Home solar with storage can reduce strain on the grid and help communities stay connected
Forests are becoming hotter and drier while our power lines continue aging. A strong gust of wind that topples a tree on a 30-year-old distribution line can set an entire hillside ablaze within minutes. That’s what started the Dixie Fire, California’s second-largest wildfire, which scorched nearly 1 million acres across five counties in the summer of 2021.*
Catastrophic wildfires have historically occurred in the Western U.S., but that too is changing with the climate. Last year, over 5,000 wildfires erupted in Texas and North Carolina, while Florida, Georgia and Minnesota each had more than 2,000 blazes.* As our climate warms, drought conditions are leading to more fires in southern and plains states.
To make matters worse, more people fled densely populated cities for remote (and highly flammable) regions after COVID-19 broke out. Americans’ wildfire fears seemed to subside as the pandemic worsened, as many downplayed the risk of moving into a fire zone in favor of their newfound utopia.
A Bloomberg CityLab analysis found that the number of households that moved into areas with a recent history of wildfire climbed 21% between March of 2020 and February of 2021.* If we’ve learned anything from the fires in California, it’s that an area that was once burned can easily burn again.
How Do Power Lines Cause Fires?
From human acts of carelessness to lightning strikes to aging power equipment, there are several ways a wildfire can erupt. Here, we’ll focus on fires from power lines and how solar energy can help mitigate future fire risk.
Circuit sag and extreme weather events are the two main ways that transmission and distribution lines can cause a fire. Electrical power running through a circuit causes the conductors (made of copper and aluminum) to expand when heated.
During times of heavy power consumption – like hot summer days – that expansion increases the slack between transmission line structures and causes the lines to sag.* When there’s too much sag, it can bring the lines closer to surrounding trees and shrubs.
Unlike the insulated low-voltage lines that connect to homes, high-voltage transmission lines aren’t typically insulated. This means vegetation or debris can ignite when it rubs against these large power lines that run between cities.* Strong winds can also topple aging infrastructure.
A utility company can manage its power flow to a certain degree, but cutting power to a few areas can cause other circuits to become overloaded, which can lead to even more problems. This is one reason why the public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) in California cut electricity to millions of households at a time.
How Solar Power Can Help During High Demand Times
Introducing solar electric systems with battery storage can reduce a network’s power needs and keep electrical circuits within their limits. In areas that allow for net metering, where solar customers can feed excess energy from their solar panels back to the grid, solar can even take on some of the additional load demands.
The more people who install home solar systems, the less likely the power grid is to become overwhelmed during times of heavy demand – typically in the summer when temperatures soar. Hot, dry days and overloaded, sagging power lines can spell disaster, as the Dixie Fire proved.
Solar energy is just one example of a distributed energy resource (DER). A DER is a small-scale electricity supply or demand resource that’s interconnected to the electric grid.* Solar storage, electric vehicles, HVAC systems, and generators are also DERs.
Because the energy is consumed near the point it was produced, DERs don’t require Solar storage, transmission lines and often rely on renewable energy. By cutting down on the need for long distance grid infrastructure, DERs can help utilities avoid investments in new transmission towers, power poles, transformers, and power lines – and even avoid the need for a new power plant, generating savings into the billions.*
Bolstering Community Resilience
The proactive approach of cutting power to transmission lines is a safety strategy implemented by utilities like PG&E in recent years. But this is often considered a last resort due to service disruptions to communities and residents that depend on electricity (think hospitals, local governments, etc.). Increasing the deployment and range of DERs like solar plus battery storage can help communities maintain power during a pre-emptive outage.
Generally speaking, renewables minimize the need for fossil fuel power plants, which release greenhouse gases that dry forests and make fire season last longer. When a fire erupts, it releases more climate-changing emissions into the atmosphere, creating a cycle of devastation.
By installing cleaner, distributed energy systems, we can work together to slow the effects of climate change and reduce our collective wildfire risk. The result? Cleaner air, more resilient communities, and land that’s less likely to go up in smoke.