Solar energy may have caused California’s wildfires

From The Washington Examiner

by Kevin Mooney | March 04, 2019 12:59 PM

Screenshot 2019-03-08 22.05.04

Taxpayer-subsidized, ratepayer-funded utilities that may be on the hook for billions of dollars in liabilities point to climate change as the major factor standing behind the recent California wildfires. PG&E CEO Geisha Williams has argued that dry, arid conditions associated with global warming were to blame for wildfires that devastated parts of northern California in 2018. Edison International CEO Pedro Pizarro has said much of the same with regard to the wildfires of 2017 that ignited in the southern part of the state.

But what if the blame belongs not with climate change, but with climate change policies that the utilities and their benefactors in government favor? There’s some evidence for this that insurance companies and displaced California residents might be interested in learning more about. As taxpayers and utility ratepayers, they are all spending part of their workday financing solar energy schemes that may have led to high-pressure conditions affecting electrical equipment, which in turn sparked the fires. How’s that?

Let’s look at just one example going back to December 2017, when wildfires devastated portions of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. At the time, what became known as the Thomas Fire was the largest wildfire in California’s history. The fire erupted on Dec. 4, 2017, in the Santa Paula Canyon area just south of Thomas Aquinas College a little before 6:30 p.m., according to reports from the Ventura County Fire Department.

The latest figures show the Thomas Fire burned more than 280,000 acres before it was finally contained on Jan. 12, 2018. The fire destroyed more than 1,000 structures including hundreds of homes.

But there was also a second, related fire that broke out in Ojai, a small city in Ventura County, located a little northwest of Los Angles. This one hasn’t received as much attention in the national press, but it could be the key to unraveling what’s really going down with California’s misguided, big government policies. That fire broke out about an hour later after a transformer reportedly exploded in a residential area on Koenigstein Road. There are local witnesses who say they saw the flash of the explosion on the pole with the transformer, and others who say they heard the explosion.

Homeowners who have filed lawsuits against Southern California Edison in connection with the Thomas Fire argue that the utility, which is a subsidiary of Edison International, was negligent in terms of how it maintained the power lines. One of the lawsuits filed on behalf of an Ojai couple specifically addresses the explosion of the Edison transformer on Koenigstein Road, which was mounted on a pole. The couple lost their home in the fire.

Let’s take a hard look at the facts.

The transformer exploded around 7 p.m. at the end of a sunny day. Around that time, because of the solar energy mandates implemented under former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, California’s power grid must ramp up in the evening with conventional energy when the sun goes down. This cannot be done incrementally and gradually. Instead, California’s power grid experiences what is known as a “duck curve” as solar energy drops off and conventional energy ramps up.

So, the key questions are: “Did solar power cause the Thomas Wildfire?” Did it cause other wildfires?

There’s no denying the pressure that was put on the Edison transformer, and for that matter other transformers throughout the state. Certainly, correlation is not necessarily causation. But utilities and fire departments must have information and data associated with damaged transformers and other electrical equipment that could be insightful. The Thomas Wildfire is a good starting point for an investigation, but it is just one part of a larger story.

Keep in mind that Southern California Edison is also the subject of litigation filed in response to wildfires that broke out in 2018. So far, 170 homeowners and business owners who suffered damage in connection with the Woolsey Fire that broke out in November 2018 have filed suit in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties claiming the utility’s electrical equipment was responsible for the fire. Meanwhile, PG&E has announced that it will file for bankruptcy since it is now drowning under “at least $7 billion in claims from the Camp Fire,” according to news reports. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has also blamed PG&E for some of the 2017 wildfires.

Without intervention from lawmakers and regulators, PG&E appears to be doomed. The Camp Fire is now on record as the deadliest fire in state history in terms of fatalities and destruction to infrastructure. Williams, the CEO, has announced that she is stepping down.

Read the Full Story Here.

Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is an investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. who writes for several national publications.

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80 thoughts on “Solar energy may have caused California’s wildfires

  1. Apparently electrifying litigation in the making, roasting California’s koffers…

  2. Pressure on transformers? What sort of “pressure” does the duck curve impose on transformers?

    • Exactly my questions. This hand-waving accusation does not even explain what it is which is allegedly “correlated”. There may be a technical issue but then why not state clearly what the problem is or find a expert to knows about grid transmission and get him to explain it.

      WTF is a “duck curve” anyway. Try reporting something meaningful.

      • “In utility-scale electricity generation, the duck curve is a graph of power production over the course of a day that shows the timing imbalance between peak demand and renewable energy production. In many energy markets the peak demand occurs after sunset, when solar power is no longer available.”

