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How to end PG&E-induced forest fires

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Message Lew Weingarth

After hearing all the speculation about and finger pointing directed at PG&E, I need to comment. Most people don't know much about power, but it's been a major focus of mine for years.

Since nobody likes wordy diatribes, let me present facts in bullet form.

 There are calls to make PG&E public owned

 At one time, almost all electric utilities were public owned. Why did they change?

 Many reasons, the one I supported was if we privatized electricity, it would spell the end of nuclear power, with was being pushed by regulated utilities with vague promises "we can deal with the waste products, somehow, some day".

 It's ridiculous to treat radioactive waste that has a lifetime MANY TIMES RECORDED HISTORY like used Kleenex. I'm not necessarily opposed to nuclear power, but figuring out how to make the wastes PERMANENTLY safe, and THOROUGH testing of the process, should be required BEFORE any discussion of building it.

 Regulated utilities make profits, but are regulated, so profit takes the form of adding some percentage on top of operating cost.

 Nuclear power was irresistible to regulated utilities because in some cases it allowed them to TRIPLE the cost of electricity, and their profits.

 Privatization changes the incentives. Rather than have to increase cost to increase profits, the incentive becomes efficiency. Unfortunately, bean counters like most CEOs think this means DECREASING cost. As any maintenance person knows, maintenance doesn't cost money; it saves money. Do you change oil in your car to get rid of excess cash? Apparently, CEOs do, but that's another discussion.

 Line maintenance is a cost a regulated utility can simply pass along to customers, but they can also add a profit on top, so the incentive is good maintenance.

 Private utilities can deduct maintenance, but at best that's 25% off the top, and very few utilities pay taxes anyway, so it's not worth anything. To CEOs who don't know maintenance INCREASES profits, it's a cost to eliminate. Remember, cost-cutting often sends 50% to the CEO bonus THAT YEAR.

 Today, I read an article by a spokesperson for private utilities. He said they are shedding nuclear and coal as fast as they can and switching 100% to renewables, not to be clean, not to be green; to INCREASE PROFITS.

 What is the REAL problem with PG&E? Simple, a power line fails and starts a forest fire. Remember, the results are not the cause. Now that we know the problem, let's look at solutions.

 PG&E apparently has ignored maintenance for years, and is now blacking out areas to cut limbs away from lines. That's fine, and needed, but stone age and reduces, but doesn't solve, the real problem - fires starting when a line fails.

 Today, we have protective relays that can monitor the electrical waveform on lines IN USE, detect when a tree branch nears, and shut down before contact. The idea is remove power before enough power flows into something that can burn to ignite it. This isn't fantasy; protective relays can monitor all waveforms a million times a second. Forget waiting for an overload to heat up some breaker; we can open the breaker as the wind blows the power line close enough that the tree limb just starts to distort the waveform, and have it completely dead by the time they touch. In most cases, we can detect and open the breaker in 1/5th of a second.

 Today, we have high-speed contactors that can open and isolate power on the line BEFORE ENOUGH ENERGY FLOWS TO START A FIRE. OK, a line falling in a refinery can spark, but that's why refineries don't have overhead lines.

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Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering with MBA training in international business. 35 years working all over the world. Expert in power plants, energy, oil. I have been to about 150 countries total, spent at least a week in about 110, (more...)

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