Head-on Policy Collision? Electrification and Public Safety Power Shutoff for Wildfires



The Hotshot Wakeup seems to be one of the few folks out there (not in the affected Colorado area) writing about a new trend called the Public Safety Power Shutoff Program.  I’m with him in not liking the trend,  but so far being agnostic about solutions. From his Substack post:

We saw this in action in Colorado not too long ago. This spring, Red Flag warnings were forecast for the area, and high winds were predicted for multiple days. Xcel Energy decided this would be the first time they would run the protocols for the Public Safety Power Shutoff Program. An important thing to remember, Xcel had just been sued for allegedly causing the 1M acre Smokehouse Creek Fire in Texas from a downed rotten power pole. They were not about to be blamed for another.

So they sent out a warning and flipped the switch.

In a great article by Kate Ruder, she explains that a large 20 acre nursing home facility only had a 75-minute warning before the power went out:

In Boulder, Frasier staff and residents heard about the planned outage from news reports. A Frasier official called the utility to confirm and was initially told the home’s power would not be affected. The utility then called back to say the home’s power would be cut, after all, said Tomas Mendez, Frasier’s vice president of operations. The home had just 75 minutes before Xcel Energy shut off the lights on April 6.

Staff rushed to prepare the 20-acre campus home to nearly 500 residents. Generators kept running the oxygen machines, most refrigerators and freezers, hallway lights, and Wi-Fi for phones and computers. But the heating system and some lights stayed off as the overnight temperature dipped into the 30s.

Power was restored to Frasier after 28 hours.

By law, these types of facilities must own some sort of backup system; Florida mandated it, saying these facilities need 92 hours of backup power. However, it seems the fairly new Public Safety Power Shutoff Programs have not been planned for, especially for extended periods of time during Red Flag Days.

275,000 customers in Colorado had their power shut off that week; some people I’ve spoken to said it was for 3+ days in some areas where lines needed to be checked before the power came back on. A large portion of these communities are very rural and lower-income areas.

At the same time,  Xcel in Colorado is spending lotsa bucks to electrify heat  (as this Colorado Sun story says: “some worry the utility could make windfall profits from fighting the climate crisis”).  Now if you’re from around here, you might know that we get many high winds during winter, when it’s cold. The day after the Marshall Fire, for example, it snowed.  What could go wrong with going to electric heat, in the winter, when electricity will be shut off? I’m thinking fireplaces (for those who have them) and generators (for those who can afford them).

I’m seeing some potential problems here..

For example, a $4.5 million pilot project is looking to electrify about 65 mainly commercial customers along the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder rather than replace a gas main. This could serve as a model for removing areas from the gas system and reduce the need for new infrastructure.


The challenges, however, are big. Xcel Energy estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 heat pumps must be installed through 2030. Direct air heat pumps either heat or cool a home by removing the ambient heat in the air — even on very cold days. They are much more efficient than gas furnaces.

This would require an average of 28,000 to 57,000 installations a year  — or 14 to 28 times the number that were installed in 2022.

Blank, the PUC chairman, said that he was concerned that all the costs of the Clean Heat Plan are falling only on the utility’s customers. “So far there is no shareholder skin in the game,” he said at a May hearing. “The company is making money off this stuff. They may make windfall profits off fighting the climate crisis.”

This is one of those situations where no one is really to blame, but the system and the incentives are not working out for ordinary people.  Then there’s the whole question of being ready, and how and how far ahead to notify people about losing power.


1 thought on “Head-on Policy Collision? Electrification and Public Safety Power Shutoff for Wildfires”

  1. Those fake fireplaces with actual gas flames would probably work ok, as long as they don’t require electricity to start or run. I’d imagine they are electric start like everything else. My gas boiler and water heater are both electric start.

    Real fireplaces suck. I lived in a house designed before wood stoves became common. Three fireplaces on the first floor and two on the second floor. All of them shallow and high so you get more of the heat before losing it up the chimney. They pulled in lots of cold air and the heat was more radiant than actually heating the air. Pretty cold all in all. No insulation of course.

    I’d be very reluctant to rely on a heat pump alone. Many people in the mountains have propane powered generator back up.

    Current house is in a warmer clime, CO, and we went one winter without the gas, just the wood stove downstairs. Worked ok. Insulated, warmer climate with lots of sun.


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