      • ‘…WTF is a “duck curve” anyway. Try reporting something meaningful…’

        How much do you need to be spoon-fed?

    • As the Solar Power drops off, the Voltage will drop as well; so to meet the Power demand the Amperage drawn will have to increase. As the Amps increase the Transformer, Switches, Breakers and Power Lines all have to worker harder.
      The additional work means more heat produced in the Transformer and Power Lines.
      The question I have i:
      Who should pay for the Higher Capacity Transformers and Power Lines?
      1. All Rate Payers or Tax Payers?
      2. Those folks adding Solar Power?
      I vote for 2.

      • Gordon, I am not taking away anything you said, but managing a system during changes is much more horrible than the ordinary consumer can imagine. Please my note below.

        • Thanks Crispin. I agree that the Public is being sold on Renewable Power Generation without the slightest explanation of all the problems it will cause.
          Another potential sources for more fires will be in the consumers homes and businesses. The higher amps required as the Voltage and Power Factor changes will result in more Heat& Stress in Appliances and Wiring. In a few cases there will be more fires but in a lot of cases there will be a lot more Appliance Failures.
          Hopefully some folks in Government will start speaking up.

          • Germany faces such big problems they now have to intervene manually more than 400 times per year compared with once or twice previously.

            Then the power factor is low and your AC motor is already hot and breathing hard, it will pop off. There is in most modern motor windings a temperature fuse that pops when the coil gets too hot – long before it burns out. Naturally no one knows they are there, from air con units to hair dryers. When the motor stops they buy another one. They do not realise the thing can be replaced like a fuse – and it is a fuse.

            So there is a hidden cost in this power management problem which is “burned out equipment” in homes and businesses.

            There is something called a “Fangle” which means a “phase angle detector”. They are used to control electric submersible borehole pumps. When the pump is running, and moving a lot of water, the phase angle is “off” meaning the current and voltage are separated by an angle – caused by the inductive reactance of the motor. When the tank fills a float valve akin to a toilet tank float valve closes the pipe and the flow stops. Now it is doing much less work accelerating water so the pump draws much less power to maintain the pressure, and the phase angle moves closer to “perfect” (closer to what it would be if the load was resistive). The Fangle picks up this low angle and turns off the power. The controller is not a flow detector, nor a tank water depth detector – it is entirely electrical so it is placed at the top of the borehole. A chip with DIP switches automatically starts the pump again after some time, perhaps once an hr or once a day.

            This demonstrates that the phase angle can be detected easily. If you are having consistent problems with “blown motors” and people blame “surges” and “lightning” and the power company shows charts that indicate there is no such problem, check the phase angle over time and log it. It may be this “other cause” people don’t think of. (Well, factory managers do because they are penalized for messing up the supply).

          • Gordon,
            Government is the problem, as usual, not the solution. 20 years ago ethanol was so wonderful the government mandated it’s use. Now that it’s proven to be worse than nothing it’s opposed by the same eco’s that insisted on the mandates. Ending stupid government programs is much more difficult than starting them. Wind and solar will likewise be recognized as worse than worthless in a few more years but it will take decades to get rid of it. Sad.

      • United Nations
        Press Release, 2 October 2018
        SG/SM/19272-ENV/DEV/1891

        “Sun’s Energy at Centre of Revolution in Renewables, Secretary-General Tells International Solar Alliance’s First General Assembly”

        Secretary-General’s ” remarks”.
        https:www.un.org/press/en/2018/sgsm19272.doc.htm

        Also available online by title.

        And,

        UN Environment
        Climate Initiatives Platform

        “International Solar Alliance”

        Starting year 2015
        Global organization

        Spread sheet: Information and Nation States participants.
        http://climateinitiativesplatform.org/index.php/International_Solar_Alliance

        The participants are Governments.

    • Pressure in the form of a very high current load. To explode the power load of the transformer exceeded the rated load by at least double the recommended load. Then the transformer (oil filled) heats up, On a hot day the air cooling is not much good and it gets even hotter> then like a can of soup thrown in a fire it explodes. With no oil around the windings it gets even hotter and begins melting, all in a matter of seconde and the blue sparks you see are the windings melting and the arcs from the high voltage jumping across the gaps of melted windings,

    • Most oil filled can transformers mounted on poles are not inspected and tested for metals in oil or water contamination in oil.

      If enough moisture gets in via condensation or a bad bushing seal, the h2o will cause winding breakdown (corona) and then form Hydrogen gas and explode.

