Saturday, November 02, 2019

California Fires and the Utilities

Fires have always happened in California around October and November when the Santa Ana winds happen. It's very dry in California at that time. As a little kid in California, my sinuses and nasal passages were so dry during October and November that that's the time I would catch cold.

Back when I was small, fires in California were typically set by teenage arsonists. Deliberate arson seems rare today in California although other human-related causes are very frequent. I guess Gen Z and the Millennials have fewer firebugs than the Baby Boomers did when they were young.

Today's fires are often larger and faster-moving than the fires when I was young. In addition, there are more fires than there were than in the 1940s and 50s.  The California Chaparral Institute notes that excessive fires destroy chaparral and convert it into weedy, non-native grassland that burns more easily than chaparral does. You can see photos of bare, grassy hills where the chaparral scrubland has been destroyed by too-frequent fires.

Let's talk about electric utilities and fires, because they have been linked. That association was rarely made when I was young in California and teenagers were starting fires for thrills.

Note that an electric utility usually has two sides: generating and distribution. Generating can be done using hydroelectric, nuclear, solar, or the fossil fuels coal, oil, or gas. California currently relies on a combination of renewable sources and natural gas.  California never had easy access to coal, and thus coal has never been a major energy source, although a few small coal plants formerly operated in California. All are closed now.

Electric distribution is the way to get the electricity from the point of generation to the customer. It usually involves high-voltage trunk lines, step-down transformers, and circuits to homes and businesses.

Recently, California utilities have shut off electricity during high-risk fire conditions. This is known as a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS).  Californians have complained about the power outages, particularly their impact on people with medical needs.

Several of the fires that have broken out recently under Santa Ana wind conditions are linked to power lines owned by major investor-owned utilities. The California Public Utilities Commission has determined that over 2,000 fires between 2017 and 2017 were linked to power lines.

The 77,758-acre Kincade Fire has been linked to a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) transmission tower.   More recently, the 9400-acre Maria Fire has been linked to a Southern California Edison power line that had been re-energized after a Public Safety Power Shutoff. The 2017 Thomas Fire was linked to a line owned by SCE and the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people in the town of Paradise has been linked to PG&E equipment.  Liability from the Camp Fire and fires in 2017 has caused PG&E to go bankrupt.

San Diego Gas and Electric has a smaller service area than PG&E or SCE. However, they have buried 60% of their power lines and taken other major fire prevention steps.

Back when I was young, power lines rarely started fires. Most of the lines were newer then. The power companies cleared vegetation around the lines. Reddy Kilowatt was still a mascot at Southern California Edison.

More importantly, when I was young, the population of California was only 11 million people. It is now nearly 40 million people.  More than 90% of California's wildfires have human-related causes.

The natural condition of chaparral, the dominant ecosystem in California, is to have infrequent fires once every 30 to 150 years. Recently, there have been fires more frequently in California than the chaparral ecosystem can tolerate. The reason for the frequency of fires is because humans start them in one way or the other. Lately, that has been because of faults in electrical infrastructure.

During recent years, hundreds of thousands of houses have been built in the hills in high-risk fire areas. The wildland-urban interface has grown rapidly putting large numbers of people at fire risk.

More people and more houses being built in hillside areas means more power distribution lines and consequently greater vulnerability to wildfires. Almost all of these houses are made of wood.

Dr. Stephen M. Strader found that the increase in building in fire hazard zones from 1940 onward has placed millions of people in harm's way. Strader concludes that

 "The continued development and implementation of building codes, standards, and practices that reduce the likelihood of homes, businesses, etc., being destroyed by wildfires is vital in creating a more wildfire resistant society."

Californians love their overvalued wooden houses. They love to build them in the hills. Real estate in many cities and suburbs in California is extremely expensive.  There is a huge disjuncture between the fire risk, the wooden construction of the houses, and the high prices.

This disjuncture must be addressed by insurance companies. Some have stopped renewing policies in high fire risk areas.  If you can't insure a house, lenders won't write a mortgage for it.

There is now an insurer of last resort known as the California FAIR Plan. The FAIR Plan is a private association of insurers that offers less comprehensive insurance for homes where traditional insurers have refused to write policies. Pretty soon, they might start writing homeowner's insurance that only protects against burglary and flood but not fire.

Whereas homes in Europe and Latin America, including zones of high seismic risk such as Chile, are usually built of reinforced brick-and-concrete, or sometimes adobe, California's builders and consumers insist on wooden houses because they are cheaper to build initially. Frank Lloyd Wright knew better.

By the way, "reinforced" means that metal rebar is placed and tied together as a major structural element in the masonry. This is usually done in the concrete support columns of a building, but sometimes rebar is strung through the holes in concrete masonry units. The rebar has a "bend" and "give" that provides earthquake resistance.

Perhaps insurers will start refusing to write policies for wooden homes in fire areas, but allow homes with adobe, concrete, steel, or brick elements to be underwritten.

