1 month ago

Darkness in sunny California

California is plagued by unreliable access to electric power, a situation that will persist for years to come. It’s happening as part of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), one component of the wildfire prevention plans implemented by electric utilities and approved by regulatory commissioners appointed by the governor. During periods of significant wildfire threat, the utility with equipment in those high-risk areas shuts off the power to avoid starting a wildfire. The plan has been in place for years and implemented hundreds of times over the past decade. It is about as popular as you would imagine. If you’re wondering who or what to blame, California offers many targets.

Assignment of blame, of course, is divided along political lines. Liberals blame climate change, a failure to live sustainably, and unscrupulous corporations. Conservatives take aim at the California Public Utilities Commission, the governor and a housing crisis that resulted in home construction in high-risk fire areas. One-sided arguments fed by confirmation bias belie an important truth – there is no one political party or company to blame. The scariest part – we’ll actually all have to work together to solve a complex problem. And it’s going to take decades. Can we do it?

Wildfire prevention has not been a priority. Activities that remove fuel, such as logging or animal grazing, help prevent wildfires. Logging was made more difficult in California. California law made it impossible to remove wood from state forests that was not already dead and on the ground. Air quality laws in California all but stopped prescribed burns and other treatment measures designed to remove fuel. Finally, several invasive species and diseases killed millions of trees and added to the fuel load. In many forest areas, grazing animals were banned and native species that graze have not recovered to levels that adequately manage grass and brush growth in the forests.

Other actions made management of fires more difficult and the damages they cause more severe. Road building clears vegetation and creates fire breaks while providing access to firefighters. President Clinton all but banned road building in U.S. forests in the 1990s, President Bush restored it 15 years later, and President Obama stopped it less than five years later. While fuel accumulated in the forest and road building ceased, a growing housing crisis drove new home construction in the wildfire-urban interface. Homes were constructed that did not follow state rules on building materials, fire breaks and other fire-related design criteria. And with that, the stage was set – forests full of fuel and private property nearby. All that’s needed is an ignition source.

In the tinderbox that is California, there are many possible ignition sources. Just ask Glenn Kile. In July 2018, Mr. Kile noticed a wasp nest underground in his backyard. He was allergic to wasps, so he hammered a metal stake into the ground to keep the wasps from surfacing. Sparks from his hammering ignited the largest wildfire in state history.

Sparks from power lines can also ignite a fire. Cal Fire (the state firefighting agency) investigators said the Camp Fire, the deadliest (86 killed) wildfire in California history and the costliest natural disaster in the world in 2018 ($16.5 billion in damages), was started by a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) power line failure. While power lines cause a small amount (less than 5%) of the 50,000-plus wildfires started each year in the U.S., many severe fires are caused by power lines. The reason is that severe fires and damaged power lines often share a common cause – high wind speeds. High winds can damage power structures and can also rapidly spread wildfires, making them more difficult to manage.

Maintaining power infrastructure, and the vegetation around that infrastructure, is critical to preventing fire and is the responsibility of electric utilities. As was the case with other stakeholders, wildfire prevention was not a priority of utilities or the regulatory bodies that oversee them. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) repeatedly cut funding to electrical distribution improvements and tree trimming budgets, in the name of keeping rates affordable, and higher priorities like decarbonization. The CPUC also failed to immediately ensure all electric utilities implemented a wildfire mitigation plan even after it became clear that power lines posed a threat to public safety.

At the same time that regulators chose to prioritize other activities, electric utilities like PG&E were mired in distractions created by others (state mandates for renewables, electric vehicles) and of their own volition (pipeline explosions, bankruptcy filings). Already hamstrung by reduced budgets for vegetation management, PG&E served a customer base which increasingly fought them on tree removal. Using California tree laws, customers could take PG&E to court over a single yard tree. While negotiations to trim/remove trees stalled, PG&E would simply skip the tree and move to another property.

With every stakeholder distracted by other priorities, wildfires raged on with an increasing frequency and intensity. From 1980-1999, wildfires burned an average of 3 million acres in the U.S. each year. Over the next 20 years, that burn rate more than doubled to 6.5 million acres per year. The damage from these fires can be severe, especially with more than 2 million homes built in areas with high or extreme fire risk, mostly in the last 20 years.
The delayed response from all stakeholders has now turned into an urgent, all-of-the-above approach to preventing wildfires. Utilities, facing financial destruction from wildfire liabilities, plan to accelerate replacement of aging equipment and adopt new technology, among other measures. Elements of the plan, already in progress, include, but are not limited to:

● Increased weather monitoring to improve the ability to forecast conditions that result in fires and manage equipment appropriately.

