With historic winds whipping a wildfire in wine country into an inferno, millions of Californians are in the dark after the state’s largest utility company cut their power in a bid to prevent more fires.
The combination of drought, dry vegetation, high winds and vulnerable overhead power lines is shared by Colorado, although not to the same degree as in California.
Blackouts aren’t imminent in Colorado, where the dangers are lessened by utilities’ aggressive clearing of vegetation at the base of power lines. Nevertheless, utilities, especially those in forested areas prone to wildfires, have taken notice of California’s plight.
“There’s no question that it’s a concern,” said Kent Singer, Executive Director of Colorado Rural Electric Association. “Co-ops go to great lengths to clear their rights of way so that they keep vegetation and trees away from our lines … none of (Colorado’s) fires have been caused by co-op lines, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t happen. We have a very serious concern about this possibility throughout co-op territory in Colorado.”
Extreme weather conditions in California, largely caused by climate change, have prompted Pacific Gas & Electric to upgrade its electrical systems over then next 10 years, CNBC said. But officials from the state’s Public Utilities Commission have been critical of the utility, saying it was too little, too late for a company that had “failed on so many levels on pretty simple stuff.”
PG&E was blamed for last year’s Camp fire that demolished the town of Paradise and killed 86 people in the state’s deadliest wildfire.
Colorado, like California, struggles with prolonged droughts, which are expected to be made worse by climate change. It also has thousands of miles of overhead transmission lines that, under the right conditions, could spark a fire.
“There are some pretty big factors on how (California’s) wildfires are being sparked and get out of control quickly,” said Aram Benyamin, CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities and former head of the power system at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
One of those is California has higher voltages of power running through its lines, Benyamin said.
Unlike most of California, which operates under the state’s Independent System Operator, Colorado’s lack of a concentrated, centralized control system actually helps municipal utility companies make the best decision for their local community, Benyamin said.
Those localized factions can decide whether cutting off power will help lessen wildfire risk in their area, or not, instead of being dictated by one single entity.
The danger that a power line can be blown down by high winds and set off a conflagration in a remote area that then spreads to subdivisions and towns has Colorado utilities looking at burying more lines, an expensive fix.
Holy Cross Energy, which provides electricity for Vail, proposed a new 115-kilovolt transmission line between a substation at Gilman and Avon last year, according to Summit Daily. Undergrounding transmission lines could help communities along Interstate 70 be less vulnerable to wildfires.
Gunnison Electric — which has 629 of its 1,089 miles of its distribution lines underground — is pushing to get more power lines buried, said John Stoeber, a line superintendent for Gunnison.
The Gunnison Electric board identified several high-risk areas and installed underground lines in those spots, Stoeber said. The board is also seeking to approve nonarcing fusing and nonarcing switches for overhead lines, he said, which will contain the lines’ energy and mitigate the risk of sparks.
Xcel Energy, one of Colorado’s two investor-owned utility companies, cites eight factors the company uses to determine whether to bury power lines. Among them: the ease of pinpointing damaged lines, construction impacts and a shortened life expectancy. By and large, the most daunting is the cost.
“An underground 230 kV line costs 10 to 15 times the cost of an overhead line due to time, materials, processes, the need to include transition substations and the use of specialized labor,” reads an Xcel information sheet. A 2012 study by the Edison Electric Institute estimated that installing underground lines would start at $1 million per mile.
“I think you’ve got to go through many options before you get (to undergrounding) because of the cost issue,” Benyamin said. “Then you might get to a better solution cheaper and faster than undergrounding.”
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