Other than the increase in population placing themselves at risk by moving into fire areas, there may be utility and regulatory problems with the power distribution system in California. Why the lack of maintenance of power lines?

There have been lawsuits against the nuclear generating stations in California since around 1970 when Atlantic Richfield oil executive Robert O. Anderson funded Friends of the Earth. There have been numerous expensive lawsuits against both Diablo Canyon and San Onofre during the past forty years.

It is my suspicion that lawsuits against nuclear generating plants in California have diverted resources away from the utilities' maintenance funds for the distribution end. Pressure groups have focused overwhelmingly on the nuclear generating stations and have demanded that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) focus its attention on them while ignoring deterioration in distribution systems, all the while more and more people move into fire zones. This diverted the CPUC from paying attention to fire risk until around 2008. Thus, the CPUC never told the utilities that they need to bury power lines.

Some people including governor Gavin Newsom have suggested that the State of California take over PG&E. Although the company is bankrupt, there is no other reason for state takeover of the company. A state takeover doesn't necessarily mean that power lines will be buried or infrastructure improved.  And, it won't address the fundamental problem, which is too many people moving into fire areas and building wooden houses that are likely to catch fire.


Friday, August 23, 2019

Amazon Fires - A Weapon of Mass Climate Destruction

There is currently a tragedy of immense proportions occurring in the world's most bio diverse area, Amazonia.

Aaron Mak writes that most of the fires have been deliberately (or occasionally, inadvertently) set by people clearing land, as encouraged by Brazil's tyrant Jairo Bolsonaro.

Up until now, this blog has largely been written in support of carbon-free nuclear energy as a way to stave off climate change.

That support still exists, but these events in Brazil show that the world's environmental situation is dire and drastic.

The fires in Amazonia are a double blow to Earth's ecosystem. As the trees burn, enormous amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere. Once the trees have burned, the destroyed trees can no longer act as a carbon sink and source of the oxygen that all animals including you and me need to survive.

Robinson Meyer notes that even if people were to attempt to replant the burned areas of the Amazon, millions of species of plants and animals would be lost and biodiversity would not be regenerated for 10 million years, multiple times longer than Homo sapiens has existed.

I have personally seen "replanting" in areas of the Andes. The trees that were planted were mostly a monoculture non-native Eucalyptus.  These Australian introductions consume more water than the native vegetation once consumed. The current government is now encouraging people to cut the eucalyptus down for lumber or firewood. and is trying to get people to plant native trees.

France has canceled a trade deal with Brazil because of Brazil's destruction of the most bio diverse region of Earth. In return, tyrant Bolsonaro raised a furor when he claimed that France was applying a colonialist mindset.

Bolsonaro is a tyrant because his actions threaten the survival of millions of people and the natural world itself.

Bolsonaro must be brought before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

There must be an international commitment to protect Amazonia (what's left of it) with an international peacekeeping force that would block unauthorized entry by outsiders attempting to clear land but would strictly protect the rights of indigenous people who live in Amazonia. This concept is mentioned in part in an article by Franklin Foer in the The Atlantic. Foer notes that the existential threat to humanity posed by the burning of the Amazon is greater than the threat from weapons of mass destruction. He argues that the response to Brazil's governmental abuse of the Amazon must be as robust as the world's response to countries that produce WMD's.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Hiatus in Posting

I have been busy with several things "in-person" where I live.  These include winding up the construction of a carport, caring for some foster puppies, coordinating the installation of a well, and monitoring a situation that has now developed into a refugee crisis that has become personally observable for me during the past year or so.

Thus, I haven't been able to blog much on the topic of this blog.  However, I am quite happy to hear of the resignation of Nicolas Hulot, the foolishly anti-nuclear French energy minister.

An posting just to keep any remaining readers updated.

I am still blogging a bit on a topic that is both having an impact near me and is also closely related to the field of my study .

Photo of French-style purses is mine.  

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Theme Song:

It's Over - Roy Orbison

Why isn't the media talking about the over 5,000 well-paying jobs lost in South Carolina yesterday as a result of the stoppage of Construction at VC Summer? And the huge negative impact on climate change mitigation?

The business media is discussing it. Eric Roston at Bloomberg makes some important points.

The liberal sectors of the media could EASILY pin these job losses on Trump. Trump has been in office more than six months now. Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry did nothing to prevent this job and construction stoppage. Good jobs are hard to find these days

Guess what? I just looked at Vox and The Atlantic. Not a peep about these major job losses. Even when they could blame it on Donald Trump.

Oh, that's right. I forgot. Liberalism these days is a cultural thing. The anti-nuclear heritage of Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt is more important than actual jobs.

Where are Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Kennedy when we need them so badly?

Goodbye VC Summer Construction

What is there to say?

Time to listen to some Johnny Cash and do some thinkin.'

Five thousand highly skilled, strictly screened, hardworking Americans just lost their jobs.

