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Old power lines plus climate change mean a growing risk of utilities starting fires

Texas investigators say the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the largest in state history, appears to be caused by a downed utility power pole. When it comes to increased risks of starting wildfires, Michael Wara professor at Stanford University says some utilities "are walking into a catastrophe."
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Texas investigators say the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the largest in state history, appears to be caused by a downed utility power pole. When it comes to increased risks of starting wildfires, Michael Wara professor at Stanford University says some utilities "are walking into a catastrophe."

A power pole "that appeared to be decayed at the base."

That's what Texas state investigators now say appears to have fallen and caused the largest wildfire in the state's history. The electric utility - Xcel Energy - said in a statement that "its facilities appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire."

The U.S. is brimming with aging power infrastructure. Many of the nation's power lines were built 60 to 70 years ago, says Rob Gramlich, president of consulting firm Grid Strategies. "Old, literally rusted assets," he says.

Many utilities don't have the technology to know when power lines are overheating or sagging, potentially onto brush or trees, he says. These things spark fires.

And now those old power lines are coming into contact with the growing impacts of human-caused global warming. Drier vegetation and hotter weather caused by climate change can fuel larger, more intense wildfires.

Climate change has brought fire risk to unexpected places, like Louisiana's wetlands and Maui, where high winds downing utility power lines are under investigation for causing catastrophic fires. Utilities are waking up to the threat of fire in new places and new times of the year, says Scott Aaronson, senior vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, the leading trade group for investor-owned utilities.

"This is not normal," Aaronson says. "There's not a single investor-owned electric company that does not have fire risk on their list of things that they are concerned about."

But not all these power companies are prepared, says Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. He says his research in the West finds too few utilities are adopting simple solutions that greatly reduce the chance of igniting a wildfire.

"There are some utilities that are really leaders and are getting ahead of the risk," Wara says. "And then there are others that we look at and think are walking into a catastrophe."

There are solutions to prevent wildfires, but many utilities aren't using them

There are some basic - and relatively cheap - things that utilities with even a small wildfire risk should be employing, Wara says. Things like weather sensors on power poles. They can give power companies a much clearer sense of dangerous conditions like strong winds or dry, hot weather.

"It's not expensive, right? It's those little weather stations you'd buy and maybe put on your house if you were a weather nerd," Wara says.

Also utilities can change settings to automatically turn power lines off when conditions are unsafe, he says. "The utilities have the tools. This is not a mystery," Wara says.

Part of the problem may be that many utility companies aren't always incentivized to make the fixes and operational changes that are key to reduce wildfire risk, says David Pomerantz of the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog. Instead he says many power companies are biased towards building expensive things which can guarantee a profit.

"A lot of utilities probably aren't spending as much internal staff time and potentially as much money on those parts of the business that don't earn Wall Street a return, but are really important for safety," Pomerantz says.

A charred vehicle sits near the ruins of a home after the property was burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire.
Ty O'Neil / AP
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AP
A charred vehicle sits near the ruins of a home after the property was burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire.

Aaronson of the Edison Electric Institute says many utilities are already investing more heavily in sensors, more aggressive vegetation management, and proactive shutoffs to reduce wildfire risk. "I don't think that there is a misalignment of incentives," he says.

Whether utilities dedicate necessary resources to wildfire prevention will not just affect Americans' safety, but also the affordability of electric bills across the country, Wara says. He notes some utility investors see growing financial risk because of increased wildfires.

"We cannot afford – literally, in terms of our pocketbooks – to have utilities be perceived by their investors as high risk," Wara says. "There is a set of practices that utilities can take that do not cost an arm and a leg that can dramatically cut the risk of outcomes like we saw in Texas."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.