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A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

What the wildfires tell us about the shortcomings of California’s electric grid

A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

Powerlines along a road in Playa del Rey, California. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner)

In addition to the vast destruction they have caused, the wildfires that have engulfed California in recent weeks have laid bare serious concerns about the state’s electric grid.

In an email interview, UCLA’s Eric Fournier explains why the architecture of California’s grid isn’t well suited for such extreme conditions and what it would take to improve it. Fournier has been research director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability since 2018 — he joined UCLA as a postdoctoral researcher in 2016 — and his research involves analyzing energy systems and the mechanics of the electric power system.

What are the core issues that the wildfires have exposed about our power grid?

The wildfires are exposing some of the inherent weaknesses of the grid’s current architecture, which relies upon highly centralized sources of power generation.

The grid has historically been designed to support the unidirectional flow of power from a few large generator stations to many smaller consumers. That architecture seeks to take advantage of the economies of scale in power production that come from building generator stations as large as possible.

One thing that happens under this approach, however, is that these large generator stations tend to be built far away from the consumers. For fossil fuel–based generator plants, that’s because their operations produce large amounts of harmful air emissions that can negatively affect public health. For renewable generator plants, it’s because they need to be on sites with access to renewable energy flows — whether that’s wind, sun or hydraulic potential, for example — and those locations are typically remote.

As a result, the grid’s operations depend heavily on transmission infrastructure to move power around. If this infrastructure becomes compromised either due to age or some other external hazard — like extremely high heat or wildfire — grid operators have a difficult time maintaining reliable service.

The public safety power shut-offs in response to wildfires and other high-risk weather conditions are attempts to mitigate the grid’s exposure to these hazards. These measures are obviously not ideal, however, because power outages result in significant disruptions to the lives of large numbers of people.

Ideally, we should be taking a longer-term view on how we can mitigate both these underlying hazards as well as the extent of the grid’s exposure to them.

What are some ways California could realistically address those problems? 

Adopting distributed renewable energy generation and storage would have a number of potential benefits, in terms of both mitigating hazards and reducing exposures.

In the former case, generating energy renewably avoids the emissions of greenhouse gases. This would help slow the rate of climate change and reduce the likelihood of more severe wildfires occurring in the future. In the latter case, generating energy in a distributed way helps reduce our reliance upon transmission infrastructure, and it would provide some capacity to continue making power available to consumers in the event of a transmission infrastructure failure.

What would it take to make those things happen? 

There are a number of barriers to achieving a more renewable, more decentralized energy future. Some of them are technical and some are legal and administrative.

On the technical side, the grid will require extensive modernization upgrades to support higher levels of distributed energy resource penetration and, even further down the road, fully bi-directional power flows. These efforts will need to be supported by a dramatic expansion in the grid’s capacity to store and share the energy that is produced by renewable sources — such as with batteries. This will be necessary to address problems related to many types of renewables’ only intermittent ability to produce electric power.

On the legal and administrative side, there needs to be a recognition of the benefits associated with decentralized energy solutions. And these benefits should be considered during long-term energy system planning.

Utility companies have extensive experience building, operating and maintaining the grid as it currently exists. The proposed alternative represents a paradigm shift within this sector and will have to be supported with strong policy mandates. Otherwise, it is highly likely that in the future we will simply replace our existing, large-scale, remote, fossil fuel generation facilities with new, large-scale, remote, renewable generation facilities. That would mean that we would be retaining all of the same systemic vulnerabilities to climate change and wildfire that are inherent to the current system.

Finally, relative to this idea that we should promote greater decentralization: It is crucial that questions of equity be considered in the process. These solutions will fundamentally not work if they are only the provenance of the rich. Thus, we need to be forceful about ensuring that residents of disadvantaged communities are not left behind due to the cost or other difficulties associated with the adoption of these types of new technologies.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a valley oak tree.

UCLA College Celebrates Earth Day

A photo of a Griffith Park vista; the view of the Los Angeles skyline from Griffith Park.

Los Angeles County is home to more than 4,000 distinct species of plants and animals, and the sustainability plan aims for “no loss of native biodiversity.” (Photo Credit: Jake Dobkin)

Not only does this mark its 50th anniversary, this Earth Day is unlike any other we have seen as the global pandemic continues to impact the way we live our lives. Yes, it has disrupted our daily routines but it has also benefited the environment in myriad ways. For example, freeways once clogged with traffic have opened up, clearing the air and making way for bright blue skies and views for miles. Even before COVID-19, UCLA College faculty members and teams were out in the field and in their labs, working on groundbreaking research and advising on county and statewide plans. In honor of Earth Day, we are highlighting stories about conservation, sustainability, global warming, solar geoengineering and protecting our precious ecosystems.