      I’m one on very few techs that tested live cans on poles for a utility in Ohio and Maine without having to have outages. You need to remove the ring holding the top of the can/bushing then pry it up enough to insert a 1/4 od Tygon tube and siphon out a sample from the bottom.

      I also tested (includes Dobles and TTR tests) of all other small to 345kV transformers.

      Intermittent and unreliable renewables exacerbate the problems. Especially burning wind turbines.

    • It’s clear from the report. With peak power just near or after sundown, conventional power has to ramp up quickly with the cut-off of solar power. This loads transformers in a surge. Ever blown a fuse when you overload a circuit? A transformer is something else! I once saw a transformer on a pole blow up in a thunder storm. Pretty dramatic.

    • For people that are not electrical engineers, the easiest way to describe it is this: All electrical equipment is designed to operate optimally at a particular voltage (and frequency for A/C). When the voltage is not at that optimum value, the equipment heats up. The engineers that design this equipment know this, and they also know that the grid is not always at the exact optimum voltage, so they build in tolerance (usually by using components that have slightly greater capacity than necessary) using industry supplied numbers of the kind of variances they can expect from the grid. If the grid begins having greater and/or more frequent voltage variances than before, existing equipment may be stressed beyond their design tolerances and fail.

      So, as we add more unreliable generation to the grid, it will become less stable (greater voltage and/or frequency variances) which will lead to more grid and customer equipment failures. This is not a theory, it is (actually) simple physics, which is easy to demonstrate with a very simple lab setup. I could do it in my home shop. While it may not be possible to attribute any one failure to this root cause, it is certain that some are. And as grid stability decreases, these failures will increase.

      • “When the voltage is not at that optimum value, the equipment heats up.”

        That is not true. For example, take a 40 watt incandescent light bulb, and feed it 120 VAC. It gets warm. Take the same 40 watt incandescent light bulb and feed it 12 VAC. It doesn’t get warm.

        • I don’t consider incandescent light bulbs or other simple resistive loads as “equipment”, but I will amend my statement to read “all A/C inductive equipment and most semiconductor devices”. My overall point is not changed by this minor correction, however, since inductive loads constitute the majority of the power draws on the grid.

  3. Transformers like that are local and just reduce the voltage for a small group of houses. The wind likely shorted some wires, or possibly the transformer was undersized.

    • From what I’ve read it seems that these lower voltage transformers regularly tripped off. That meant they were safe from any further problems with supply voltage, that could have been caused by trees hitting lines, voltage variations etc, but that meant sending someone out to switch it back on which is obiously time consuming and consequently expensive, particularly when dealing with the more out of the way transformers. As there was normally not a classic fault that required work someone seems to have decided that it would be better for consumers (and the company?) if certain transformers didn’t trip out in certain situations. It saved AC and fridges from not working and the cost of the reset.

      Problem with that is that if a transformer developes a real problem then that meant the transfomer went sparky sparky. In hot dry windy weather it’s not what you want.

    • Transformers like that are local and just reduce the voltage for a small group of houses.

      Those are the operating conditions the transformers would have been initially selected for. They would have been sized to keep the transformer temperature rise below some threshold based on a worse case demand curve. Now add solar panels to the “small group of houses” generating excess power peaking at noon. The transformers would now be stepping up the voltage as the direction of the power flow is reversed thus causing a increase in the transformer temperature that would not have happened without the solar panels. When the early evening peak demand happens the transformer continues to gain heat until it crosses the temperature failure threshold and explodes.

      • Greg,

        My understanding is the transformers can operate at their current limits no matter which way the current is flowing, after all, it goes backwards and forwards 60 times a second. I do not see that current flowing from solar panels would then overheat the transformers unless there is more being supplied back to the grid than the normal forward supply. If that is the case, it is not stated.

        • oeman50

          The problem is regulation of the voltage by altering the current while maintaining phase stability (cosine or “power factor” factor of almost 1). There is much more going on than current and current direction on a AC grid. An overview is here:

          https://electrical-engineering-portal.com/how-reactive-power-is-helpful-to-maintain-a-system-healthy

          Note in that source reference to a value “pu” and the numbers 1.05 and 0.95. A point on a system near a failure may see a pu value of 0.6 which is way, way out of line. The grid controls try to respond…things happen…bang.

          When the power factor drops, everything inductive heats up: motors, transformers and so on. Typically the power company charges factories a penalty for having to “clean up” their power factor, plus every motor inside the factory runs less efficiently. So the factory loses twice. In every grid there is some requirement to get the voltage and current relationship aligned, plus do that for three phases relative to each other.