● Increased frequency of all inspections of distribution poles and transmission structures, including ground, drone, helicopter and climbing methods.

● Increased vegetation management, including quadrupling tree removal year over year with a priority placed on removal of dead, drying or otherwise high-risk trees in extreme risk areas.

● Hardening of the electrical system, including replacing wooden poles with more resilient, fire-resistant poles, replacing open conductors with covered conductors to minimize sparking and undergrounding power lines.

● An increase in switches in the system, so that fewer people will have to face a planned power outage, if the line starts in an area where fire probability is low.

Even with an all-out effort by utilities to prevent fires, power will be shut off as a last resort. How often should we expect utilities to resort to this measure? A lot. Since 2013, San Diego Gas & Electric shut off power 216 times for public safety reasons.

Power shutoffs aren’t the only measure under consideration. Virtually every stakeholder, from individual citizens to state government, are taking action – some of them dramatic:

● Governor Brown, on his last day in office, signed two forestry bills making it easier to log state forest lands and to build and maintain roads in those areas. The second bill removed requirements to follow California air quality rules when doing planned burns to remove fuel from forest floors and create areas with no fuel to stop fires.

● Governor Newsom issued an Emergency Proclamation that directs Cal Fireto increase vegetation management activity. Historically CAL FIRE planned to treat some 400,000 acres but only treated about 30,000 acres.

● Governor Newsom signed 18 bills to boost housing construction. It’s not just that there is a wildfire crisis in California, it’s that so many people live in wildfire zones. Construction is needed in order to provide housing choice.

● The California Public Utility Commission sped up work on General Order (GO) 95 that includes fire hardening the electric grid with 23 new recommendations finishing work that started years earlier with a final ruling in 2017. Further work is underway to improve GO-95.

● Facing a decade of intermittent darkness, individuals will take matters into their own hands and increasingly look to maintain their quality of life during power shutoffs. Already the leading state for rooftop solar, interest in self-generating power is soaring following the PSPS epidemic, as customer inquiries into rooftop solar and storage have reportedly doubled in recent months.

● With rooftop solar plus storage coming in at $40,000 per typical home, down from the 2016 NREL estimate of $51,000, we can also expect to see sales for diesel generators ($400-$1,100) or backup generators ($7,000-$16,000) soar. Local suppliers have reported customer inquiries increased more than 1,000% in recent months.

Those measures, some of them extreme, highlight the scope of the problem. Many of the measures require a decade or more for implementation. Sweeping changes are coming. Meanwhile, to save lives, it will be dark in California every time there is a high risk of wildfire.

Corey Tyree is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Energy Institute of Alabama. Tyree is also a Senior Director of Energy and Environment with Southern Research. He directs a team of engineers, scientists, and technicians focused on innovative technology solutions for clean energy, air and water.

3 hours ago

VIDEO: Impeachment articles transmitted, Ivey non-decision on refugees, gambling this legislative session and more on Guerrilla Politics

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and political scientist Dr. Waymon Burke take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Have we finally reached the beginning of the end of this never-ending impeachment circus?

— Why hasn’t Governor Kay Ivey (R) announced that Alabama doesn’t want to accept more refugees?

— Will Alabama legislators really move the issue of expanded gambling in Alabama in the upcoming legislative session?

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Jackson and Burke are joined by State Senator Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) discusses the upcoming legislative session and whether gambling and medical marijuana will be big issues for legislators.

Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” at people who believe the media latest “evidence” and their hysterics after all of the instances where the media screamed, “this is where they get him!” about Donald Trump.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=474461936826816

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.

4 hours ago

Animal welfare and economics

Dog owners in Canberra, Australia, must now walk their companions daily or face a $2,700 fine, due to a 2019 animal welfare law recognizing dogs as sentient beings. Does requiring the humane treatment of animals restrict the property rights of humans and the functioning of economies?

I will not let rain, sleet, snow or dark of night deter me from walking my dogs. Dogs’ unbridled enthusiasm for a walk is so marvelous that I never want to let them down. I will confess, though, that I’ve violated Canberra’s new law.

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Political philosophers’ theories of rights describe how humans should treat each other. Humans have the capacity for rational, deliberative action. Furthermore, political rights establish the conditions for the exercise of our rational capacities. Although beyond my professional expertise, based on my understanding, I would be reluctant to say that animals have rights.

Nonetheless, I think animals should be treated humanely and ethically, even though people disagree about what exactly constitutes humane treatment. And standards for humane treatment have changed over time. In the 1800s, owners could beat horses or mules for failing to do work.

