By Gwyneth K. Shaw
Wildfire season is familiar to Californians, but intentional power outages are new—and, apparently, here to stay. While the blackouts are designed to reduce fire risk, particularly where power lines pass through wooded areas, they can wreak havoc on daily life, as millions of residents discovered this fall.
Losing power forced businesses and institutions to close, left homeowners with refrigerators and freezers full of spoiled food, and raised serious questions about the preparedness of municipal and state governments to ensure a steady supply of electricity to those who need it. As these blackouts become an annual occurrence, California’s regulatory and governmental landscape will have to change, too.
Faculty, researchers, and students within Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) and Environmental Law Clinic are already influencing the multi-pronged discussion, from long-term policy advice that incorporates the growing threat of climate change to targeted work that ensures the voices of disadvantaged communities are heard.
Ethan Elkind, director of CLEE’s Climate Program, notes that their strong contacts among the various stakeholder communities—from industry to nonprofits to multiple levels of government—make this practical work useful to each sector.
“We want our research to be grounded in the realities of business, finance, and politics, so that our solutions have a chance to be implemented,” he says. “At the same time, we can use our university position to raise awareness of longer-term policy needs that may not be under debate at the moment but could be with the kind of attention and research depth CLEE can bring to the table.”
This fall, Environmental Law Clinic students have been working on comments to the state Public Utilities Commission as it pushes utilities to plan for and adapt to climate change. Clinical teaching fellow Heather Lewis, who recently came to Berkeley Law from the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, has coordinated with law student Angela Moon ‘21 and public policy student Zach Lou ‘20 on the comments, which they presented to the commission earlier this month.
This fall’s blackouts have helped bring the reality of climate change into the public consciousness, Lewis says. The clinic is representing a coalition of communities through the California Environmental Justice Alliance.
“We’re trying to make utilities think more broadly than the electrical infrastructure,” Lewis explains. “There are other impacts, many related to affordability, and some folks just don’t have the resources to adapt. We need to make sure people aren’t sitting in a 110-degree house because they can’t afford the air conditioning, or going without food because they don’t have the money to replace all the spoiled food in their refrigerator after a power outage.
“I definitely think the shutoffs brought some of that home.”
They’ve also strived to make the long-term planning process more concrete.
“We know climate change will disproportionately affect vulnerable communities, and we saw it in action with the shutoffs,” Moon says. “For us it was an inconvenience, but for certain communities that could become a much more serious situation. Our goal was to represent our clients and prioritize their interests, to make sure that there are equitable outcomes for everybody.”
Dave Jones, director of CLEE’s Climate Risk Initiative, was California’s insurance commissioner from 2011 to early 2019 and also served in the state Assembly. He served on the state Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery, which made a series of recommendations to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state legislature earlier this year. One of those suggestions—to create a state-run insurance fund to help utility companies cover the liability costs when their equipment sparks blazes—has already become law.
But there’s much more to do, he says, in four major areas. Climate change is contributing to rising temperatures, which in turn cause fires that are more frequent and severe. Forest management for over a century has used a suppression approach that’s directly opposed to how nature managed fires. At the same time, more people have moved into what Jones calls the “wildland-urban interface,” raising their risk. And finally, transmission lines and other electrical equipment may not have been upgraded or hardened to prevent an ignition risk.
“These things have come together to create the situation that we’re in,” Jones says. “And all four of those things really need to be addressed.”
Jones believes the United States and other countries across the globe must substantially lower carbon emissions to combat warming temperatures. California must actively manage its forests in a way that mimics nature’s periodic burns to clear undergrowth (which contributes to catastrophic wildfires) and force utilities to improve the safety of their equipment and transmission lines. Local governments and the state also need to rethink land-use policies, including upgrading building codes to “harden” homes against fire and building the cost of protecting new homes in high-risk areas from fire into initial development costs.
Insurance availability is a growing problem in California’s high-risk fire areas. The wildfire commission recommended that the state establish scientifically-based standards for making homes and communities more “defensible,” thereby lowering the fire risk to a home, and require insurers to offer coverage where homeowners and communities meet those risk-reduction standards.
“It’s very frustrating for homeowners who are doing the things the fire chiefs are telling them to do to reduce fire risk and not getting credit from their insurance companies,” Jones says.
A seat at the table
Ted Lamm, a research fellow in CLEE’s climate program, focuses on how climate change will impact California’s legal landscape, including utility and insurance regulation. These shutoffs, he says, are likely to happen as long as there are above-ground power lines in areas with dense trees.
Among the major issues he sees moving forward: stabilizing emergency and long-term power supplies, and shifting the state’s land-use policies to deter additional development in areas with a high risk of fire.
Communities where shutoffs are the most common and the risk is most severe, Lamm says, need to develop emergency plans, such as a way to wall themselves off from a shutdown when the main grid is out while making sure power is available to those with medical needs.
“There’s a real opportunity for that to go hand-in-hand with trying to reach our greenhouse gas emissions goals in the state,” he says. “Rather than having everyone go out and buy diesel-fueled generators, we should be using that opportunity to increase our reliance on locally distributed clean energy.”
A microgrid project with solar generation and battery storage, he says, could be one way to get emergency power while legacy utilities are turned off. The goals of reducing carbon emissions and providing emergency power are linked, but not always in practical ways.
“How do we get the utilities, local governments, and the people making this technology on the same page?” he asks.
CLEE and its experts are well-positioned to spark and coordinate those conversations.
“We can pull together groups of stakeholders, including federal agencies, the local and state governments, environmental advocates, impacted communities, and the energy industry,” Lamm says. “We’re a trusted voice.”