Oregon wildfire knocks out power line

Highlights pesky paradoxes of the grid

The shutdown of a critical high voltage transmission line due to the Bootleg Fire in northern California is causing more stress for harried grid operators in the Southwest. It also highlights a pesky paradox regarding the Western power system and its relationship to climate change. 

This story’s roots go back to 1948, when California, in the midst of the postwar population boom, suffered a crippling drought, causing hydropower output from reservoirs across the state to diminish. At the time, hydropower accounted for a huge chunk of the Western United States’ electricity supply and California’s existing oil-fueled power plants couldn’t keep up with growing demand as more and more houses were electrified. Californias electricity suppliers required residents to cut power consumption by 20 percent. 

The power crisis sparked an effort to bring the Northwest’s ample hydropower-generation potential, which at the time seemed impervious to drought, to California’s burgeoning population and expanding industries. In the 1960s the California-Oregon AC intertie linked John Day Dam on the Columbia River to Los Angeles. Now the line can carry 4,300 megawatts of juice, enough to power millions of homes. 

Now California’s hydropower is again on the wane and electricity demand is shooting skyward along with temperatures. The California-Oregon intertie is more critical than ever to keep the lights on and air conditioners humming. But that electrical lifeline has now been cut off by the fast-growing Bootleg Fire, which as of early Monday morning had burned through 150,000 acres of vegetation north of Klamath Falls, Oregon, crossing the path of the trio of transmission lines in the process. Smoke can cause the wires to arc, so the Oregon operators drastically reduced the amount of power in them in order to stabilize the system. The AC line’s cousin, the DC intertie, is also carrying less power, resulting in the loss of 5,500 megawatts for CAISO, the operator of California’s grid. 

During the middle of the day, the state’s solar generators keeps the grid humming and then some. But come late afternoon, when the sun dips toward the horizon and solar output falls, it feels like 1948 all over again, with California’s grid operators asking people to cut back in order to prevent major power outages, while at the same time cranking up polluting natural gas plants to make up for the loss of emissions-free hydropower. The state made it through the scorching weekend without any major power outages, but all of the extra natural gas-burning caused climate-warming emissions to shoot up. 

Herein lies the dilemma: A bigger grid, one with more long-distance connections and tighter integration, is necessary to move clean power from where it’s generated to where it’s needed, when it’s needed. If, for example, there was a strong electrical link between Wyoming’s wind farms and California’s cities, grid operators may have been able to replace some of the lost Northwest hydropower with wind power from the Interior. Yet the long-distance transmission lines necessary for a bigger grid are more vulnerable to wildfires and other effects of climate change. 

Going micro rather than macro is the obvious answer to the fire problem. Put rooftop solar on every home with an ample battery pack in every garage (perhaps in the form of an electric vehicle), and there’s no need to bother with pesky transmission lines. The concept can be extended to a small community or neighborhood with a larger solar- and wind-plus-storage installation connected to microgrids, a concept recently proved in an Australian town of 850 people. These micro-approaches have their own drawbacks. Retrofitting a densely populated city neighborhood with a solar microgrid would be challenging, and rooftop solar tends to set the stage for energy inequality. 

The most realistic and workable solution is to go micro and macro, to create a truly integrated Westwide grid making it possible to ship Wyoming wind to California and California solar to Wyoming, while also installing grid-connected microgrids in fire-threatened areas that can island in the event of a disaster or power outage. 

In any event, it is abundantly clear that the current power grid—particularly in the West—is woefully unequipped to deal with rising temperatures, bigger wildfires, and prolonged and even permanent drought. 

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In related news: The operators of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline are installing cooling devices in the ground to keep the permafrost from melting, because when it does it shifts and wrecks the supports for the pipeline. 

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Also related: The West is burning, both figuratively and literally. All-time high-temperature records were matched or shattered all over, including at Death Valley (130 F), Las Vegas (117 F), and Grand Junction (107 F). As of Sunday there were 55 large active fires covering more than 700,000 acres in Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. 

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The Biden Administration has rescinded the go-ahead for a massive housing development proposed for southern Arizona. The Trump administration had given the controversial, Tuscan (not Tucson) themed Villages at Vigneto development its seal of approval in 2017, despite the fact that its groundwater pumping plan—in the middle of a desert—would affect the hydrology of the San Pedro River, which is a haven for birds and other wildlife. Without the federal permit the project is dead in the water … er, dead in the water-constrained desert … at least for now. The developers of the 12,000-acre project told the Arizona Republic that they are optimistic they ultimately will get approval. 

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The U.S. uranium industry is hanging onto life by a thread, with annual production levels dropping to near-zero due to persistent low prices and strong foreign competition. So we were a little surprised to see the news that Western Vanadium and Uranium planned to revive its Sunday Mine Complex in the Gypsum Valley near Slickrock, Colorado. Company officials claimed that they were re-opening the long-dormant mine in anticipation of rising prices now that nuclear power purportedly is getting new life as a low-carbon energy source. 

But on the same day as the announcement, the U.S. Geological Survey quietly removed uranium from its list of “critical minerals.” Trump had added uranium to the list in order to fast-track permitting and encourage investment. The removal is not exactly good news for the beleaguered industry—although at this point maybe it doesn’t really matter

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