          When there are a large number of motors running in homes (air con motors are inductive loads) instead of cooking stoves (resistive loads) power factor correction is an issue, and homes are not taxed to do this themselves.

          It would be interesting to see the log of the power factor and pu values at the monitoring point nearest the transformer that failed. FOIA them and show an electrical engineer.

          • and homes are not taxed to do this themselves…

            More than likely there is some sort of demand charge to help offset equipment costs. This will be a modest charge for a residence, but industrial or agricultural users can potentially pay a lot in this manner.

        • My understanding is the transformers can operate at their current limits no matter which way the current is flowing …

          Correct, but that wasn’t the point. What they cannot do is operate at their current limits indefinitely. They are sized based on the fact that there are times over the course of the day when demand is much lower allowing time for the transformers to cool down. IOW, the peak capacity of the transformer does not equal the steady state capacity of the transformer.

          I do not see that current flowing from solar panels would then overheat the transformers unless there is more being supplied back to the grid than the normal forward supply.

          That is exactly my point. What would normally be a low usage time of day for residential usage from the transformers perspective, has now become very high usage due to the solar panels. This is followed by the residential peak in the early evening and thus the “duck curve”.

          • Thanks, Greg. I learned from our electrical guys that GSU transformers on nuclear units age faster than other power transformers because they are at full design load almost all the time because they are based loaded. Sounds like a similar factor here.

      • That why cooling radiator fins are on some can transformers. Part of the inspection was to note the side of the fins and how many there were.

  4. The issue of how the fire started, and the severity of the fire are two separate issues, yet very often they get conflated, further confusing things. In the case of PG&E attempting to blame the fire on “climate change”, I strongly suspect disingenuity on their part, since even if you believe in “cimate change”, it makes no sense whatsoever that it is what caused the fire to start.

    • In order to blame climate change, wouldn’t PG & E need to show that the climate had changed? Wouldn’t they have to prove the weather that day was unlike any past weather in the region’s history? Or that the weather in recent years was unprecedented. Even if they could do that (which I doubt), they would have to show that the difference was large enough to swamp their previous standards for safe operation.

      I would love to see that play out in a court of law.

      • They are not blaming climate change, they are blaming climate change legislation. That legislation does exist and is real and can be found at the state house. The climate change itself has nothing to do with it, other than the belief in climate change by elected officials led to the legislation.

  5. PG&E should just fold up and let their entire service area go dark. Let the property owners then decide the best way to move forward…or rather backward.

  6. As an elected politcian I wasn’t surprised to find that my council had no snow shifting equipment “snow will be a thing of the past” – we didn’t need it, so why spend money storing it? We’d been told by experts and they know what they’re talking about. My political training meant I knew that I had a duty to question experts, but not to challenge them.

    Then we got hit by snow, lots of snow. Ringing round it was clear every other muncipal body had done the same “we sold ours off because we were told we didn’t need it”. Even the schools had sold theirs off. I decided at that point that I’d be more cynical about climate predictions while spedning public money buying new snow shifting equipment at inflated prices.

    Whenever I see a clear statement about climate change and its effects I now look at the background. That made me look at the research on the wildfires in Ca. I can’t find the paper, but there was an excellent one by meterologists about two years ago. (I like meterologists – they like science and aren’t interested in politics). In essence; there’s IS an alteration on the climate in that part of California. All that agriculture uses water and not all of it ends up, or stays in the ground. That causes an increase in humidity over quite an area and that encourages brush and other growth to a greater extent than would otherwise occur. That extra growth dries out when the dry season hits and there’s a greater volume of firewood looking for an obliging spark than there would be if there wasn’t the agriculture. So, there is more man-made bushfire fuel and it’s down to agriculture.

    All the main reports say there are fewer widlfires – https://www.ocregister.com/2017/09/14/you-may-not-believe-it-but-the-number-of-california-wildfires-has-been-going-down/ There are more technical versions of this report available but this is easier to read.

    One other interesting thing those meteorologists did say in that report, was that in terms of claims of “increasing temperatures” that the increased volume of snow fall in the mountains meant that those claims of climate change temp rises were “not compatible” with what had been recorded and observed. “Not compatible” is the meteorologist’s equivalent of “baloney”.

    • We hardly need proof that human populations and activities affect the climate locally. It is obvious if observed for a reasonable length of time.
      The cumulative effect may be felt globally to a tiny degree.
      Why is the invisible effects of CO2 even considered when there are so many more obvious and visible reasons for climatic variation.

