377 Fire smoke cloud

A dramatic cloud of smoke from the 377 Fire billowed across the western horizon in this view from Snowflake in 2018. The 377 Fire was a human-caused wildfire that burned power line infrastructure in Navajo County. In California, recent power blackouts were intended to prevent wildfires caused by downed power lines.

WHITE MOUNTAINS — Last week’s massive blackout in California spurred by wildfire fears sounds a grim warning for Arizona.

Bankrupted Pacific Gas and Electric cut power to 750,000 homes, potentially a multi-billion-dollar hit to the economy, for fear high winds would knock down power lines and start a fire.

Here, forest thinning advocates are still struggling to convince the Arizona Corporation Commission that a biomass-burning mandate would help protect billions in electrical infrastructure – and reduce soaring liability.

This isn’t some vague hypothetical scenario.

In Calfornia, a wildfire apparently sparked by a downed power line consumed Paradise, California, killing more than 80 people. In recent years, electrical lines have caused at least 21 fires that have killed more than 100 people and burned tens of thousands of homes.

The largest power company in California filed for bankruptcy protection in the wake of those fires, estimating its potential liability at $30 billion.

So when strong, dry winds picked up last week, PG&E shut off power to a vast swath of Northern California for days.

APS says they take the threat of Wildfires seriously.

“Wildfires are an issue we take very seriously and that’s why we have an aggressive fire mitigation program that includes significant vegetation management efforts. We clear vegetation around our wooden utility power poles and anchor wires in the wildland-urban interface, to help minimize the danger of wildfires. This also creates Defensible Space Around Poles (DSAP) – an area around a structure where fuels and vegetation are treated, cleared or reduced to slow the spread of wildfire. Specially trained forestry and program teams maintain safe clearances along 11,400 miles of distribution lines and over 6,000 miles of transmission lines to reduce wildfire risks. This includes keeping the lines clear of vegetation and maintaining a ten-foot clearing radius around high-risk poles,” APS said in an email to the Independent.

Did ACC consider threat of fires from electrical infrastructure?

Earlier this year, the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) dashed the hopes of forest thinning advocates by refusing require utilities to generate electricity from burning the biomass left from thinning projects.

“If APS infrastructure was to start a wildfire during a high wind event and that fire caused a lot of damage like the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, APS would be liable,” said Bruce Wedenhamer, who works for the university of Arizona Cooperative Extension and organized a forest health conference in Payson recently. “I don’t think the Corporation Commission took this into consideration when they ruled against APS being required to obtain a percentage of their power from biomass, which would require ratepayers to pay a bit extra.”

On a split vote, the Corporation Commission dropped the idea of a mandate, reasoning it would impose a burden on ratepayers. The commissioners said the state and federal government should pay the cost of supporting thinning projects, not APS rate payers. One study suggested it would boost the average electric bill by a couple of dollars monthly.

Arizona Public Service had proposed spending about $100 million to convert one unit of the coal-burning Cholla Power Plant into a perhaps 60 megawatt biomass burning power plant. The converted plant could burn enough wood slash, scraps and small trees to make thinning efforts in 50,000 acres annually economically viable. The biomass has no value for loggers or wood products, but makes up about half of the material removed in a thinning project.

The electricity from biomass would cost about 50 percent more than generating the same energy from solar or a natural gas power plant. That means both APS and the Salt River Project could also in 2024 end their current contracts with the 28-megawatt NovoPower biomass power plant in Snowflake, the only biomass plant in the state.

The ACC approval of a biomass rule therefore holds the key to reviving the stalled effort to thin million of acres. APS can’t recover the cost of the conversion and the higher cost of electricity without an ACC mandate.

Forest restoration advocates have continued to lobby the ACC to take another vote on the biomass mandates and to take into account the huge benefits to ratepayers of thinning millions of acres of overgrown forest in Northern Arizona. Studies show the new era of megafires not only threatens to destroy whole towns in the high country, it also threatens the watersheds and reservoirs on which the Valley depends. The California blackouts also demonstrate that the vast infrastructure of power lines and even the survival of electric utilities depends on limiting high intensity crown fires.

The California catastrophe perfectly illustrates the potential impact of megafires on the economy and on the electrical infrastructure.

PG & E serves 16 million customers spread out over 70,000 square miles. By contrast, SRP and APS each serve about a million customers.

The blackouts in California affected 750,000 homes and 1,370 schools with 483,000 students – about a third of those schools shut down. The outage also affected 248 hospitals, 304 police and fire agencies and 30,000 customers with potentially serious medical issues, according to PG & E.

The first two days of the shutoff cost the state economy somewhere between $65 million and $2.5 billion, according to Stanford economics Michael Wara.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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