Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina
Naturally occurring forest fires are essential for ecosystem health. Yes, forest fires can momentarily eliminate plants and animal species, but they also destroy infectious parasites, remove debris that prevents trees from replenishing the soil with nutrients, and ultimately reduce the fuel for a massive wildfire. And these fires can protect people’s lives and homes since areas with small, controlled burns are less prone to catastrophic blazes in the future.
How Energy Technologies & People Can Improve Lives
Recall that energy technologies are supposed to safely, economically, and sustainably extract, convert, distribute, store, and/or consume electrical power. We can make this statement true if people can create policies that support the energy technologies while fixing the weak points. The results will lead to sustainable development both in the short and long-term.
Energy Technologies & Policy
Current forest management plans are inaccurate and put people in the direct line of fire. Under former Governor Brown, climate change was the force that caused blackouts and wild fires. While it remains a significant factor, California’s current Governor, Gavin Newsom, has a better plan to minimize wildfires. He is calling for improved wildfire surveillance and warning systems, better urban planning, and helping property owners clear brush.
While this is a step in the right direction, environmental reform is still needed. It shouldn’t cost a land owner over $30,000 to remove a few trees from their property. Right? Regardless, with these changes we can expect less debris, which means means less fuel for catastrophic fires.
Energy Technologies &Wildfires
Australia is a country also prone to wildfires. After a particularly deadly wildfire called Black Saturday, the government invested heavily in new energy technologies. The Australian government has now developed a new innovation that can reduce up to 90% of fires started by high-voltage power lines. They’re called limiters.
The limiters, installed at sub-stations, stop an electrical current within milliseconds of a power line coming into contact with the ground or vegetation.World-first technology to stop power lines igniting bushfires, The Age
By reducing the voltage the moment a high-power line touches a material, Australian citizens are less at risk of dying from annual weather patterns exacerbated by climate change. Time to take a lesson, California! It also ensures the resiliency of the energy network—now we are talking.
Energy Technologies & Cell Phone Service
When rolling blackouts occur, cell phone towers should continue to operate using some form of backup power. Usually that means batteries or generators that rely on fuel. These methods can provide power for days or longer, depending on whether the generators can be refueled.
This sounds reliable, but it’s not in California. These backup power supplies are put forth by cellular companies on a voluntary basis. Who is to say the tower you need actually has these backup power supplies?
Though the state government writes to cellular companies asking them to reinforce their infrastructure during emergencies, their response is that they are “working to minimize disruption, but could offer no specific guarantees.”
That is not good enough.
“The failure of our communications systems in emergencies is a life-or-death matter, and one that must be addressed immediately,”California Public Advocates Office called on the Public Utilities Commission
Cellular companies are only going to change when policies force them to change.
How do we achieve these policy changes? That starts with you and your community, mandating that cellular companies need to ensure that all cell towers have a reliable backup power supply. With enough voice, your local politicians will be forced to confront cellular companies.
When they push back, use India as a good example of a country starting to roll out safety measures for their country.
In India, telecoms are embracing newer energy technologies in the form of solar panels that serve as power supplies to their cell towers. The new solar-powered towers are ideal for places where connecting to the grid is a challenge, and solar is also used as a backup power supply on other towers.
Energy Technologies & The Future
Energy technology is a vast, rapidly advancing field that is environmentally and economically beneficial to stakeholders. However, people and policies also need to advance forward to improve the livelihoods of people today and in the future. Let’s learn from our mistakes and successes, leverage our existing assets, and invest in green technology. We can have it all, but it starts with people.
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