      • Rick, “Why is the invisible effect of CO2 even considered…” Well, that’s because it’s a lot easier to sue a few oil companies for billions, than the millions of individuals whose cars, furnaces and business activities emit CO2. They can just be taxed, and a lot, if you can convince them it is a “sin” tax.

    • This just boggles my mind… possibly the most accurate statement I have ever read WRT the science behind “Manmade Climate Change(TM)” and it came from a politician!?!?!? WUWT???

    • Rick, “Why is the invisible effect of CO2 even considered…” Well, that’s because it’s a lot easier to sue a few oil companies for billions, than the millions of individuals whose cars, furnaces and business activities emit CO2. They can just be taxed, and a lot, if you can convince them it is a “sin” tax.

    • Most countries that are 3rd world, are that way because of incompetence and corruption on the part of government.

      • The government of the USA is incompetent and corrupt, how come the USA is not 3rd world?

        • Because incompetence and corruption are not binary values, but are a spectrum. No governing system is perfectly competent and incorruptible since people are flawed. So one would expect even the most successful countries to exhibit some incompetence and corruption in their governments. However failed countries, in comparison, are rife with it. As usual, the dose makes the poison. While these countries doubtless have other problems, massive incompetence and corruption, especially corruption, is the primary root cause of their failure.

  7. There is another issue with “all this solar stuff” relating to the quality of the power being produced by local solar grid-tied installations. Not only is the voltage and current output onto the local grid variable but so is the frequency content of the power being pumped back onto the local AC power grid, especially since, “The transformer exploded around 7 p.m. at the end of a sunny day.”, so the transformer was subject to passing AC power from local solar back onto the higher voltage AC power grid. Transformers don’t just heat up suddenly, so the transformer heating, and resulting explosion, could have been due to handling all that local solar power and whatever voltage, current or harmonic components were being produced. Note that local solar’s power quality is subject to very little control or regulation, electrically or otherwise. Also note that poor quality power, especially high frequency harmonics, ALWAYS results in additional internal transformer heating.

    • Having benefited from everyone’s generous contribution of tax money to a solar installation(thank you, I would have done it any way)- an observation. The installation includes a sophisticated inverter that feeds power back to the grid. Part of the sophistication is a highly sensitive phase sensor that takes its lead from the phase factor on the powerlines. From the documentation it spends a significant fraction of the power from the panels to help maintain near perfect balance with the grid. The power company has the ability to signal the inverter to shut down if the phase is not maintained within +/- .5%.

      Every solar system is supposed to do that, but I strongly suspect that that the newer cheaper equipment is not as effective. The inverter we have cost >$7,000(20% of the installation), and was made in the US from almost all US components. It’s been running every day for 15 years.

    • Fire started at 7:30 p.m. on December 24th 3 hours AFTER the sun set. An a solar system will quit producing 45 minutes to an hour before sundown. Articles like this do our side no favors. We need to call BULLSHIT on junk science and wacky reasoning like this no matter its source.

  8. Its Worse Than We Thought.
    News Flash!
    Climate Change causes transformers to explode.
    “Will your car be next?
    “Microwave Ovens, The Next Big Threat?
    “Duck Curves cause Unprecedented Pressure Increase. Are Your Children Safe?”

    Climate Change causes stupid people to write moronic articles in Washington DC newspapers.

    An article with nothing but nasty innuendo.

    • Poor reading comprehension on your part, or maybe just intentional misinformation, I’m not sure. But the article makes it clear that it’s the unreliable “renewable” power sources that create additional grid instability that are the cause of the equipment failures, and the drive to prevent global warming is the reason the unreliable power sources are being forced onto the grid. So it’s the *response* to CAGW that is causing transformers to explode and all other electrical equipment connected to the grid to prematurely age.

      It’s not the article that was nothing but nasty innuendo, it was your reply.

  9. We hardly need proof that human populations and activities affect the climate locally. It is obvious if observed for a reasonable length of time.
    The cumulative effect may be felt globally to a tiny degree.
    Why is the invisible effects of CO2 even considered when there are so many more obvious and visible reasons for climatic variation.

  10. Many people remember the spate of Law Firm ads with the Lawyerly Person standing in front of a Utility Pole saying…
    This is the spot where the Tubbs Fire started due to PG&Es faulty equipment and poor maintenance. If you or a loved one experienced a loss …..
    Well, that ad has vanished.
    Why???
    The Fire inspectors have determined that the source was Private Wires on Private Property near Tubbs Ln and Why 29 at a home with….
    Solar PV Secondary Generation

    • A internet search for that part of the story finds many articles that point to a “Private electrical system” – NONE mention Solar Panels. What source do you find that states that? Thanks.

