Can solar power help prevent California wildfires?

Nov 20, 2019 by

By Crystal Huskey

Most reports on climate change are filled with dire warnings for our future. The consensus is that the earth is getting progressively warmer, and our energy-consumption habits have had a direct impact on that.

Coal and fossil fuels as energy sources increased our ability to produce, but there have been some serious unintended consequences.

The push for renewable energy is intended to change that.

In California, forests are getting drier and hotter, creating a year-round wildfire season. Aging power lines and poor land and forest management contribute to the problem as well. A report prepared by California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s wildfire task force said that 15 of the 20 most destructive wildfires in the state’s history have occurred since 2000, and 10 of the most destructive fires have occurred since 2015.

Devastating fires have wreaked havoc on the state, including Sonoma County’s Kincaid Fire. Pacific Gas and Electric Utility is believed to have been responsible for that fire — it’s believed high winds caused an aging power line to snap and spark. More than 180,000 people were evacuated due to that fire, according to the Washington Post.

Outdated power lines are one of the culprits, something Gov. Newsom called “infuriating beyond words.”

It was the risk of that happening that spurred PG&E to preemptively cut power to millions of residents prior to this latest round of fires.

Incorporating renewable energies on a larger scale

Wildfire and blackouts seem to be the new norm in California. While moving toward renewable energy isn’t going to solve all of the different problems that are contributing to the raging wildfires, it would make a difference, especially when it comes to enforced blackouts.

One innovation that communities across the state are setting their sights on is microgrids. A microgrid, according to the Clean Coalition, is a “coordinated local grid area served by one or more distribution substations and supported by high penetrations of local renewables and other distributed energy resources (DER), such as energy storage and demand response.”

Basically, they pool resources of people using renewable resources. Solar PV panels, wind turbines, waste-to-energy, biomass and small-scale hydro power plants may all feed into a community microgrid, creating energy islands.

The Los Angeles Times reports that this is already being done in Borrego Springs, a small town in San Diego County, California. It combines solar panels, diesel generators, energy storage and an ultracapacitor to power the town, even when electricity isn’t flowing.  An ultracapacitor is a very powerful short-term battery.

Many people have already been turning to solar power in California for these very reasons. If the solar power is tied to the electrical grid, then consumers won’t even have access to that if the utility company forces blackouts. However, if the system also includes a solar battery and inverters, the power is literally back in the customers’ hands. That creates a microgrid for individual homes.

Solar batteries can also help reduce the risk of fire by easing the stress on electrical transmission lines.

The traditional, century-old way of powering homes involves thousands of miles of infrastructure that is deteriorating and very susceptible to weather-related damage. Smaller, centralized power grids that incorporate renewable energy cut down on that risk.

Change can’t come soon enough

The fires are going to just keep on coming, according to wildfire experts, especially without massive changes to the power lines. Blackouts will continue as well, as utility companies try to prevent high winds from taking down power lines and sparking a wildfire.

California already has ambitious goals to make the move toward solar energy — by 2020, new homes in the state will require solar panels. The state aims for its electric grid to be carbon free by 2045.

Policymakers are also pushing for the commercialization of microgrids and other decentralized energy resources. It isn’t cheap, but if it prevents an entire town being lost to fire, the benefits outweight the cost.


About the author
Bio: Crystal Huskey is a content writer at, an online distributor for PTAC units, along with a full range of parts and accessories.
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