Circuit Reclosers Probed as Potential Cause of California Fires

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Automatic circuit recloser generating sparks at a simulated line fault. Photo: S&C Electric

Wind-swept fires that killed more than 40 people in California in recent months have also jolted the state’s biggest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE). The utilities have had to work around the clock to keep power flowing to fire-afflicted communities, even as their equipment and policies face scrutiny as potential contributors to the deadly fires. California regulatorspoliticians and trial lawyers are querying SCE and PG&E’s tree trimming and line maintenance — common culprits in prior California fires — but they are also examining a utility device that produces sparks by design: automatic circuit reclosers.

Automatic reclosers are pole-mounted circuit breakers that can quickly restore power after outages, but they can also multiply the fire risk from damaged lines. While SCE is adjusting recloser operations to reduce fire risks, PG&E’s practices are less clear. And only their neighbor to the south — San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) — is tapping advanced recloser technology that is safer by design.

Reclosers make quick work of many line faults, the great majority of which result from temporary insults such as a branch striking a line or the electrocution of an unlucky squirrel. As Australian recloser manufacturer NOJA Power puts it: “Like the success of Vanilla Ice, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Devo, most network faults are transient.” In such cases the recloser detects a power surge, momentarily interrupts electricity flow, and then automatically re-closes its contacts to restart flow down the affected line.

Reclosers usually try restarting a line 2-3 times before giving up and “locking out” a line. Sometimes multiple attempts are needed to do the job, writes NOJA Power, such as when high-temperature electrical arcing at the site of the fault burns away hung trees or tree limbs.

Under the wrong conditions, however, such arcing and ignition can obviously spark a fire. Reclosers contributed to several of Australia’s deadly Black Saturday bushfires of February 7, 2009, according to the official report of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Continue reading

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Mexico Border Wall Won’t Stop Cross-border Power Push

Relations between the United States and Mexico are strained at the national level, with President Donald Trump pushing his promised border control wall and demanding a U.S.-favored rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But Mexico and the southwestern states have continued working towards an international agenda for electricity, and regional players are talking up a first set of projects due to be completed before Trump’s term is up — projects that put the region on a path to a far more electrically-porous border.

These projects include a trio of new crossborder links between California, Arizona and Mexico to be completed in the next three years. They also include grid studies, revised market rules, and new power lines within Mexico that could rapidly expand flows over all of the U.S.-Mexico interties. “The proposition right now is fairly small because the interconnections are small. But that’s going to change,” says Carl Zichella, director for Western transmission at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Continue reading

Storing Solar Energy: A great idea caught on contested ground

Adding energy storage to sites with rooftop solar power generation offers a range of potential benefits. A battery can help smooth out solar’s inherently variable supply of power to the local grid, and even keep buildings powered during blackouts. Consequently, power-conversion innovators are developing a host of new products designed to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of integrated solar-storage systems.

Some analysts project a boom in the co-location of solar and energy storage. GTM Research, for example, foresees that co-located PV and storage will grow from $42 million in 2014 to more than $1 billion by 2018. However, the market is moving slower than it might thanks to a little-discussed regulatory roadblock in the United States.

According to Vic Shao, CEO for the Santa Clara, California-based energy storage startup Green Charge Networks, tightly integrating storage with photovoltaics in some key states—including Hawaii and California—runs afoul of the “net metering” rules by which PV owners earn lucrative retail rates for the surplus power they feed to the grid. Adding storage can disqualify solar systems for net metering, in which utilities can pay their owners wholesale power rates that are several times lower than retail. “That is obviously a pretty big problem for anybody considering solar. That could kill a lot of projects,” says Shao. Continue reading

Low-Carbon Fuel Rules

California is about to add to its record of leadership on clean energy policy with its innovative Low-Carbon Fuel Standard that goes into effect January 1. We highlight the program and its likely impact on alternative energy sources for transportation today at MIT TechReview.com in “Low-Carbon Fuel Rules”. As the tagline states, “California is about to implement a standard to boost cleaner fuels and punish the rest.”