Some critics dismiss animal rights when proponents do not extend rights to insects. An advocate willing to swat mosquitos rejects what critics see as the logical extension of animal rights. I think humans can hold ourselves to whatever standards of treatment we want. We can have inconsistent standards across species and decide to treat cute animals better. And we need not compromise our health and safety; we can, for instance, spray mosquitos.

The most relevant animal treatment issues today involve hunting and eating meat. My personal opinion here is irrelevant. But standards of care for animals have increased over time, so I can imagine hunting and eating meat being banned someday.

Do requirements for humane treatment compromise the property rights that provide the basis for our economy? As a free-market economist, I normally defend peoples’ economic freedom to use their property as they wish. Shouldn’t economic freedom include the freedom to organize dog fights?

Perhaps I am rationalizing, but I do not believe so. Property rights are ultimately rights to use things we own in certain ways. Ownership of animals may entail fewer rights than ownership of, say, furniture. Parents have more limited decision rights for their children than for themselves and can lose parental rights for abuse or neglect. Since standards of humane treatment can be inconsistent, we may decide that killing pigs or cattle but not dogs or horses for food is OK.

Would the banning of meat decimate agriculture? The impacts would be significant; the U.S. has over 90 million cattle, 70 million hogs and 230,000 poultry farms. The 2.3 million Americans working in agriculture will likely continue to do so, probably growing crops instead of raising animals. We have already seen a more radical transformation, however, as 80% of Americans worked in agriculture in 1800.

Banning meat would cause ranchers losses on the poultry and livestock they owned. However, meat is unlikely to be banned until many more Americans first become vegetarians. Fewer meat-eaters would reduce livestock populations and prices, reducing the losses from an eventual ban.

Animals, though, may not benefit from vegetarianism. The vast majority of America’s 70 million hogs are alive today because they are being raised for market. Most farm animals would not exist if we did not eat meat.

Is it better for an animal never to be born than born and raised to be eaten? Population ethics wrestles with a version of this question. China’s one child policy controlled population growth, but millions of children were never born. Does a higher quality of life for those lucky enough to be born offset the lives that never were?

Humanity is arguably making moral progress: slavery has been abolished, war is becoming rarer and we insist on humane treatment of animals. Ownership, limited by norms of humane treatment, leads humans to care for animals. Evolving standards of humane treatment need never cause economic calamity.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

6 hours ago

AIDT promotes Allen to high-level communications position

MONTGOMERY, Alabama – AIDT announced today that Jacqueline Allen has been promoted to assistant director of communications and external affairs at Alabama’s premier workforce development agency.Allen has over 30 years of experience in communications and marketing, with nearly 20 years of that experience at AIDT. Her new responsibilities include overseeing the Communications, Marketing & Research, and Training Development departments, as well as the agency’s newest department dedicated to recruiting candidates for AIDT training opportunities.

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Since joining AIDT in 2001, Allen has initiated changes in digital advertising, successfully executed AIDT branding campaigns and K-12 outreach efforts, managed AIDT’s involvement in developing the AlabamaWorks program and worked with officials in launching the Made in Alabama branding campaign for the Alabama Department of Commerce.

More recently, she has led the transformation into digital, e-learning and virtual reality training for AIDT through the Communications Department.

“Since joining AIDT, Jacquie has proven over and over again how valuable she is to AIDT,” said Ed Castile, deputy secretary of commerce and director of AIDT. “Her insight and her dedication to Alabama’s citizens is one of the reasons AIDT has remained at the top of its game.”

AIDT is part of the Workforce Development Division at the Alabama Department of Commerce. AIDT was founded in 1971 and is considered one of the nation’s top workforce development agencies.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

7 hours ago

Rep. Byrne rips Dems for values at Mobile County stop — ‘They don’t believe in God’

GRAND BAY — At a campaign event during a swing through his home congressional district on Saturday, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) seemed to be taking a more aggressive tack in his quest to become Alabama’s next U.S. Senator.

With only 45 days left until Republicans head to the polls to select who they prefer to face Sen. Doug Jones (D-Mountain Brook) in the general election, Byrne addressed the Grand Farms Subdivision Action Group’s “INFORMED and INVOLVED Candidates Forum” at a venue in south Mobile County, just a stone’s throw from the Alabama-Mississippi state line.

Before an audience of more than 50 or so, Byrne honed in on values as a line of attack against Democrats, declaring them not to believe in God and as seeking to replace God with government.

