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Wildfires are coming. Are you ready?

Wildfire resilience is a pertinent topic on everyone’s mind in California with more than 100 people killed by wildfires in 2017 and 2018. Fires are a normal part of the North American ecosystem. However, fire suppression policies and timber industry practices in the US and Canada since the early 1900s have increased the fuel on the landscape. In recent years, climate change has pushed the rains later in the season, lengthening the dry period, so the end of it now coincides with the Santa Ana wind season, creating a tinderbox. This phenomenon is here to stay and has potential to get worse.

The increasing frequency and intensity of climate change-precipitated disasters is underscored by the interactive chart created by my colleague, Cameron Tuttle, illustrating the correlation between federal disaster declaration counts and rising temperature. This chart was produced by combining publicly available data from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Two of the charted disasters types exhibit moderate positive correlation with increasing average land surface temperature in the US: hurricanes and wildfires. Since the warming effects of CO2 are not likely to stop any time soon, we can expect increasing numbers of these disasters by mid-century.

Wildfires are becoming an increasingly present risk to the utility companies in the Western United States and other locations with increasing drought due to climate change. Utilities are at risk of causing a fire, with pending utility lawsuits in California demonstrating a true liability threat. Approximately 10% of fires in California are caused by the utility grid, but they result in approximately 20% of the acreage burned in the state, stated a CalFire representative at the Wildfire Technology Summit. Utilities face damage to their grid infrastructure, not only from fires they ignite, but from any wildfire in populated areas. During high wind events, utilities face the dilemma of shutting off the power to avoid causing a fire, but their reliability (SAIDI/SAIFI) ratings may go down as a result. Not only are utilities dealing with these risks, they also need to manage public opinion around all this. Decades of extremely reliable electricity in the U.S. has created expectations of uninterrupted electricity supply with low risk. Wildfire is a scary unknown for customers, often causing them to look for someone to blame, and wanting assurances that the utility is doing everything in their power to protect the public from wildfire.

In March 2019, 650 people gathered at Sacramento State for the Wildfire Technology Summit, spearheaded by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), where utility executives, regulators, directors of emergency services, technology experts and researchers discussed the problem and potential solutions to wildfires in California. The consensus among attendees was that a multi-prong approach is needed to address the issue:

  • Forest maintenance policies need to change to reduce the fuel in wildland areas and to create defensible space in the urban wildland interface.
  • Utility ignition prevention processes around transmission and distribution infrastructure must evolve to mitigate the greatest risk.
  • Emergency procedures for identifying and dealing with fire in populated areas need to improve.
  • Recovery rebuild and new construction must change to include energy efficiency and resilience, especially in the wildland urban interface.

The technology solutions discussed at the Summit can help through risk analysis to improve fire preparedness, fire ignition identification, fire spread prediction, and communication. To view recorded presentations, visit the Wildfire Technology Summit webpage.

Multiple agencies are implementing technological solutions such as improved alert systems that will result from Senate Bill No. 833 Chapter 617’s mandate of the Office of Emergency Services to develop voluntary guidelines for alerting and warning the public of an emergency. A consortium of universities (UNR, UCSD, UO) have assembled an information system for firefighters called ALERTWildfire that provides access to state-of-the-art fire cameras and associated tools to help firefighters and first responders (1) discover, locate and confirm fire ignition, (2) quickly scale fire resources up or down, (3) monitor fire behavior until containment, (4) help evacuations through enhanced situational awareness, and (5) ensure contained fires are monitored appropriately through their completion. Anyone can view the cams from the AlertWildfire web page and can send out a tweet if they spot a fire. Utilities are using risk assessment tools such as DNV GL’s C-GEAR to create an interactive map layering LIDAR, graphical information system data, asset data and aerial imagery to show risks to the utility system so they can take grid hardening actions such as tree trimming or equipment upgrades. DNV GL uses its data platform, Veracity, to process wildfire satellite imagery data to visualize, quantify, and assess the risk to people and property. Our resilience assessment tool, B-READY provides a resilience score for commercial and multifamily buildings tailored to local disasters. We continue to develop innovative tools and processes such as online resilience self-assessments for homeowners.

We believe resilience and energy efficiency strategies are synergistic. We have our eye on energy efficiency and demand response measures with resilience benefits that utilities may want to incorporate in their rebate programs. Such measures include:

  • Mineral wool insulation has a slightly higher resistance to heat transfer than cellulose or fiberglass (at R-value of 4.0 versus 3.4) and is non-combustible with a melting point of 2150 ° F.
  • Low E coatings on the interior surface of exterior glass and exterior reflective window films not only reduce solar heat gain, but modelling has shown that they help the glass to resist breakage during a fire.
  • Fire proof hurricane shutters can automatically close during a fire to prevent fire intrusion and can reduce solar gain if operated by a mechanical actuator on a timer or light sensor.
  • Conditioned or non-vented attics where embers can’t get in can house ducts where losses still help to condition the home.
  • Air sealing and heat recovery ventilators provide superior IAQ and greater energy efficiency.
  • Distributed storage allows customers to float through a grid shut down.

We are asking questions such as:

  • How does this fit in with our traditional EM&V methods where we look only at energy savings?
  • How do we monetize the resilience benefits so they can be included in the cost effectiveness tests as non-energy impacts?
  • How do we broaden our scope to carbon reduction, and look to clients such as state agencies or cities with climate action plans?

In the aftermath of the Sonoma and Mendocino county fires, Sonoma Clean Power leads both the Advanced Rebuild and LEAD Locally programs which seek to rebuild with efficiency and resilience. DNV GL is part of the LEAD Locally team to evaluate the impact and market readiness of new technologies. Contact me to discuss how we can create a safe, resilient, and energy efficient future.

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