One point is that California’s LCFS may not deliver the knock-out blow to Canada’s carbon-intensive tarsands that many climate change activists continue to hope for. Gasoline and diesel fuel refined from the tarsands’ asphaltine bitumen may escape being banned if its producers emphasize energy efficiency according to UC Davis’ Daniel Sperling.

Another observation I’ll be following up is the cohesiveness of the biotech industry. In the face of regulatory innovations such as the LCFS that would disadvantage corn ethanol production and advantage cash-hungry innovators developing more carbon-smart advanced biofuels, the latter seem to be quietly defending the status quo.

Then there’s the California standard’s nuanced approach to diesel, which is not addressed in the TechReview piece but which Carbon-Nation spotlighted last summer. The short take is that the LCFS mandates separate and equal reductions in the carbon footprint of the gasoline and diesel fuels sold in California. That approach eliminates the possibility that diesel use will be incentivized as an alternative to gasoline. The reason? California regulators believe that even today’s ‘clean diesels’ release more than their share of soot, which is a major cause of premature mortality and also a potential contributor to climate change in its own right.

We explore the climate challenge and opportunity posed by soot in the September issue of Discover magazine. See “The Easiest Way to Fight Global Warming?”

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Toyota’s Secret: The Clean Air Act of 1970

masatami-takimoto-credit-toyotaHow many automotive engineering leaders from Detroit or Stuttgart would identify the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 as the inspiration of their engineering career? Yet that’s exactly what Masatami Takimoto did when I spoke with the Toyota executive vice president responsible for R&D and powertrain engineering earlier this month at the Geneva Motor Show.

Since Takimoto retires in June, I asked him to identify the most exciting chapter of his 39-year career with Toyota. His reply brought a smile: “You’re familiar with the Muskie law?,” asked Takimoto. I’d been asked the same question five years earlier, in Tokyo, while interviewing Takehisa Yaegashi (revered within Toyota as ‘the father of the hybrid’) for a cover story on hybrid vehicles for MIT’s Technology Review.

Thanks to Yaegashi I knew that it was Senator Ed Muskie of Maine who drove through the 1970 amendments to the U.S. air pollution law. And I knew that Muskie’s law, which required the federal government to set tailpipe emissions standards,  had inspired a lot more at Toyota than pollution-eating catalytic converters: Toyota’s engineers also began experimenting with new propulsion concepts such as the battery-powered electrical vehicle that produce inherently less pollution.

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Big Footprints Next to Carbon’s

nejm-logoThe U.S. carbon footprint looms large as Washington prepares to finally begin, in earnest, a shift away from fossil fuels under a new President promising international action to, “roll back the specter of a warming planet,” as Agence France Presse highlighted in its reporting of Obama’s inaugural address. Debate is already raging, for example, around whether President Obama will allow California and other states to ratchet up the fuel efficiency improvements automakers must make in the years to come.

But research published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine provides a needed reminder that burning less fossil fuels can also directly reduce mortality from air pollution, as reported yesterday by CNN’s health desk. (Carbon-Nation readers will recall that the network’s sci/tech/environment desk is currently unavailable, having been eliminated by CNN last month.)

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Major Automakers Spurred by California’s Higher Expectations

Honda execs John Mendel and Yasunari Seki relaunch the Insight hybrid in DetroitMajor automakers such as Honda and Chrysler are realizing that it’s time to throw away the old game plan and chart a new one around the sale of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Ironically, some of the most direct evidence of this changed thinking lies buried at the end of an otherwise apologistic report on the U.S. auto industry’s troubles in the L.A. Times earlier this week.

The story reports on a likely forthcoming waiver from President Obama’s EPA effectively allowing states to demand better fuel economy than the federal CAFE standard. After declaring this a “nightmare scenario for automakers,” the article delivers desperate quotes from General Motors and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade group that fought (unsuccessfully) to block California’s standards in court. A GM spokesperson sets the tone, saying that subjecting a depressed industry to these tough standards is like asking a cancer patient to, “finish chemo and then go run the Boston Marathon.”

Here’s an alternative bedside analogy that looks to a deeper cancer: Setting lower standards than the European Union and China are already phasing in is reminiscent of the fatalistic approach to cancer treatment in which doctors hid from their patients the full extent of their sickness.

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