California needs to take these three actions needed to improve our energy system—and the environment

Nov 21, 2019 | Environment

By Kathryn Phillips and Evan Gillespie | Special to CalMatters

California’s wildfires and blackouts are just the latest in a growing stream of tragedies that argue for bolder leadership from the state to accelerate efforts to cut climate pollution.

They also show how wildly unprepared California is for the impacts of climate change that we can no longer avoid. Californians, environmentalists included, have to talk more openly about what we must do to adapt to survive the effects we’re already experiencing.

Wind and dry brush and grasses have turned our electricity transmission network into threatening arsonists and neighborhoods into awaiting wicks.

Which begs the question: What can we do to change the inevitability of electricity sparked wildfires or days-long power shut offs?

We propose three things state leaders, from regulators to legislators to utility chiefs, need to do over the next year to start adapting our electrical system.

First, all the utilities–not just Pacific Gas & Electric–need a grid hardening program. This begins with adopting a safety-first approach akin to the one San Diego Gas & Electric adopted after its electrical system ignited devastating fires in 2007.

Common sense would suggest that other utilities in the state would adopt similar programs, but they haven’t. PG&E deferred maintenance, preferencing stockholders before our collective safety.

Hardening cannot stop with safety measures. The grid itself needs an overhaul. Our transmission system is getting headlines, but our distribution system is also vulnerable to extreme weather events and it relies on old equipment that was not designed with electrification or local renewable energy in mind.

It makes little sense in urban areas for electrical wires to be hovering above ground awaiting  trouble. Modern cities have underground electrical wiring. Where they don’t, fires like the Getty fire are too likely.

Elsewhere, many substations and transformers are woefully old and at risk.

The Los Angeles power outage in the summer of 2017, which left 140,000 Angelenos without power, resulted from a faulty transformer that malfunctioned during a brutal heatwave. The grid is not prepared for longer heatwaves and hotter nights.

The Legislature needs to force a more comprehensive grid hardening program.

Second, moving away from fossil fuels even faster serves as climate mitigation and adaptation. As horrifying as recent fires have been, it can get much worse without bolder leadership from California.

A good example of this opportunity is our natural gas system. We gain no resiliency benefit from increasing our reliance on gas. Gas appliances still require electricity to operate, after all. And gas is a potent climate pollutant making the problem worse.

The California Energy Commission has detailed the reliability threat climate change poses to the  gas system while repairs to our gas system are driving up gas bills.

Rather than rebuild fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come, California needs to phase out gas. Local governments have been passing ordinances to phase out gas and transition to all-electric homes. The state must do the same on a statewide level.

Finally, one weakness of the electrical system exposed by the fires and the power shut offs is its vastness. Smaller can ensure more independence in one region from catastrophic events in another region.

Microgrids serving communities with renewable energy must become the standard. They will also help make sure that one community can keep its lights on, even if another community miles away needs to shut power off for fire protection.

The power shut offs should motivate more intense action. The wildfires remind us that smart adaptation solutions also act as bold mitigation solutions to further warming.


Kathryn Phillips is director of Sierra Club California, Evan Gillespie is Western Region Director for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, They wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.


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