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“This attack on President Trump is an attack on you and me,” he said. “Let’s make that clear. They don’t believe what you and I believe. It’s a fundamental breakdown in values. Policies are one thing. It’s the values that are at issue here. They don’t believe in God. That is at the root of the founding of the United States of America. They want to take God out of our life. They don’t want you and I to freely exercise our religion. We have to be willing to fight back against that. They don’t believe what the Constitution says what it says and nothing else. They keep adding things to it.”

“The Second Amendment says what it says what it says what it says, right? You have the right to bear arms, period, right? They want to take that right away from us. We have to fight against that. They want to take our right to freely exercise our religion in our everyday life. They want to say you can do whatever you want to in that church building over there. But when you walk outside of it, you can’t act out your faith. We have to stand up and fight against that. They have crazy ideas about what the federal government should do. When you take God out of the center of everything, you put government in the center of everything.”

Byrne cited Democrats’ push for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All as evidence of how an effort by the Democratic Party to put government at the center of everything.

He also took time to get a shot in at Jones, his general election opponent should he win the Republican senatorial nomination, and another in former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville, one of his opponents in the March 3 GOP senatorial primary.

“I look at our United States Senator who is up this year in Doug Jones,” Byrne said. “He does not believe what you and I believe and is sure not going to fight for it. I want a senator who will go up to Washington believing what you and I believe, understanding the issues and will fight for them, who will wake up every day saying I’m the Senator from and for the state of Alabama. I didn’t just show up here yesterday. My family has been here for six generations. I didn’t move here from Florida three months ago, get a driver’s license and say, ‘I want to be your senator.’ We need people who understand who we are, who care about who we are and will fight for the stuff we believe in. I’m that fighter.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

8 hours ago

75-million-year-old sea turtle fossil in Alabama a key discovery

Paleontologists in Alabama have discovered a new genus and species of fossil turtle that may fill an important evolutionary gap.

Scientists named the animal Asmodochelys parhami for Asmodeus, a deity that, according to Islamic lore, was entombed in stone at the bottom of the sea, and parhami in honor of James Parham, former curator of paleontology at the Alabama Museum of Natural History.

According to the UAB study, Asmodochelys parhami swam the oceans about 75 million years ago and may have been one of the most recent common ancestors of modern sea turtles.

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“The origin story of sea turtles is one of the great unsolved mysteries in evolutionary biology,” said Drew Gentry, a College of Arts and Sciences Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and lead author of the study. “There is a great deal of evidence indicating that turtles may have evolved to live in the ocean several times over the past 150 million years. The trick is determining which of those species are actually the direct ancestors of the species we see today.”

MORE: Grad student uncovers Alabama fossils likely from oldest ancestor of modern sea turtles

To determine how A. parhami is related to present-day sea turtles, scientists performed a phylogenetic analysis. It is a method that compares the features of many different species of turtle to figure out how closely or distantly related those species may be. The analysis results in a phylogenetic tree, or genealogy, of sea turtles.

The UAB study found A. parhami is one of the youngest species to fall just outside of the group containing every species of modern sea turtle. This makes A. parhami of particular interest in the study of the sea turtle origins.

“Although it’s tempting to say ‘problem solved’ when we recover such a well-resolved tree, this is only one hypothesis in a long line of suggested sea turtle genealogies,” Gentry said. “Right now, there are several distinct trees proposed by different groups of scientists that are the front-runners in the race to solve sea turtle evolution, each with its own unique arrangement of fossil and modern species. Determining which tree most accurately represents the evolutionary history of these animals can be challenging, to say the least.”

In an effort to test the accuracy of each tree, Gentry and his colleagues examined the  proposed sea turtle genealogies and which most accurately fits the fossil record. That is to say, if the genealogy indicates that a certain species evolved first, does that species actually show up first in the fossil record?

Still lots to learn about ancient sea turtle unearthed in Alabama

Surprisingly, Gentry discovered that, although his proposed genealogy matched up relatively well with the fossil record, it was not the best fit. “Actually, a phylogeny proposed more than a decade ago matched nearly perfectly with the fossil record,” Gentry said. “The problem with that analysis was that it didn’t include nearly as many species as subsequent analyses, which may have influenced the results.”

Despite scientists around the world working for more than a century on sea turtle evolution, Gentry thinks there is still much to be learned.

“New methods for testing how fossil species are related to modern species are constantly being developed. Also, discoveries of new fossils have the potential to radically change our understanding of how certain features and species evolved in the history of life on our planet,” Gentry said. “Our study is just another piece of evidence in an ongoing mystery that shows no sign of being solved any time soon.”

The study, titled “Asmodochelys parhami, a new fossil sea turtle from the Campanian Demopolis Chalk and the stratigraphic congruence of competing marine turtle phylogenies,” was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)