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Tolling Points

Wildfires, Power Shutdowns Point to New Challenges for Infrastructure

Bill Cramer

The last month of pre-emptive electricity shutdowns in California, aimed at preventing utility power lines and transformers from sparking deadly wildfires, has brought a sharp focus to the fragility of some of the infrastructure our communities take for granted—and the interdependence between the different systems and services we depend on every day.

The connection between infrastructure and weather disasters is no news to the tolling community. Agencies from Florida to New York and New Jersey have had direct experience with devastating hurricanes that turned their roadways into lifesaving escape routes for desperate evacuees, then essential conduits for the recovery efforts that followed the storms. When multiple tornadoes touched down in and around Moore, Oklahoma in May 2013, staff with the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority quickly stepped in. Later to be recognized as award-winning heroes. In Houston, parts of the Harris County Toll Authority system needed repairs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

But factoring in the overstretched electricity systems that tolling agencies and their customers depend on adds a whole other layer of complexity. Especially with a mounting climate crisis making storms, floods, and wildfires a more frequent, severe business risk.

Burning Paradise to the Ground

After state utility Pacific Gas & Electric saw its power lines blamed for last year’s devastating Camp Fire in northern California’s Butte County, it decided to do things differently for 2019: with wildfire season approaching, and humidity in the single digits producing bone-dry air, the company announced it would shut down parts of its system ahead of time if weather forecasts suggested a higher level of risk.

On October 10, news reports had PG&E cutting power to an estimated two to four million people at 800,000 addresses across 34 counties in the northern part of the state. To the south, San Diego Gas and Electric signaled that 30,000 addresses could be cut off in the course of the week.

The shutdown was “a preventative strategy in the face of escalating wildfire threats in the state. Less than a month ago, the California energy company agreed to a $11-billion settlement in its most recent case litigating its role in recent wildfires,” Bay Area-based Mother Jones magazine reported at the time.

While no one disputed the connection between failing power infrastructure and the fire that literally burned Paradise to the ground, Wildfire Today pointed to the multiple risks of leaving a large swath of the public without power.

“The indirect effects of having no electricity expand to a much larger population when you consider traffic lights not working, tunnels on highways being shut down, plus the closure of gas stations, schools, and businesses,” wrote WT publisher and retired wildland firefighter Bill Gabbert. “At some point cellular telephone towers and infrastructure may exhaust their emergency power supply systems, not to mention the batteries in the public’s cell phones.”

Meanwhile, “firefighters’ communications could be hampered by the disabling of their radio repeaters on mountain tops. Notifying residents of approaching fires and conducting evacuations in order to save lives could be challenging.”

We All Depend on Each Other

A quick survey of California tolling agencies’ websites suggests the power outages had little impact on their operations. But Gabbert’s account—and the much more raw Twitter rant he documented from Sacramento TV weathercaster Rob Carlmark—suggested some new questions to address in agencies’ emergency preparedness plans.

  • How much generator and battery backup do we have available if the grid cuts out?
  • When were those systems last tested?
  • How will our emergency communications and first response systems be affected if cell towers fail?
  • What’s our fallback plan to communicate with customers along the roadway if their phones and tablets are offline?
  • How much more important will these questions become as modern roadways increase their reliance on vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications?
  • Do our emergency plans factor in the increased frequency and severity that show up in the latest models for advancing climate change?
  • Is it time to assess whether local generation or a renewable energy-based microgrid will boost our resilience and reduce our energy costs and carbon emissions over time?

They’re all important, high-stakes questions that will call on tolling authorities to respond the way they always do—calmly, professionally, in a way that assesses the challenges and knocks them down one at a time. But that approach only begins when we can see the threat on the horizon. That makes PG&E’s experience a wake-up call that extends far beyond its own industry.

Look no farther than IBTTA’s annual conference series for the ideas and solutions that keep tolling agencies at the forefront. The 2020 lineup is online now.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 08:45


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