Nuns Fire Sunset

Smoke from the Nuns Fire at sunset in 2017.

Energy experts and state regulators at an Oct. 9 research workshop considered a paradox that could be emerging in California's battle against climate change and wildfires: how public-safety power shut-offs to prevent wildfires affect climate goals.

Among the concerns is whether people will be hesitant to switch from natural gas to electric equipment when power is being turned off across the state, and what effect the uptick in sales of gas-powered generators will have.

The California Air Resources Board at the workshop discussed concerns about the unknown side effects of wildfire mitigation solutions, such as utility power shut-offs, that could impact climate-change programs and air quality.

"Right now, with the blackouts, what do [the shut-offs] mean for air quality and climate change?" a CARB workshop participant asked. "Are you going to create a loop that causes unintended impacts and consequences?"

But in a response to California Energy Markets after the workshop, CARB said any fueling source with a point of sale, whether gasoline, diesel or electricity, would be unable to supply fuel during the kinds of outages California is experiencing right now, unless they're using a generator, direct solar power or a backup battery system of some kind.

Additionally, CARB Division Chief Floyd Vergara said that worries of an "overreliance on an all-electric world" is "a perception" and that "the reality is that consumers are buying bigger SUVs."

Vergara said that, instead of deciding between power shut-offs or wildfires, new research funding should expand into other subject areas, such as behavioral science and sociology, in order to address concerns that wildfire mitigation plans are creating unintended climate and air-quality consequences.

"How do we get a better understanding of [people] to make more environmentally sustainable outcomes than our current mix of regulations?" Vergara said. "We need to tap into other [academic] areas."

Sacramento Municipal Utility District Climate Program Manager Kathleen Ave said collaboration among many energy and environmental stakeholders could help create more comprehensive solutions.

"Every [discussion] today addressed the need for collaboration across sectors and getting out of our silos," Ave said. "I think it really deserves some attention."

In a report last year, CARB proposed to spend the majority of its 2019-2020 research funding (about $1.1 million) on studying the health and air-quality impacts of wildfires.

Wildfires emit significant amounts of particles and chemically reactive gases, CARB wrote, adding that most other pollutants of anthropogenic origin are subject to increasingly strict legislation.

The wildfire research funding includes the following projects: enhancement of CARB's air-quality models to include more detailed effects of wildfires; tracking monkeys exposed to wildfire emissions in infancy to examine associated health impacts in adulthood; and studying biomass burning samples from both prescribed and naturally occurring fires in managed and fire-suppressed forests.

The results of the wildfire research will be useful in informing the selection of forest-management practices to minimize impacts on health, climate and air quality, CARB said in its report.

Additionally, CARB proposed the following research projects for fiscal year 2019-2020:

  • $900,000 to quantify the health impacts of air-pollution exposure by vulnerable populations. Results could help reveal the relationship between asthma symptoms and exposure to on-road emissions.
  • $400,000 to research how to improve indoor air quality, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions through multifamily-unit compartmentalization. Results could help quantify multifamily unit residents' exposure to pollutants and improve building standards.
  • $700,000 to research how other cities around the world are implementing transportation and land-use strategies. The project will rank strategies by how well-suited they are for California's projected land use and population, and will investigate new ways to incentivize zero-emission vehicle purchases.
  • $25,000 for a white paper on a class of over 3,000 chemicals commonly used in household products and by industries such as chrome plating.
  • $25,000 for a white paper to analyze policies that would help stop the displacement of low-income residents from areas with new transportation development, such as bus or train stops. Displacement can lead to an increase in vehicle miles traveled for people pushed out.

$25,000 for a white paper to review emerging technologies and methods for carbon sequestration.

Staff Writer

David Krause is an energy reporter covering the California Energy Commission and Air Resources Board. He writes about transportation, climate change, utilities, and wildfires. He has an MFA in Writing, an MA in English, and a BS in Civil Engineering.