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Opinion | Darkness is sunny California

Corey Tyree

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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 US Forests in the 1990s, President Bush restored it 15 years later, and President Obama stopped it less than 5 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 percent) of the 50,000-plus wildfires started each year in the US, 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.

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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.
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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 shut offs 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.

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Opinion | Giving thanks and staying safe

“As we’ve learned to adjust our daily routines and activities throughout the course of this pandemic, we know this Thanksgiving will not look like those of the past.”

Martha Roby

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(APR GRAPHIC)

Thanksgiving is a special holiday because it provides us an entire day each year to pause and give thanks for the many blessings we have received. Particularly amid a global pandemic, the stress and craziness of life often make it easy to lose sight of just how much we have to be thankful for.

Although this holiday season will look different for us all due to the current health pandemic, we must remember the countless ways in which we are blessed.

Whether you are gathering with loved ones or remaining in the comfort of your own home, I hope we all take time to celebrate gratitude — something we may not do enough of these days.

This year, it is especially important we remember those who have been impacted by the coronavirus. This horrific virus we continue to battle has stolen the lives of over 250,000 Americans and 3,400 Alabamians.

During this season of Thanksgiving, I hope you will join me in prayerfully remembering those who have lost a loved one to this virus as well as those who are suffering from it. My prayers are with those who are missing a family member or friend this holiday season.

As we’ve learned to adjust our daily routines and activities throughout the course of this pandemic, we know this Thanksgiving will not look like those of the past. Please be mindful of any safety measures and precautions that have been put in place to help protect your family and those around you.

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The Alabama Department of Public Health released guidance that includes a list of low, moderate and high-risk activities in order to help Alabamians have a safer holiday season. ADPH suggests a few lower-risk activities such as having a small dinner with members of your household, preparing and safely delivering meals to family and neighbors who are at high-risk or hosting a virtual dinner with friends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hosting an outdoor gathering and limiting the number of guests.

While the road to recovery is not always easy, I am confident that we will get through this health crisis together, and we will be better because of it. The American people are resilient, and we will not let this virus knock us down.

In the spirit of the holiday, I want to take this opportunity to tell you that I am thankful for the responsibility to serve our state and country in the United States Congress.

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I am honored to be in a position to make a difference on behalf of Alabama’s 2nd District, so thank you for allowing me to serve you. From the Roby family to yours, we hope you have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.

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Opinion | 400 years later, the Pilgrim story is more relevant than ever

“I think that giving thanks for the land that we call home is especially important this year.”

Robert Aderholt

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(APR GRAPHIC)

This Thanksgiving will be different from any other we have had in our lifetimes.  This past year has been a struggle, as every single one of us has had their normal lives disrupted.  Many of us have also lost friends and family as the Coronavirus has swept through our communities. To say 2020 has been a trying time would be an understatement.

This year has not been unlike that first year the Pilgrims spent after landing at Plymouth Rock; their crossing of the Atlantic, their year of loss and struggle and their ultimate triumph.

Four hundred years ago, a group of 102 passengers set sail from England on a ship known as the Mayflower. They left their homeland with eyes set on the New World, where hopes of religious freedom and entrepreneurial opportunities awaited. Today, four centuries later, the New World that these pilgrims found is now the greatest country in the world, the United States of America.

As we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving in a few days with our loved ones, (as best we can under the current situation) I think that giving thanks for the land that we call home is especially important this year. With the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, we can look back and admire those brave men and women who embarked on a dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the passengers aboard that ship sought religious freedom that would only be possible here in the New World. That religious freedom they risked their lives for remains a value we treasure and must continue to defend today.  Sadly, it’s a freedom we too often take for granted each and every day.

And when rough weather forced the Mayflower to land in Massachusetts rather than Virginia, the seeds of democracy were sewn. It was the Mayflower Compact that gave way to the Pilgrims establishing a colony that created its own laws and abided by them. This incredible feat of getting consensus among a diverse group is what led to the first self-governing document in the New World. The Mayflower Compact established something that had never been done before but was soon to be replicated on a larger scale when the nation’s Founding Father’s put pen to parchment and drafted the Constitution. 

