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More Western states employ preemptive power shut-offs for wildfire prevention

Utilities in states like Colorado and Washington are warning customers to expect these precautions as wildfire season begins.
Residents work to control an approaching wildfire
Posted at 7:20 PM, May 22, 2024

Unhappy Xcel Energy customers in Boulder, Colorado spoke their mind last month in a virtual hearing put on by the state's utility commission.

"Two of my friends and colleagues could have been seriously injured, they could have died during Xcel's unannounced shutdown. I understand there needs to be shutdowns to prevent wildfires, I'm not arguing against that, but these two individuals have disabilities," said Amy Petre Hill of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition during the meeting.

On April 6, the utility shut off power to 55,000 customers during an intense wind storm in hopes of preventing the sparking of a wildfire by downed lines. Some customers and businesses were upset with the utility, saying there wasn't enough warning, with spoiled food and fears for the disabled in the shutdown's wake.

Xcel's President Robert Kenny released an online apology letter, promising its customers in Colorado better communication and accessible information in the future regarding planned shutdowns, saying, "We want to be very clear that our highest priority is and will always be public safety."

Though it has its critics, this strategy is being adopted across the Western United States as a tool in the toolbox when it comes to preventing wildfires.

Ramteen Sioshansi is a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. He says that the strategy, that started in California in the latter part of last decade, is an intuitive one as power lines have been the cause of destructive and tragic wildfires over recent years, like California's 2018 Camp Fire — the state's deadliest fire, that helped lead to the bankruptcy of local utility Pacific Gas & Electric.

It's now being adopted in states like Colorado and Washington, but Sioshansi says that it's a move that should not be taken lightly

"People are becoming more dependent on electricity for the necessities of life. And at the same time, you're telling them there's a possibility that we might have to disconnect your electricity service," he said.

A motorists on Highway 101 watches flames from the Thomas Fire.

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Ryan Murphy is the director of electric operations at Puget Sound Energy, a Washington state utility that plans on using the preemptive shutdown as a tool to fight wildfires beginning this year.

He says the utility has been working over the years building up their risk and weather forecasting systems to make potential shut-offs as efficient as possible, as well as give the public at least 24-48 hours of notice before a planned outage.

Still, Murphy calls it a tool of last resort.

"We live in the community, we serve the community. We're driven to do our job and to do our job safely. And we need to do everything we can within our control to lessen the chance of a wildfire ignition," he said.

"With time, with experience and with investment, we're gonna get better at using this as a solution to mitigate wildfire risk," said Sioshansi.

Sioshansi says being a newer strategy, there are going to be kinks, including communication breakdowns, but there's federal money and bipartisan interest to iron those out.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy gave $3.5 billion in funds to 58 projects across the country in grid improvements, including wildfire and extreme weather mitigation, helping dial in this new strategy that Sioshansi says we will most likely see more of over time.

"We want to be vigilant and we want our policymakers and regulators to be vigilant as well, but at the same time, we have to be understanding that if utilities don't pay attention to this, the consequences of a wildfire could be far, far more catastrophic than having electricity supply disrupted," he said.