This blog has said very little since mid or late 2008. That was the year when the Great Recession started.

I quit blogging because of what I saw. The banks and cheating mortgage houses were bailed out. The common man and woman were not bailed out.

I made a prediction back then. I predicted that the vaunted nuclear renaissance (which I supported) would not come to be, largely for economic and political reasons.

I really didn't want to brag or share a negative prediction like that about a technology that I support, so I turned to other things, although I still followed nuclear energy supporters on Facebook.

In the nine years since late 2008, I have, among other things:

  • Lived in North Carolina for a while
  • Seen Recession-torn men begging on American streetcorners with cardboard signs, their beloved and loyal guardian dogs always at their side wearing battered but strong collars and leads
  • Traveled internationally and crossed more borders than the Taco Bell chihuahua
  • Entered my 50s
  • Led a major home renovation project - a second storey. We used seismic-resistent concrete-and-rebar construction rather than wooden framing.
  • Experienced several years of life outside the United States
Enough about me. Let's talk about my prediction and why I made it.

By the way, I am NOT an engineer or expert in the field, but my perspective may be a little broader than that of a specialist.


Here are the reasons the nuclear renaissance failed in the United States. Some of these reasons, like the huge expenses of large nuclear projects, are universally applicable. Other reasons are specific to the United States or maybe to western countries. I'll try to note where applicable. Reasons for Failure of Nuclear Renaissance:

  • A. Economic and political dominance of fossil fuel industry - worldwide. I strongly agree with Rod Adams on this issue. The economic and political dominance of fossil fuels is a meta-factor that affects almost all the other reasons below.
  • B. Enormous costs associated with Gigawatt size of additions to VC Summer plant - specific to this project but applicable to others
  • C. Regulatory burdens. Intimately linked to fossil fuel dominance of political system.
    • i. LNT hypothesis in regulations, although it is highly unlikely to be biologically realistic
    • ii. Reworking of major aspects of construction to comply with regulations that regulator admits are not urgent.
  • D. Failure to attach adequate costs to carbon emissions. Bias in favor of wind & solar and against nuclear in climate-change proposals and legislation. This bias reaches to the highest international level - the IPCC. These issues are intimately related to A - fossil fuel dominance of economy and political system.
  • E. Short-term (quarterly) mindset of investment and banking community. Largely specific to US and parts of Europe. Aggravated by 2008 Recession. This is a big part of the reason why a nuclear projects in the UAE can succeed, but they can't in the US. I didn't compare with China or India because they have much lower labor costs than the US or the UAE
  • F. Entrenched anti-nuclear activism. I cannot consider this to be nearly as large a factor in this project failure as it was in projects like Shoreham in New York State. The reason is political. The average South Carolinian loves the outdoors but expresses that in ways consistent with conservative beliefs. Ducks Unlimited, local parks, deer clubs, and college football are much more supported by South Carolinians than are political/anti-nuclear groups like the Sierra Club, NRDC, and FOE. Sure, a few university people join these groups, but the average South Carolinian would rather be in the NRA (hunting) than in the Sierra Club, even a chapter that actually offers hikes.
  • G. Lack of leadership by both Democrats and Republicans in government. President Trump and Energy Secretary Perry have really disappointed here. While Democrats like Obama appoint outright anti-nuclear activists (Jaczko) to the NRC, Republicans like to say platitudes but do nothing in favor of nuclear energy, the strongest alternative to fossil fuels.
  • H. In America, bankers and lawyers run things. In China, the engineers run things.
  • I. Inertia by society in general. While scientists like Dr. James Hansen are highly motivated to support nuclear energy, the millions in the general public rarely have the mathematical aptitude to understand that wind and solar are not enough to replace fossil fuels in the context of a still-growing global population of 7.4 Billion.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Watch For Fossil Fuel Deregulation Proposals

Keep your eyes out for fossil fuel-related deregulation legislation in Congress. Lobby for equivalent bills regarding nuclear energy.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Occasional Blog Posts Coming Up.

I have not blogged for several years.

During those years, a great deal has changed within the United States and the world, and also in my personal life.

I am considering discussing these changes in some occasional future posts.

I will go ahead and make this first post an explanation of the name of this blog.

Firstly, this blog is named after the proposed William States Lee Nuclear Generating Station, near Gaffney, South Carolina. The station was named after William States Lee III, former chairman of Duke Power.

The plant's Construction and Operating License (COL) has been substantially delayed.

This blog cannot cover only this subject. For one thing, I no longer live in the general area of the Carolinas.

One subject I hope to discuss is infrastructure in the US. A robust infrastructure committment is my most earnest hope for the new Trump Administration. More about that later.

One little thing I'd like to do right now is to make it very clear that this blog is not related to Robert E. Lee, or to any other Lees other than William States Lee.

A note about comments: I am disabling them for most posts because I do not have the time to curate them.