It was the brave passengers of the Mayflower who started the tradition of a day of giving thanks in the year 1621. That first year, especially the winter of 1620-21 was harsh and deadly.  Of the 102 original passengers, 45 died the first year. Many died from exposure to the cold, from diseases and from malnutrition. Four entire Mayflower families also died that first winter in Massachusetts.

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But those who survived persevered.  While it wasn’t called Thanksgiving back then, it was a joyous celebration of the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest that they invited nearby Native Americans to join. Some two hundred and forty years later, President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be observed on the final Thursday of each November. 

While we are still struggling through the season of COVID, we can look to those 102 brave souls from four centuries ago who also struggled.  But they trusted that brighter days and the prospect of freedom were on the horizon.   Not only that, but they looked to God for their guidance and thank him for bringing them to the place we are today.  

So, on this Thanksgiving, while we still struggle, we can take comfort from those who came before us.  We owe so much to the Pilgrims, as God put it in their hearts to travel to the New World.  Furthermore, they set before us a spirit of Thanksgiving to the all-knowing God.  And that is an example for us today, perhaps even more so than ever.

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Opinion | Record voter turnout in Alabama shows need for voting legislation

“When Alabamians had reasonable and secure options to access the ballot, they exercised their right to vote in the highest numbers in state history.”

JaTaune Bosby

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(STOCK PHOTO)

More than 140 million voters took part in the historic 2020 election. Alabamians cast 2.3 million ballots, and cast absentee ballots in record numbers. More than 300,000 absentee votes were requested in-person or by mail.

Headlines have lauded the level of participation; however, we must be careful in allowing a narrative to capture a moment while erasing the history and evolution of voter suppression in this state and across the Deep South.

That is why now more than ever, we must expand voting in Alabama.

The full enfranchisement of voters based on race has only been in place for 55 years since the passing of the Voting Rights Act, but that has since been undermined with the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, which removed federal oversight from state voting regulations and allowed for burdensome requirements like voter ID to become the standard.

Alabama, the very battleground for voting rights in this country, once again backslid and since then has remained even behind many of our neighbors as far as options for voting.

However, this year, when Alabama emerged as a hotspot for COVID-19, state leaders ensured voters would have more choices when casting their ballot this year by permitting use of the absentee and in-person absentee voting for all registered voters.

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This opportunity energized voters, as we saw long lines outside of courthouses across Alabama, from Mobile and Montgomery to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Voter turnout exceeded 66 percent nationwide and 61 percent in the state.

When Alabamians had reasonable and secure options to access the ballot, they exercised their right to vote in the highest numbers in state history.

These numbers show that Alabama voters want more voting options prior to Election Day, and it is now up to lawmakers in this state to take a stance for the citizens of Alabama. In the upcoming legislative session, the Alabama legislature must ensure we make voting expansion a priority.

The right to the ballot box should not depend on signatory requirements or excuses to be able to vote safely by mail, as millions of Americans did this past election. Passing legislation can give working parents, caregivers, people with disabilities, and all voters more choices so that voting is made simple and accessible for all Alabamians.

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This historic fight of Civil Rights activists in this very state sent a message to not only the rest of the U.S., but to the world, that democracy and the right to vote is one of our most powerful tools to make our voices heard.

This year, our collective voices have been resounding, and despite our circumstances — a global pandemic, an international social movement, and major political shifts that have impacted our families and our communities for decades to come — we ensured that our voices were heard at the ballot box.

Today, we must aim to be a shining example once again of democracy’s promise and demonstrate that free, fair and accessible elections drive civic engagement at every level and give the people of Alabama the voice in our government that we deserve.

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Opinion | Warning: Your blood may boil

“One truth can not be denied. Someone was up to no good. And their empty proclamations to put our children first were lies.”

Larry Lee

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(APR GRAPHIC)

OK. It is not unusual for me to lose my cool in this very weird and very crazy political turmoil swirling around us. And why not when we are engulfed in adults acting like children?

However, none of these get me stirred up like the saga I am about to relate.

