San Francisco Chronicle: Rooftop solar must be part of California’s wildfire mitigation plans
The tragic Camp and Woolsey wildfires caused horrific human loss and heartbreaking displacement. The impacts spread far beyond the perimeters of the fire; families in areas like Sacramento and the Bay Area experienced significant levels of air pollution that hurt our most vulnerable, especially children and the elderly. There is no denying that climate change and the way we generate, deliver and use electricity are harming lives, livelihoods and our environment.
The recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment provides yet another warning that our 100-year-old electricity system was not designed with our changing climate in mind and that communities will bear severe consequences if we do not take action. We must adapt and embrace technological solutions like rooftop solar and home batteries, which will help build a safer, more resilient and modern electricity grid.
Today’s electric grid is energized by power lines that deliver electricity across long distances from enormous power plants — many of which exacerbate climate change by using harmful fossil fuels. More than 70 percent of America’s transmission lines and large power transformers are at least 25 years old. They were not built to withstand today’s extreme, climate-affected weather.
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California has adopted forward-looking policies and regulations aimed at creating a more locally powered and efficient electricity grid, which does not depend on big, polluting power plants. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Californians have made the choice to install solar panels, and many are now adding home batteries. California has already made the up-front investment; now the state should double down with policies that further unlock the potential for Californians to produce their own electricity and provide a more reliable, cleaner and affordable energy system for all residents.
Delivering electricity over long distances requires high-voltage power lines that can spark if they come in contact with each other or with dry vegetation. Utilities across California are taking an important safety step by proactively turning off power in communities at risk of wildfire. In all likelihood, these planned outages will only become more frequent.
It is time to adopt regulations that encourage the installation of more rooftop solar and batteries inside cities and towns and at critical public facilities, such as schools, hospitals and community centers. By doing so, local clean energy can support essential services by helping utilities and first responders focus on the most vulnerable populations in times of crisis.
Supporting more rooftop solar and home batteries can also deliver real savings to all Californians. Over time, an increase in rooftop solar and batteries lessens the need to move as much energy over long distances, and creates a leaner electricity grid with fewer lines. California’s organization responsible for managing the electricity grid recently approved a new plan that saves $2.6 billion in future costs by tapping into rooftop solar and energy efficiency. By drawing power from solar and batteries on homes and businesses, the state has been able to avoid spending money on fossil fuel power plants and excessive power lines. We can and must do more.
Utilities are seeking enormous sums of money from California residents to prop up our electricity system with many of the same outdated tools and resources that led us to where we are today. We need California policymakers, as well as civic and community leaders, to work with local energy providers to build connected clean energy networks made from distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar and batteries across the state. We also need big utilities to strengthen fire mitigation plans by including local clean energy solutions. Unfortunately, the initial outline submitted by the big utilities to the California Public Utilities Commission lacks any reference to local energy resources like rooftop solar and batteries.
There is too much at stake to hold onto the past; it’s time to work together to find new solutions that provide a responsive and resilient energy system and empower Californians and communities to be part of these solutions.
Anne Hoskins is chief policy officer for Sunrun, the nation’s largest provider of residential solar, storage and energy services based in San Francisco.