Temperatures Rising: Can Solar Power Prevent Wildfires?

by | Jun 19, 2021 | Blog

Wildfire in woodland with the sunlight shining through the smoke

Summary

  • Wildfires are becoming more frequent and destructive than ever before. Over the past 40 years, large wildfires have become five times more common than they used to be. These fires also last much longer. This is due to the global warming crisis, which has caused higher temperatures and longer periods of dry weather.
  • The main cause of wildfires is (regrettably) human activity – mainly through unattended campfires, burning debris, or electrical power lines. Fallen power lines are one of the leading causes of wildfires and have started some of the world’s most horrific infernos.
  • Power lines can ignite wildfires through a variety of different means, but mostly through the lines heating up, causing them to sag and come into contact with dry trees and shrubs. This can generate sparks.
  • Distributed energy resources (DERs), such as domestic solar and battery systems, could be part of the solution to reducing wildfires. DERs can provide a robust energy source in high-risk fire areas currently serviced by electric lines.
  • Solar power can be used to take the pressure off of the main power lines and allow for repairs and testing to take place on the circuits without the need for whole communities to lose all their power. This may result in fewer wildfires.

Introduction

Across the world, extreme weather occurrences are becoming more common and destructive. It is estimated that the fire seasons have extended over the past 40 years, and large fires are now five times more common than they were in the past. Due to the higher temperatures and prolonged dry weather conditions we experience today, our energy infrastructure is being put to the test, and the environment is under threat.

In November 2018, the Fourth National Climate Assessment reported that climate change and extreme weather events are expected to disrupt energy and transportation systems increasingly. Furthermore, global warming threatens more regular and longer-lasting power outages, fuel shortages, and service disruptions. These disruptions will have a cascading impact on other critical sectors.

Modern electric grids tend to be energised by large power lines that deliver electricity across vast distances from centralised power plants. Unfortunately, many of these power plants are adding to the climate change problem by using harmful fossil fuels. Moreover, some countries have an ageing infrastructure that is not equipped to endure the growing impacts of climate change. For example, it is estimated that around 70% of America’s transmission lines and large power transformers are at least 25 years old, which is considered outdated.

With the rising risks associated with wildfires, the clock is ticking as we try to find a solution to the problem. Local distributed energy resources (DERs), such as domestic solar and battery systems, could be particularly helpful. DERs can provide a more robust energy solution in high-risk fire areas currently serviced by electric lines. DERs have the potential to reduce or altogether avert power outages in homes, businesses, and other critical facilities.

We are already aware that home solar and battery systems can deliver reliable energy and keep the electricity running for energy users. But it is now being thought that solar technology could also decrease the risks of electrical sparks triggered by problematic overhead lines. These sparks can result in dangerous wildfires. In this article, we will appreciate how solar power could help prevent future disasters.

What Are The Main Causes of Wildfires?

The National Park Service reports that 85% to 90% of wildfires are triggered due to human involvement.

Wildland fires can be classed as either being caused by human error or naturally occurring. As with many negative environmental impacts, the majority of the blame is due to humans. The National Park Service reports that 85% to 90% of wildfires are triggered due to human involvement. However, for any fire to occur (with or without the input of humans), three elements are needed: heat, fuel, and oxygen.

Many potential heat sources can create embers and possibly start a wildfire. Most of these are human-caused, such as campfires, sparks from power tools, and fallen power lines. Fuel for fire is readily available in arid climates where dry vegetation is abundant. Additionally, oxygen levels are often high in places that are prone to wildfires. California, for example, is famous for its Santa Ana winds which have gusts averaging at 50-54 mph (with a record gust of 100 mph).

Arguably, the prime conditions for wildfires are to be found in regions with a dry climate, abundant winds, and dry vegetation. It may only take a single ember to ignite and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Let’s take a closer look at some of the primary heat sources responsible for wildfires:

  • Unattended Campfires – Most of us associate campfires with happy memories and quality time with friends and family. Despite their appeal, they are one of the leading causes of wildfires. The largest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona’s history, called the Wallow Fire, was inadvertently caused by a campfire. By the end of the day, it had burned 733 square miles, destroyed 32 homes, 4 commercial buildings, and 36 outbuildings.
  • Burning Debris – Embers that have escaped from burning debris can also be a common cause of wildfires. The risks are especially high on windy days, as escaped embers can carry for miles before extinguishing. In many places, burning dead vegetation is illegal. However, some areas allow it during certain times of the year. Special precautions should be considered when burning debris to help reduce the chances of causing a wildfire.
  • Electrical Power – Fallen power lines are one of the leading causes of wildfires. This has been found to be the case in many countries around the world. Australia and America have both reported power lines being responsible for their wildfires. In California, the utility company Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) faced lawsuits for its liability in igniting a series of wildfires in 2017 and 2018. PG&E paid an $11 billion settlement in 2020 to cover all insurance subrogation claims from these fires.
     
