Wildfire reminds us of the criticality of our electric system

This week, a wildfire the size of Chicago is threatening San Francisco's water and power supply by advancing toward major transmission lines and a reservoir that supplies water to a majority of residents. This reservoir, Hetch Hetchy, is closely being watched by San Francisco and State authorities to ensure that ash falling from burning embers does not pollute the reservoir and cause water quality problems for millions of people. Interestingly, not only were water supplies affected by the wildfire – electricity was affected too, but received much less attention. San Francisco authorities reported that a hydroelectric unit was damaged by the fire last week. While the unit has been repaired it was still not contributing electricity while technicians worked to re-energize the transmission lines. So while water supplies were not affected at all, the San Francisco Utility Commission spent about $600,000 on supplemental power supplies from outside sources because of the fire-related disruption.

Also, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on August 23rd for San Francisco because of these threats to the city's water and power infrastructure. Wildfires have been in the news a lot this year. Why is that? More frequent bouts of extreme weather, which cause massive wildfires like the ones at Yosemite and in Arizona this summer, are just one of the results of global climate change triggered in part by greenhouse gases that are not able to escape from our atmosphere. Other causes of increased wildfire include more developments in the region, more frequent and more severe drought, and untamed underbrush. "This is probably the new normal," according to Professor Wuebbles from the University of Illinois who co-authored a federal report linking climate change to an increase in severe weather trends.

While a smart grid may not be able to prevent the impacts of a massive wildfire, it could help our nation reduce the amount greenhouse gas emissions by enabling more electric vehicles, a cleaner source of transportation than gasoline-powered cars. Even without electric-powered transportation, a smarter grid is a more efficient grid and studies show that a smart grid will reduce carbon emissions by as much as 18% when fully deployed by reducing electricity loss and reducing utility trucks on the road.

Most consumers don't realize or understand the importance of our electricity supply until it is being threatened or until we lose power. Strengthening our nation's grid and making it smarter not only increases our grid's resiliency but it will help us deal with the major issues facing the quality of our air, water supply and life which we have grown accustomed to in this country.

Spread the word about smart grid education through www.WhatIsSmartGrid.org, which explains the many benefits of a smarter grid. Together, we can help to inform and educate, and move the needle toward a smarter, cleaner and more convenient power grid.

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