Story at a glance

  • Recent California wildfires like the ones burning now are linked to faulty electrical power lines and equipment.
  • Increasing fires prompt an uptick in solar panel installation.
  • When combined with batteries, these solar panels create microgrids that provide sustainable electricity.
  • Despite some barriers to entry, other states and territories prone to natural disasters — such as Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico — embrace solar energy.

California is burning. That isn’t new, but the past few years have seen some particularly catastrophic wildfires. So far in 2019, the Kincade and Getty Fires caused mass evacuations and a state of emergency, and in 2018, 58,083 wildfires were recorded, leaving about 8.8 million acres burned. Two notable fires were the Mendocino Complex Fire and the Camp Fire. The former became the largest fire in California history, with the latter dubbed the deadliest. 

Naturally dry and arid conditions in California make fires common enough to be a season, but investigations into the causes paint a different picture. Since 2017, evidence pointing to vulnerable power lines is mounting. The Kincade, Getty, Camp and Woolsey Fires have all been linked to faulty electric power lines and equipment. Energy provider Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) has been found liable for the Kincade and Getty fires, with the smaller Southern California Edison to blame for the Woolsey and Thomas Fires. PG&E’s mass lawsuits and culpability have left it bankrupt.

As a precaution against wildfires, PG&E traditionally shuts down its power to reduce the electric current transmissions and therefore mitigate risk. This is problematic for many reasons, outlined in a CNBC article explaining how deploying blackouts couldn’t stop two wildfires in Northern California from starting. 

A couple of solutions have been posited. A popular idea is to bury the power lines, making them less exposed to external problems. Unfortunately, this “costs approximately $3 million per mile to convert underground electric distribution lines from overhead,” according to a PG&E estimate. 

Another idea? Ditch power lines altogether and go solar. 

Audrey Lee, the vice president for solar energy provider Sunrun, argues that solar power is a sustainable way to “protect fire-prone communities.” She wrote an op-ed stating, “Home solar and batteries can provide for more resilient energy solutions in high-risk fire areas serviced by electric lines. More importantly, they can help reduce or even prevent power outages for homes, businesses, and other critical facilities.” 

In a multi-part series, Vox documents the causes and solutions to rampant California fires. The series hypothesizes that a combination of solar and storage systems will reduce both wildfires and power company dependency. Usually, solar panel installation does this, which works by storing power in batteries for later use or using it directly. When combined with the right battery storage — usually a smart inverter — any home can become its own power source: a microgrid.  

Sunrun sawc5,000 installations of its patented Brightbox system, a combination of solar panels and lithium-ion batteries with eight to 12 hours of backup power, and anticipates growth. The appeal comes from the microgrid’s ability to increase local supplies of power, thus reducing grid dependency during blackouts. 

Fellow solar firm SunPower Corp reported a 20 percent increase in rooftop system sales in the wake of fire season. Chief Executive Tom Werner said to Reuters, "The first step toward taking control of your energy is to generate solar energy and then the next step is to get a battery."

Although solar can be written off as expensive, industry leaders predict that more market competition and price cuts will help, as will basic necessity. Jim Petersen, the CEO of solar and battery installer Petersen-Dean, sums it up as “When their power is out they are not saying, ‘What can I save?’ They are saying, ‘How can I move to the front of the line?’”

Published on Nov 15, 2019