    Measures such as power shut-offs have been implemented to tackle the risk of wildfires. This can help save lives and prevent property and environmental damages during the dry and windy seasons. This does come as an inconvenience to those relying on the electricity supply to power their homes and businesses, which is why solar power could be a great solution.

The three ‘usual suspects’ listed above are by no means the only causes of wildfires. Other common triggers can include discarded cigarettes, equipment malfunctions, vehicle crashes, engine sparks, and even arson. On the natural side of things, lightning has also been identified as causing wildfires.

How Do Power Lines Cause Wildfires?

Electrical power running through a circuit causes the lines to heat up, and when they are heated up, the circuit expands proportionally to the temperature.

As interesting as all the different causes of wildfires are, we are going to focus on power lines and how solar energy could help prevent future wildfires. Power lines can ignite wildfires through a variety of different means. Electrical power running through a circuit causes the lines to heat up, and when they are heated up, the circuit expands proportionally to the temperature. This directly affects how close to the ground the circuit hangs (known as the “sag”). When there is too much sag, it can bring the circuit close to other objects (such as trees and shrubs) and even result in sparks that can potentially start a wildfire.

Temperature changes are not the only cause of circuit sag. It can also be affected by how the circuit has been maintained, the materials used during construction, and certain weather factors. Unlike power flow which can be managed, factors such as weather conditions are out of the utility company’s control. The traditional approach to managing the risk of wildfires from sag is to switch off particular parts of the circuit entirely. Not only does this result in some homes being left without any power, but it can also cause other circuits to become overloaded and sag excessively, which would cause even more problems.

The introduction of solar power and battery systems can help reduce power flow and pick up some of the additional load around the network. It can also assist in keeping the electrical circuits within their power limits. Increased solar power practice would also ensure that there is spare energy capacity on stand-by during events when the main grid is disconnected. Currently, the number of DERs, such as solar power systems, is at a level where their impact on power flow across a whole network is limited. However, the increasing uptake of sustainable power production is opening up the opportunity for DERs to actively support utilities and enable them to address future fire risks.

How Can Solar Power Systems Reduce Wildfires?

When a community adopts solar power systems whilst being supported by an electricity line, both power usage and circuit wire temperatures can be reduced.

High power flows can be safe for a limited period before they reach risky temperatures. The acceptable time window allows for repairs to be made and necessary network changes to be carried out. When a community adopts solar power systems whilst being supported by an electricity line, both power usage and circuit wire temperatures can be reduced. This ultimately results in more time for issues to be resolved and energy supplies maintained, potentially preventing a wildfire from starting.

It does not take many solar power systems to have an impact. For example, a community of 500 homes, each using around five kilowatts of power, would only require around 5 to 10 homes to have rooftop solar panels and batteries. This is all that is needed to assist in maintaining the power transported through the electricity line (depending on the circuit).

Suppose this community requires more energy and the electricity line supporting it reaches 100% capacity. In that case, the community may only need 50 to 100 homes with rooftop solar panels and storage systems to return to safe conditions. Obviously, DERs become more valuable as the number of systems increase, but the minimum threshold can still be helpful. So, how useful is this time to the engineers who are tasked with fixing potential problems that could lead to a wildfire? Generally, it depends on how the electricity system has been designed and built in the area – not to mention the needs of the local community.

The Impact Of Solar Panels and Battery Solutions

Home powered by solar power panels and connected to the power line.

Solar energy helps minimise the requirement for fossil fuel power generators during wildfire emergencies”

Home solar panels and battery technology can help keep the power flow at a safe limit on the distribution lines – particularly if they are needed to carry additional power due to issues elsewhere on the circuit. These initiatives could also support communities in maintaining electricity when they would typically be left powerless due to one or multiple issues with the electric lines.

Here are a few of the examples of the positive impacts solar power systems can have:

  • Giving the engineers more time – Implementing local solar and battery systems can reduce the overall pressure on a community’s energy infrastructure by reducing the quantity of electricity being taken from the centralised grid. This could help keep the central systems operating within safer tolerances for extended periods, giving grid operators and line engineers more time to respond to problems. The engineers need time to drive out to a site for repairs or execute other measures to stop a wildfire from starting.
  • Preventing power outages – During one of the most recent wildfire seasons in California, PG&E encountered a challenging decision about whether it was appropriate to cut electricity to entire communities. This was a way to ensure safety during at-risk times, like red flag warnings. As mentioned earlier, PG&E took the exceptional step of de-energising power lines in at-risk areas across Northern California. Unfortunately, the 2018 Camp Fire may have been caused by a line that PG&E decided not to de-energise.

