We at Windmill Capital Management are thinking today about everyone affected by the recent wildfires in California. We have family and many friends in the fire areas and while all are safe at this time, the troubles facing these areas is only beginning. Though the fires are now under control, many families, homes and businesses are still at risk. Yet, it’s not too early to consider how these lives and communities will be rebuilt and what might be done to help prevent the next disaster. Because our business is focused on renewable, efficient and alternative energy, this is the lens we use to address these issues.
Distributed Energy Helps Communities Rebuild
Distributed energy systems, including solar, wind and cogeneration generate power at the source. In natural disasters, homes and businesses with distributed energy systems may be the only locations in an affected region to have electricity and heating / cooling when utility power is off line for an extended period. Following recent hurricanes, for example, even residents of communities with minimal other damage were kept out of their homes and businesses for many days due to the lack of operating utilities. Businesses that have invested in distributed energy systems are able to operate in spite of utility power outages. This means that key community resources such as restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, hardware stores, gas stations, hospitals and hotels can open, providing essential services to residents and first responders alike.
Imagine the impact a resource like an open restaurant or market can have on a community recovering from a disaster. The location becomes a hub for cooperation and communication. It can provide a huge boost to morale and a sign of hope for the community to rebuild. And it provides essential goods and services. Distributed power systems make all this happen. Following the hurricanes in Puerto Rico this past season, though utility power was disrupted for months after the storms passed, selected communities that were provided solar microgrids with battery storage were able to return to their homes with power for refrigerators, lights and other essentials for daily living within a few weeks.
Utility Transmission Lines a Cause of Disasters
Though it’s currently unclear what caused the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, the deadliest wildfire in state history, experts question the role, if any, of utility transmission lines. Likewise, the cause of the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California in 2017, which burned nearly 37,000 acres and destroyed 5,643 structures is still under investigation, but there are multiple reports of power line arcing due to high winds prior to its start. In early 2018, Cal Fire determined that the Atlas Fire in Napa County, California, which burned more than 51,000 acres and caused six civilian deaths, along with seven other October 2017 Northern California was caused by poorly maintained utility power lines.
As climate change brings more frequent and longer periods of drought, creating conditions that contribute to larger and more intense forest and suburban wildfires. the role of utility power transmission lines will continue to face scrutiny. Though distributed energy is not expected to replace utility power, it holds the potential to help mitigate the impact of utility lines by making them unnecessary, or at least in some cases less prevalent. This is especially true in lower density areas.
Distributed power systems provide a number of key benefits, including greater efficiency and lower environmental impact as well as greater energy security. We believe that in time, users will also appreciate these systems for their potential role in ameliorating the impact of, or even preventing, natural disasters.