  11. I happens that this week I reviewed a conference paper on grid stability and how it can be improved using the careful placement of static synchronous series compensator (SSSC) in a simulation of a multi-bus and multi-source grid. The impact of a three-phase fault (disconnection) was determined, comparing the presence or absence of an SSSC placed optimally.

    The placement of, for example, battery storage, an inverter and phase stabilization unit greatly improves the likelihood that the voltage can be maintained and the negative impacts on equipment of a mis-timed movement of a voltage regulator core (the moving core type in common use for decades) mitigated as the system tries to adapt to a new load condition. That new condition is typically caused by a disconnection of a load (fuse blows or very large motor is turned off) or equipment failure (transformer pops).

    The idea is to control the voltage and current in the whole system to prevent exactly what cause the South Australia blackout: sudden drops in local voltage and consequent over-demand on interlinks.

    When there is no disconnection (blackout) there is momentary brownout or down-spike conditions, frequently all three. The system simulated included 14 generators, 14 transformers, 51 transmission lines and 20 load buses.

    Such SSSC devices require communication links to grid points so it can make optimal management decisions within portions of a cycle. Poor decisions or absent any modern management system at all (check out Germany’s which has a human finger on the button all the time) means there are inevitable and negative consequences for individual system components.

    The explosion of a single transformer on a pole can happen when the local load was low, the system voltage dropped and the local load suddenly increased. A sudden increase can happen most easily when another transformer disconnects or if there is a sudden reversal of flow direction through an interlink. It is perhaps best to consider this latter case when solar input drops rapidly at the very lime local consumption rises. Flow reverses all over the grid.

    Voltage stabilizers on the grid have to rapidly switch from a step down to a step up condition, while suddenly the power is coming “from the other direction”. Homes that were sources become consumers in a highly complex pattern across the grid. The voltage settling time can take 10-12 seconds for each disturbance. Multiple ripples shooting through a system with multiple regulators each trying to sense and correct the local line voltage requires the production and absorption of reactive power. It is logical, as often read here, that spinning reserve has to be available to cover sudden drops in supply. It must also cover reactive power demand.

    Consider how many sources of power there are with and without rooftop solar. As the sun goes down they are shaded and over-clouded in a system-wide predictable manner, but not in a fine scale. Shunting power around on a collapsing system (in terms of power generation points) becomes taxing. In the morning when the reverse applies, think of it as 10,000 lights going off randomly and suddenly being converted into little battery chargers, and your task is to disconnect or ramp down a dozen sources placed hither and yon across the grid. Now, maintain the correct voltage at each of 10,000 points.

    Do this with each light bulb changing from a resistive demand to an inductive load. Oh wait, a random distribution of them making a random change from one to the other. Good luck.

    When the reactive power demand is high, voltage is raised to push additional current through the inductance of the lines themselves. If the demand suddenly drops, voltage can spike on one or more transformers causing a lot of local heating. Do this 500 times an hour and see what happens.

    The transformers most likely to blow up will be where voltage spikes have been common and the large scale regulation is further away from reactive power capacity and where phase correction capability is at its lowest. There is a general rule that “reactive power doesn’t travel far”. California is big.

    One reason for widespread blackouts is reactive power that went out of control. Blackouts are bad for business, so vendors allow things “to heat up a bit” here and there. Yeah, well, no, fine, there are inevitable consequences for bending the laws of physics.

    On a hot day the transformer may already be extra hot from channelling PV power to the grid in one direction. Then the changeover chaos begins. Then the regulators have their fun on autopilot (no human could do it) and the equipment takes a beating in an attempt to keep everything stable.

    Does anyone remember the Aug 10 1996 blackout on the West Coast? That was a voltage collapse. In some cases a blackout can be prevented by temporarily overloading transformers (heh heh). If it is already hot after a long days work, it goes too far. The system doesn’t sense the temperature of the oil in every little transformer, it senses voltages, phase and current.

    The August 14 2003 blackout in NE USA and Canada was not caused by a voltage collapse, but directly by inadequate reactive power and inadequate control over it.

    And add to all that, sometimes equipment just fails. If you are in charge of maintaining a secure supply and it all goes wrong, and it burns down half a State, you (and those that survive) can always declare bankruptcy and start again. Rinse, repeat.