    Proactively cutting off power from transmission lines is one of the safety strategies used by utility companies, but it is considered a last resort due to the severe service disruptions it causes for communities that depend on electric lines. Developing and improving the range of safety and resiliency solutions available to utilities in the prevention of wildfires should be a priority. DERs like rooftop solar panels and battery systems may offer a solution that is readily available for communities to use as a tool to avoid power outages.

  • Efficient Grid Investments – When utilities grow or need upgrading for new infrastructure, solar DERs provide a flexible approach that allows grid planners to make replacements along the circuit. This flexibility allows for testing to take place to ensure that predictions are accurate, which could prevent wildfires.

    The increased use of solar DERs can also make it easier to use simpler and cheaper electric lines, such as lower capacity distribution lines. For example, if a utility company predicts it needs to replace some wires along a route to meet forecasted loads, relying on DERs for a year or two will allow grid planners more time to assess the best plan. They will be able to investigate whether there is a need to invest in a new high capacity line (a high-cost venture). They will also be able to explore whether a lower capacity line will suffice, or if the existing line is suitable. The flexibility and reduced upfront costs afforded by solar DERs could save money for both the utility company and the consumer.

  • Reduction In Global Warming – Solar energy helps minimise the requirement for fossil fuel power generators during wildfire emergencies. The burning of fossil fuels is the most notable cause of global warming. This warming makes the fire seasons last longer due to it drying and heating the forests. Sequentially, the wildfires scorching the Earth have a feedback effect, emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that will persist in warming the planet for many years. If solar power systems are used instead of fossil fuels, it can dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Closing Thoughts

Solar panel and battery solutions can provide an improved and more resilient energy solution for high-risk fire areas serviced by electric lines. More crucially, they can help decrease or even prevent power outages that affect homes, businesses, and other critical facilities.

Utility companies need to find better solutions for areas that are at risk of wildfires. A good start would be to adopt a sustainable business model and work in partnership with solar power leaders looking to protect fire-prone communities. The policymakers, regulators, utility companies, and broader solar power industry will need to work together to swiftly bring more solar technologies and batteries to the communities that need them when it matters most of all.

FAQs

How do wildfires start?

Sadly, most wildfires are sparked by human activity. If a spark occurs in the presence of oxygen and fuel, such as dry grass or trees, a fire can start very quickly. The weather conditions can also have a significant impact on how destructive the wildfire is. For example, droughts, winds and intense heat can make a fire spread rapidly – making it more dangerous.
 
When it comes to wildfires that are caused naturally, lightning often has a role to play. Strong winds from thunderstorms often accompany lightning, and these winds can quickly turn gentle smouldering organic material into a raging fire. A very small percentage of wildfires can be initiated by the spontaneous combustion of dry fuel such as sawdust and leaves.

 

Where do wildfires occur?

Wildfires can occur virtually anywhere in the world, but they are most frequent in forested regions such as Canada and America. They are also common in densely vegetated areas with high temperatures, such as Australia and the Western Cape of South Africa.
 
The climates in high fire-risk areas tend to be sufficiently moist to encourage tree growth but then feature extended dry and hot periods. Wildfires are especially prevalent in the summer and autumn seasons. They can also occur during droughts when fallen branches, leaves, and other material can dry out and catch fire.

 

How dangerous are wildfires?

Wildfires can be a direct threat to life, and the smoke caused by wildfires can have an effect on us all. The fumes spread air pollution not only in nearby areas but also thousands of miles away, which can lead to breathing difficulties. This can affect even the most healthy of individuals, let alone young children, older adults, and people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, COPD, and other lung diseases.
 
Worldwide, it is estimated that wildfire smoke kills 339,000 people each year. These deaths mainly occur in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. When wildfire smoke blankets a residential area, the number of asthma attacks, hospital admissions, and emergency room visits increase tenfold

 

What are the effects of wildfires?

Wildfires can have a massive impact on both the environment and human lives. They can have immediate and long term effects on the quality of rivers, lakes, and streams. Depending on the climate and time of year a wildfire occurs, plant life can be drastically impacted. This can destroy the food sources and homes that wild animals rely on, threatening their survival.
 
Along with air quality being impacted (causing a threat to human health), homes and buildings that lie in the path of a wildfire are often destroyed. Some of the older buildings can then expose hazardous materials that threaten human health for first responders and during the cleanup process.

 

Are there any benefits to wildfires?

Although wildfires can be incredibly destructive, they can also leave behind some unexpected benefits. Some plants require regular burns to disperse seeds and survive. Wildfires can also kill diseases and insects that may affect plant health, remove excess debris from the forest floor, and let in more nutrients that come from direct sunlight exposure. Low-intensity wildfires can also clear underbrush and prevent the damage of future fires from spreading.
 
After a wildfire, new grasslands are formed, which grazing animals will eventually benefit from. This surge in the natural order of species allows a change in ecology that promotes growth. Vegetation, such as fireweed, needs the fire disturbance to bloom, and it facilitates the regrowth of plants that have died due to the fire.