PG&E Wants to Make a Massive Investment in Weather Stations. Here’s Why

A PG&E employee installing a weather station in Northern California.  (PG&E)

The fire that ripped across the North Bay hills in 2017 was propelled by hurricane-force winds in some places, even as weather stations in the flat lands of Santa Rosa and Napa registered little more than a breeze.

The same was true in the town of Paradise when it was consumed by the Camp Fire. The winds near Paradise were blowing hard and fast, propelling the fire forward, says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA. However just a few miles away in the Sacramento Valley, the winds were nearly calm.

“In many cases, there haven't been weather stations in close enough proximity to these fires to get a really good handle of what the conditions are actually like on the ground — we are essentially poking around in the dark,” says Swain.

Following years of deadly wildfires sparked by faulty electrical equipment, the California Legislature passed a law last August requiring power utilities to come up with detailed proposals to reduce the risk of blazes. On May 30, the California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to approve PG&E’s proposal, which includes the construction of hundreds of new weather stations across its Northern California territory. The company's wildfire plan could cost billions of dollars.

California's rich landscape of rolling hills and steep canyons has  potentially hundreds of thousands of microclimates, which makes fire prediction an incredible challenge. That’s why PG&E plans to build a dense network of weather stations, which they hope will illuminate the humidity, wind speed and temperature of Northern California's varied landscape.

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Power Shutdown

Regulators also unanimously approved a related plan to shut off power to areas of the electrical grid when wildfire risk is extreme. Turning off consumer's electricity has provoked outcry in the past, but lawmakers and regulators agree that it is — for now — necessary.

"The risk associated with another fire like the North Bay fires or the Camp Fire makes power shut downs a viable alternative, sadly," says State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa. "We cannot have our utilities creating these massive wildfires and have the associated risk of ratepayers having to pay these costs."

During the proceedings, CPUC President Michael Picker said that because of the increasing threat of wildfire, utilities are expanding on their “current strategies for weather tracking, and more precise and local predictive modeling for wildfires.”

“We are seeing weather conditions in portions of the state that have never been observed before, are not in the meteorological record, and certainly aren’t as granular as we need to be able to provide very precise and local kinds of situational awareness, which then can help us focus and isolate areas of risk and only cut power in those very specific areas,” Picker said.

Picker also announced that he will step down from his position as CPUC president later this year.

PG&E's plan is, in part, inspired by changes that another utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, made after its power lines ignited wildfires in 2007 and the company shelled out billions in damages.

In 2010, SDG&E installed a weather station in every circuit of its territory that had a high risk of fire, and in 2011, they added more. Meteorologists say that information derived from the stations dramatically improved their understanding of local weather patterns and has aided in their predictions of wildfire behavior.

On May 23wildfire legislation proposed by Sen. Dodd cleared the state Senate; the two bills compel the state to coordinate with PG&E and other utilities on where weather stations are deployed. They also create a state wildfire warning center and a fire threat potential index.

“We need to be more proactive in the state of California and have a wildfire warning center where we've got data points all throughout the state of California,” Dodd says.

The Plan

PG&E’s proposal includes:

  • Installing an estimated 1,300 new weather stations by 2022, one for about every 20 circuit-miles in its highest fire risk areas. Currently, the utility has just over 350 weather stations across its territory, according to its meteorologists. PG&E will power down the grid based on information from predictive weather models, and overtime, the stations will improve the models. Additionally, weather data will be publicly available.
  • Fixing approximately 600 high-definition cameras across its territory. PG&E, Cal Fire, and other agencies will use them to confirm wildfires. You can think of a camera as a fire look out tower 2.0. The cameras can pan, zoom, and stream images right to fire agencies, and they have near infrared capabilities — so they work at night, too. Thirty cameras are working now, and a live stream is available here.
  • Fire detection capabilities provided by NOAA’s GOES-R series satellites, which rotate in sync with the Earth and scan California once a minute, and from three polar orbiting satellites — NASA’s Aqua, Terra, and VIIRS — that pass over the state each day. The utility's meteorologists will use the satellites to identify when a wildfire breaks out in near real-time. This is helpful, but not groundbreaking, as the cameras and lookout towers can do the same. But, in filings with the CPUC, PG&E says it will pilot a system that disseminates alerts through a web application and emails to its team. For now, those alerts will stay in-house, but PG&E’s meteorologists hope in the future to notify fire agencies and the public.

Following San Diego

Before SDG&E installed additional weather stations, meteorologists generally understood that the hot, dry Santa Ana winds sped up as they whipped through passes and canyons. They assumed the acceleration stemmed from the Venturi effect — when air or water speeds up as it’s forced through a constricted area, like a thumb on the end of a garden hose.

But using information from the weather stations — which now number 177 across San Diego County and parts of Orange County — meteorologists discovered that strong winds reached speeds upward of 100 mph on the hill and mountain slopes, too. That led the utility to replace some wood poles with steel poles and install stronger wires, in places, to better withstand the extreme winds.

Brian D'Agostino, director of the fire science and climate adaptation program at SDG&E, says the utility learned a great deal about how the Santa Ana winds behave.

“We knew they were strong, but we didn't realize we were having 100 miles-per-hour winds in our backcountry,” he says.

Northern California doesn’t have Santa Ana winds, but the region has strong gusts, sometimes called Diablo or Mono winds, according to Scott Strenfel, supervisor of meteorology operations and analytics for PG&E. He says there’s a lot the utility can learn about these winds.

“We're hoping that we're going to start to tease out some similar learnings of where these events are the most impactful,” he says.

Power Downs

Of course, the traditional mark of success in the utility business is keeping the lights on, not shutting them off, but the state’s deadly wildfires have reached a crisis point.

Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the power shutdowns while introducing his latest budget proposal, which includes $75 million to study the shutoffs.

“I’m worried about it,” he says. “We are all worried about it for [the] elderly. People’s power could be shut off not for a day or two, but potentially a week.”

State leaders say the policy is temporary, but it's still unknown how long it will be used. Extreme fire conditions happen multiple times a year in California, which means every year communities could be without power for days or even a week.

UCLA’s Swain says officials will need to carefully decide when to power the grid down.

“There's going to be a balancing act between deciding when it will cause more harm than good to shut off the power to thousands of people, or in which cases it will prevent a potential wildfire catastrophe.”

 

 

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