Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Kate Zerrenner headshot

California Wildfires Strengthen the Case for Clean Tech

By Kate Zerrenner
California Wildfires

In the past few days, the latest spate of California wildfires have consumed over 350,000 acres. Unfortunately, this news is become all too common. Six of the most destructive wildfires in California history have taken place in the three years, and destroyed over 850,000 acres, killing 123 people.

Heatwaves and droughts have also increased in intensity—including a temperature reading at Death Valley of a record-breaking 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Alongside all of this has been the threat of power blackouts. And these tragedies are unfolding alongside the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the state has seen nearly 12,000 deaths.

Climate change and the California wildfires

California has always been a boom and bust state in terms of weather—droughts and wildfires are not uncommon. But the last few decades have seen an increase in intensity and a shortening of time between events. Climate change did not create droughts, heatwaves and wildfires, but much like an athlete on steroids, it has most certainly enhanced nature’s performance.

Further impacts of climate change on the state include sea level rise and coastal erosion; the loss of snowpack and thus water stress; and poor air quality associated with increased heat. Poor air quality leads to public health impacts like increased rates of asthma and heart disease. In addition, air quality tends to be worse in and around communities of color and low-income communities, creating additional problems with not just climate change, but also with pandemics like COVID-19. Latinos in California are getting sick with the virus at a rate three times higher than Anglos.

Importantly, California is doing more than any other state to try to mitigate the impacts of climate change. But the effects are already being felt so it must also take measures to adapt to the impacts and make itself more resilient—more able to bounce back—when those effects spike. The argument currently raging over whose fault the possible blackouts are right now miss the point.

A matter of resources

As California saw the first rolling blackout in 19 years this week and faces potentially more as the heatwave sticks around, some have been pointing fingers at the state’s uptick in renewable energy and powering off of gas and nuclear power over the past few years. But it’s not the fault of renewable energy technologies; in fact, solar is generating power at the hottest time of the day when people are cranking up their air conditioners. Rather, the state has not adequately integrated renewables into the power system.

Several things should be done to lower the risk of future California wildfires, including improving forest and land management and discouraging people from move in increasing numbers to fire-prone areas and fixing PG&E, the state’s largest investor-owned utility. Power lines provide an easy target for lightning strikes and increased demand for electricity in a heatwave impose additional stress on utilities. But the most effective, long-term solution must be for policy makers and the private sector to address resource adequacy: in particular, distributed generation, batteries and microgrids.

The California Public Utilities Commission issued an order earlier this year to boost the deployment of microgrids and batteries, which, when coupled with a previous requirement for utilities to create wildfire mitigation plans, should help. However, the order just laid the groundwork, the utilities still need to follow through with investments.

The time to plan for long-term resilience was yesterday

Distributed generation - on-site power generation as opposed to electricity that must be sent through transmission lines – can reduce the risk of future California wildfires. Microgrids also enable customers to build for resilience within their communities, offering opportunities to protect them from blackouts.

In other parts of the country, microgrids are often a lifeline. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Texas grocery store chain HEB microgrid-powered supermarkets to help keep them open when the surrounding areas remained without power. Backing up solar power with battery storage is also a critical component to resilience in a changing climate.

The Golden State has continued to lead in addressing climate change. Once the latest round of California wildfires is out, and before the next ones begin, the state’s utilities have an obligation to seek comprehensive, long-term solutions for resilience. Giving customers better access to innovative energy solutions that improve their ability to bounce back and thrive must be part of it.

Image credit: Pixabay

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner