The Yosemite Rim Fire has threatened to disrupt the power supply to
San Francisco, just 150 miles to the west. Power continues to flow to
customers, officials stressed, but a rise in wildlfires could post a
broader threat to energy infrastructure.
By David J. Unger
A wildfire spread through Yosemite National Park over the weekend,
forcing the closure of hydroelectric dams and transmission lines that
bring electricity to the city and county of San Francisco.
No power disruptions have been reported, but the fire’s creep toward
the Hetch Hetchy power stations drove Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a
state of emergency for the area of the fire and San Francisco, just
150 miles west.
The threat to energy infrastructure comes during a peak period for
electricity demand in a state squeezed for capacity. In June, the
troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in southern California
was closed permanently. The current 125,000-acre wildfire in northern
California, which has burned for 10 days and is 15 percent contained,
is adding new stress on the state’s energy distribution.
Power continues to flow to customers uninterrupted, officials
stressed, and the Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric power stations in the
fire’s path do not make up core capacity.
“Hetch Hetchy provides only a small amount of all electricity used in
California,” Larry Dale, an environmental economist at the Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory, wrote in an e-mail. “It is locally
important to San Francisco, but San Francisco obviously has other
places to get electricity.”
Most of the San Francisco area receives its power from Pacific Gas and
Electric Co., but much of the city’s municipal customers get
electricity from the Hetch Hetchy Power System in Yosemite. That
system of three hydroelectric powerhouses combine to offer 400
megawatts of clean energy.
Two of the powerhouses shut down on Aug. 19 threatening to disrupt San
Francisco International Airport, San Francisco General Hospital,
police, fire and other government entities. But the San Francisco
Public Utilities Commission says it has avoided disruption by buying
$600,000 worth of supplemental power supplies on the open market.
While the lights remain on in San Francisco for now, there is a larger
concern about the impact of increased wildfires in remote, wooded
areas, which are “perfect territory” for long transmission lines,
according to Otto Lynch, a civil engineer who serves on the American
Society of Civil Engineers’ committee on America’s infrastructure.
“Wildfires pose a serious threat to electrical transmission and
distribution lines, as they can result in increased maintenance costs
and reduced line efficiency,” according to a July 2012 study prepared
for the California Energy Commission. “Climate change will only
exacerbate the problem, as increased temperatures, a reduced snowpack,
and altered precipitation will lead to increased flammability of fuel
for longer periods of time, which will affect the size, frequency, and
severity of wildfires.”
Transmission lines themselves can actually be designed to serve as
fire breaks, Mr. Lynch said in a telephone interview. Because they
require vast trenches of cleared brush, they can sometimes stop a fire
from passing through corridors.
Still, even the threat of fire can shut down lines as a preemptive
measure, Lynch said, which necessitates additional backup lines in
areas prone to natural disasters.
“Everybody fights the power lines until something like this happens,”
Lynch said. “We need the public’s acceptance that we need some
redundancy in the system, so that if a natural event takes out a line
we can sleep at night and say, ‘Ok, we’re covered.’”