  12. I’m not by any means an expert in grids or electricity. But as a computer programmer I know that more bugs tend to happen when the engineers are distracted or have multiple projects on the go. Could the forcing of renewables by government created more work for the engineers so they were not able to focus on basic things like fire prevention? It seems to me the first goal should be fire prevention. Once that is satisfactorily solves only the. Move on to other things.

    • The first goal of an electric utility is to provide reliable, stable power. Safety falls out of the reliability. A blown transformer or arcing transmission lines are evidence of unreliability.

      • Today, in California and too many states, the first goal of public utilities is to survive, which requires getting along with technically-ignorant, climate and eco-activist, social justice advocating politicians and pressure groups. They are forced by legislatures, corporation commissions, and voter initiatives to install or accommodate equipment that detracts from their ability to provide, safe, reliable, stable, low-cost power.

  13. Conditions were not unusually dry at the time of the Thomas or Camp fires. Historically, California has had recurring, extended severe droughts. The record of that history is well-known and easy to access. California has become neither hotter nor drier in this century.

  14. Utility companies shouldn’t be penalized when they are forced by political mandates to contend with “off spec” poor quality power from a dozen wind farms with a dozen turbines and thousands of solar panels all operating at different times and producing different quantities and qualities of electricity from different directions. With this junk power being dumped on the grid is it any surprise that a transformer overheats?
    Eventually it will become undeniable that worth-less-than-nothing wind and solar junk power is nothing but “grid poison” and should be “landfilled” (most of the material is non-recyclable). Combined cycle gas turbines now & small scale modular nuclear when it’s available (soon).

    Renewable power problems:
    Voltage regulation (magnitude and frequency)
    Voltage sags and swells
    Harmonics and inter harmonics
    Real and reactive power
    Sub synchronous resonance issues due to interaction of the electric network
    and the complex shaft/gear system of the wind turbine.

  15. Think of a four lane street. Every day it works great, but what about the times when there is a major event at an arena on that street? Now there are twice as many people traveling and half are going in one direction and half in the other. Traffic lights are no longer timed to expedite the traffic in the needed direction. DEADLOCK. Also need to keep in mind that the majority of California’s renewable energy comes from out of state. Then when the sun goes down, the wind quits blowing, etc, CA is using locally generated electricity. That means the flow of electricity is shifted from one direction to the opposite direction. Through in an unexpected loss of power and disaster hits. All of the major East coast outages started from a rather typical easily prevented a d protected event. Just happened at the wrong time.

  16. power factor
    ===========
    Most people have never heard of power factor. Basically power factor is a measure of wasted power that ends up heating the transmission equipment, rather than doing useful work in homes and factories. It is specific to AC circuits, when voltage and amperage are out of phase. As I recall, a power factor of 0 implies infinite volts and amps fully out of phase, yielding 0 watts of useful power.

    This is different than simple volts, amps and watts, because a poor power factor can result in very high volts and amps on the transmission side, while very few watts are actually being used by the homes and factories. So you could have fires in the transmission equipment without increased load in homes and factories, simply by introducing a bad power factor.

    It is an interesting idea, the possible effect of solar panels on power factor. Could this be the source of abnormal heating on the transmission equipment, due to power factor problems created by locally owned solar power equipment?

    As such, is the power company being held responsible for equipment it was forced to integrate into the grid by political decisions?

    • Ferd

      Seconded. See my note above. That transformers overheat at the end of a blistering hot day is not rocket science. I don’t suppose the public has access to the readings from the grid management system to see “how close they came” and how frequently.

      I think it is important to point out as others have above that the environmental conditions were not particularly extreme and that the fire consequences is unrelated to the incompetence of the grid operators – that is properly attributed to the forestry management people and the Green groups that hound them with their ignorance. The catastrophe was directly the result of the mismanagement of the environment resulting from the pressure applied by environmental groups who planned to “save the forests” and “save the earth”. They forget the earth needs neither people nor forests in the short or long term.

      • Crispin in Waterloo March 9, 2019 at 12:23 pm
        “Then the power factor is low and your AC motor is already hot and breathing hard, it will pop off. There is in most modern motor windings a temperature fuse that pops when the coil gets too hot – long before it burns out.”
        “In electrical distribution, a fuse cutout or cut-out fuse is a combination of a fuse and a switch, used in primary overhead feeder lines and taps to protect distribution transformers from current surges and overloads.”
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuse_cutout

  17. Worldwide, $Trillions have been invested (wasted) on worth-less-than-nothing wind and solar. An additional $trillion plus is forecast to be wasted in just the next four (4) years. Installed capacity is scheduled to double during these four short years. Source https://about.bnef.com/blog/world-reaches-1000gw-wind-solar-keeps-going.
    Adding to the problem: Most areas already have more interruptible installed capacity (wind& solar) than the grid can handle. Check out Germany to see where the world is headed: An overloaded grid with NIMBY’s resisting transmission lines while voting for politicians that want to add more wind & solar. Total insanity!

