When the lights go out to avoid fires, we should turn to the sun

By Dan Jacobson

Having to check your Instagram or Twitter feeds to find out whether your neighborhood is facing a blackout as a stopgap to avoid another massive climate fire is pretty terrifying. It really makes you realize all the things you need electricity for — such as keeping food and medicines in your fridge cold, powering respirators or home alarm systems, and just turning on the lights. But we shouldn’t have to choose between our power supply and risking horrible wildfires.

California is facing all sorts of climate challenges caused by the way we produce energy. They range from rising sea levels threatening our coastal communities to drought and extreme heat impacting farmers’ livelihoods. While some of these may seem further on the horizon, Californians must recognize that the climate crisis is impacting our safety right now.

Drier weather and extreme wind — conditions that are growing more common as the planet warms — are increasing the risk of devastating fires. To diminish the chances that these conditions spark out-of-control fires, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) is cutting off electricity service to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across the state.

Having experienced massive fires, like those that devastated so many communities over recent years, this is a necessary sacrifice considering the current way we produce and deliver energy. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. If we re-imagine our power system and rapidly deploy technologies such as solar panels and battery storage, we can create a world in which turning on the lights on a dry, windy day doesn’t risk starting the next devastating blaze.

California has long been a leader when it comes to climate and renewable energy policy. The reason for this may be because we are so familiar with the dangers of the status quo. Last year, our state became the first in the country to adopt standards that all new homes be built with solar panels. The policy, which will take effect in 2020, is part of an overhaul of California’s building codes, which aims to cut energy use in new buildings by 50 percent.

But not all cities are embracing this opportunity. For instance, instead of jumping aboard this chance to protect California communities, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is trying to sidestep compliance.

This is so disappointing because SMUD should be one of the best. The public utility has a strong history of investing in renewables and already has plans to meet all new load growth with carbon-free electricity. Unfortunately, this isn’t bold enough. SMUD will be better able to meet its own carbon reduction goals, help the state achieve its vision of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050, and keep our communities healthier and safer by leaning into solar energy.

Anything short of this would be a tragic loss for Sacramento, and for the state as a whole. Keep in mind that generating more clean renewable energy from the sun helps reduce the global warming emissions that are making high fire risk conditions more prevalent. California’s new solar energy and efficiency standards are expected to cut so much greenhouse gas emissions that in the first three years of the program it will be the equivalent of taking 115,000 cars off the road.

Another key reason why putting solar on all of our rooftops is such an important part of the solution is that it’s local. Panels can deliver clean renewable energy right where we need it, and that means we won’t be required to transport so much electricity through power lines that stretch across our communities and forests. This change will decrease the risk of devastating fires. In addition, even if power lines must be shutdown for safety reasons, rooftop solar offers an alternative way to keep the lights on.

Taking full advantage of solar starts with installing panels on all new homes. But our energy providers must do even more. We should be taking every opportunity to install solar panels and battery storage, retrofitting existing homes and businesses and pursuing community solar, too. We need to ensure that, while we turn off the lines delivering power from hundreds of miles away, we can immediately tap into plentiful homegrown power in our communities. Utilities that are putting up roadblocks to more solar and storage are just missing the point.

Given the climate challenges we face today, we have to think beyond the solutions that brought the magic of electricity to people 100 years ago but bring the threat of fires today. Thankfully safer alternatives such as solar exist. We just need our utilities to help lead the way.

Dan Jacobson is the State Director of Environment California, a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization that supports a 100 percent renewable energy future for California.

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