The reason being I know too much about what happened and heard many of the lies and attempts at deception in person. And certainly, because at the end of the day, it was the public school students of Alabama who paid the costs incurred because certain “public officials” betrayed the public trust.

This all unfolded in 2016, when the State Board of Education made one of the most boneheaded moves I’ve ever witnessed by hiring Mike Sentance of Massachusetts to be our state superintendent of education. He was a disaster. Not an educator, never a teacher, principal or local superintendent. Had applied for the Alabama job in 2011 and didn’t even get an interview.

State educators were almost solidly committed to wanting Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey to get the job. They considered giving the job to Sentance a slap in the face (The fact that Sentance lasted one year before packing his bags removed any doubt that he was a very bad choice).

Sentance was announced as the choice on Aug. 11, 2016. But even then, rumors of misdoing were afoot and then-State Sen. Gerald Dial called for an investigation into the hiring process within a week.

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Someone orchestrated a smear campaign against Pouncey, obviously to hurt his chances of being selected by the State Board of Education. A packet of info was distributed to each board member alleging wrongdoing by Pouncey. All board members discounted the info — except Mary Scott Hunter of Huntsville.

Let’s fast forward a moment. When the dust finally settled, Pouncey filed suit against Hunter and others. And just last week, Bill Britt, the editor of the Alabama Political Reporter filed the following:

“A defamation suit filed by Pouncey against former school board member Mary Scott Hunter was recently settled with Pouncey being awarded $100,000 by the state. According to Pouncey’s attorney, Kenny Mendelsohn, no admission of liability by Hunter was offered under the terms of the agreement.

"It is estimated the state spent as much as a million dollars or more on defense attorneysto protect Hunter and others. APR was able to identify nearly a half-million dollars in attorneys fees paid during the case, but assigning a final dollar figure is nearly impossible, because four contracts with top-tier law firms were for $195 per hour and open-ended.

"The settlement puts an end to years of hearings, investigations, lawsuits, and recriminations.”

[You can read all of APR’s story here.]

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I spent hours and hours tracking this story. What I learned was disgusting and sickening. It was obvious that the trust citizens had placed in elected officials to protect the interest of public school students was ignored. This was not about helping kids and teachers and administrators and trying to find the best state superintendent possible, it was about political agendas and adults trying to cover their ass.

I am no kid. The first-ever real life political campaign I was part of was in 1972. Which is to say that I’ve seen my share of political shenanigans. But none more repulsive than what happened in 2016.

Dial asked the attorney general to investigate what took place. Then he and his colleague, Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross, passed a resolution creating a legislative committee to investigate. I went to each of these sessions. They were standing room only. All kinds of folks showed up, including some of Alabama’s most recognized lobbyists.

One of the more amazing things that happened was when Mary Scott Hunter, an attorney herself, told Dial that “she did not know the rules” about how the state ethics commission was supposed to handle anonymous complaints.

So Pouncey filed suit in an effort to clear his name. I don’t blame him. I would have as well.

Among the things about all this that never made sense is why the state of Alabama footed the legal bill for defending those in the suit, especially Hunter.

Her actions were of her own choosing. She became a rogue state board member. She did not consult with other members before she began making sure the Ethics Commission had a copy of the bogus complaint. No other board members did this.

For whatever reason, she took matters into her own hands in an effort to harm Pouncey.  She was outside the bounds of her duties and responsibilities as a state board member.

But as is common, this legal action moved at the speed of paint drying. Then COVID-19 got in the way and civil suits got shoved to the end of the line. The best, most recent guess as to when the case would show up on a court docket was at least two years from now.

The state offered to settle for $100,000. After careful consideration with his attorney, Pouncey reluctantly decided to settle. I know Pouncey well. He has told me repeatedly that this was never about money. Instead, it was about his reputation and how certain people were willing to put politics above the interest of students. But the expectations of such ever happening grew dimmer with each day and the suit was settled.

The truth will never be known. A court will never render a verdict pointing out guilty parties. We are only left with our assumptions, based on pieced together facts gleaned from discussions and paperwork.

But one truth can not be denied. Someone was up to no good. And their empty proclamations to put our children first were lies.

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