  18. A number of points, how long have the transformers on the local
    pole been there. ? Were they designed and installed at a time that there
    was far less of the renewable to contend with ?

    The USA decided in the interest of safety to have a low AC voltage system,
    117.5 as against most of the rest of the world who have the 240 volt AC.

    This means that the USA has a higher Amperage flowing through the
    system than the rest of the World, Volts up, amps down and vice versa.

    Could this be a part of the problem with all of this intermittent power sloshing
    around the Grid ?

    Finally in any Court case against the Utilities, could they claim that its the
    State who should be sued, as they with their Green legislation created the
    problem in the first place.

    MJE

    • Michael, No the 120 volt is only indoors and it is much safer. Power starts out from power plants at 350 thousand plus or minus a few hundred thousand volts depending on transmission service requirements. It’s distributed around cities at a few thousand volts before being dropped to <600 volts for most small manufacturing and 240 volts at the last transformer for residential. Most foreign companies run about the same voltages (but 50 instead of 60 cycle frequency…not a big deal).

    • To be precise, American transformers are 240 volts with a center tap. This provides the best of both worlds. For high current requirements, 240 volts is available. But both lines are only 120 volts above ground potential. Since American houses roughly split their load between the two lines, the actual current fron the transformer is similar to a 240 volt system.
      My personal thoughts on the 240 vs 120v systems are that the USA is historically resource rich while the rest of the world is relative to the USA, is resource poor. The USA can wire its houses with larger sizes of copper wire because it is not prohibitively expensive to do so. Similarly, utility transformers also use sufficient copper for their requirements.

  19. Thanks Dennis for the info. but what about the age and the design of the transformers ?

    And my query about could the utilities blame the politicians for the problem, would the Courts accept such a defence ?

    MJE

    • Transformers are extremely simple; Basically a bunch of wire wrapped around a hunk of iron dipped in oil. If moisture is kept out and they are not operated beyond there design capacity they last for decades.
      I have a 10:46 posting above saying, Utility companies shouldn’t be penalized when they are forced by political mandates to contend with “off spec” poor quality power ….etc). So yes, courts should be expected to “consider”such a defense. IMHO a liberal judge (say one appointed by Obama) would reject it and a conservative judge would consider it an important consideration….

  20. Good point Michael about 240 volt secondary vs. 120 volt secondary as per North American spec. and amps being lower on the higher voltage European secondary grid for the same watts. Sure can do a lot more at a greater distance with less wire. 120/240 sort of sucks after you have utilized 220/240 European/Asian voltage and wiring.

    The Primary Grid is operating at much higher voltages mostly on 3 phase, so that wouldn’t be an issue here except in this particular case, it sounds like a secondary 120/240 volt transformer caught fire at a residence that was also back feeding solar PV to the grid. And that can lit up some dead grass and shubs/trees and the rest is history. Any other spark would have done it that day too.

    Not knowing any details whatsoever limits us in our speculation, although if that transformer is constantly maxed out near its KVA rating with perhaps multiple solar PV inputs to the same transformer, then it is always running hot in the day time, having heated up in the Sun all day with max current for several hours by 2-3 Pm. Throw in some clouds turning up and down the current and some cheap Made In China inverters trying to follow all that for converting the DC current to AC current/voltage and not meeting spec or just downright faulty with weird harmonics and PF after many years of use, and that is likely to be as much at fault for causing the secondary transformer to explode and catch fire. So we could also just as easily blame the Chinese, if it was junk Made in China solar PV equipment that was connected to and back feeding that pole transformer. Sounds to me like it could be faulty equipment back feeding the rural grid…solar PV that overloaded a normal 25 or 50 Kva transformer to self-destruction. But we will need more facts of course.

  21. I’m no fan of renewables, but I think this is a stretch. Transformers don’t care much about variations in voltage. They will step up or down a large range of voltages. If the power grid was varying that much, other far more sensitive equipment would have had problems first. I believe it is more likely that an external factor caused the explosion. I’ve seen squirrels explode, quite impressive. Others have reported that the utility didn’t trim the nearby trees properly. That is also a possibility.

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