 

A photo of vegetation and mountains in California's Anza-Borrego State Park.

Vegetation and mountains in California’s Anza-Borrego State Park. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner/UCLA)

UCLA to lead $10 million California conservation project

UCLA scientists are leading a $10 million project to help California officials make ecologically wise decisions as the state continues to confront the effects of climate change. The initiative will give California officials scientific data they can use to make decisions about conserving the state’s ecosystems.

A photo of a valley oak tree.

The valley oak, the largest oak in California, grows to over 100 feet tall and provides habitat and food for a variety of animals. (Photo Credit: Victoria Sork/UCLA)

One of California’s iconic tree species offers lessons for conservation

New research led by UCLA evolutionary biologist Victoria Sork examines whether the trees being replanted in the wake of California’s fires will be able to survive a climate that is continuing to warm. The study, which is published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, focuses on California’s iconic valley oak.

A photo of a Griffith Park vista; the view of the Los Angeles skyline from Griffith Park.

Los Angeles County is home to more than 4,000 distinct species of plants and animals, and the sustainability plan aims for “no loss of native biodiversity.” (Photo Credit: Jake Dobkin)

L.A. County taps UCLA to help create first-ever sustainability plan

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ambitious sustainability plan that calls for phasing out fossil fuels to address climate change and improve quality of life in the region. Sixteen UCLA researchers contributed to the OurCounty plan, which was created by the county’s Chief Sustainability Office.

A photo of the Santa Monica Pier at night.

The Santa Monica Pier at night. Artificial light can cause problems for a range of species that live and breed in coastal environments. (Photo Credit: William Chen/Pexels)

Study draws Southern California coastal light pollution into focus

Artificial light is known to disrupt mating cycles in species along the Southern California coast. A team of UCLA and University of Southern California researchers led by Travis Longcore, UCLA adjunct professor of urban conservation biology, has mapped light pollution conditions that will be used to inform decisions about future infrastructure and construction plans.

A photo of members of the UCLA Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, which was founded by Aradhna Tripati, associate professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Members of the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, which was founded by Professor Aradhna Tripati, third row, far right, and their colleagues. (Photo: Courtesy of Aradhna Tripati)

Professor pays it forward by promoting diversity and environmental justice

When she was appointed in 2009, Aradhna Tripati was the first woman of color out of 50 faculty in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Along with colleagues in UCLA’s Anthropology department and American Indian Studies Center, she conducts community engaged research on water in the context of global warming in the southwestern United States. She also formed the first university-based center for diversity in environmental science, with the goal of inspiring a generation of leaders that matches the demographics of the U.S. population.

Image of Dr. Jane Goodall

Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership with Dr. Jane Goodall Postponed

Image for Luskin Lecture featuring Jane Goodall

Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 12 to include new information about the postponement of this event. 

Yesterday afternoon, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block notified the campus community that starting today, March 11, UCLA will suspend in-person classes and transition to online platforms through April 10. While campus and its essential services remain open, including housing, hospitals, clinics and research laboratories, the new policy requires that all in-person campus gatherings of more than 100 people be suspended or postponed. UCLA is enacting this policy to keep our global and UCLA communities safe.

In compliance with this measure, the Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership featuring Dr. Jane Goodall scheduled for April 1, 2020 has been postponed. 

All ticket holders with online purchases will automatically be refunded by point of purchase for the cost of the ticket and all fees associated. If you purchased your tickets from the UCLA Central Ticket Office in person with cash or check, please contact 310-825-2101 or cto@tickets.ucla.edu for assistance (Monday-Friday, 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.). Please note this refund effort will take time as CTO is managing thousands of ticket purchases. Your patience is appreciated.

We look forward to rescheduling the event and will communicate a new date and time at our earliest opportunity. We will provide the on-sale date and time to all current ticket holders before the general public announcement is made, with a reasonable interval for purchase. Details around this are still being worked out.

In the meantime, here are a few resources to help you stay informed. These sites include steps you and your loved ones can take to help minimize the spread of the virus.

UCLA Health COVID-19 Update LA County Dept. of Public Health CDC

Thank you for your understanding and continued support of the UCLA College. We are grateful for the dedication and teamwork of so many in our community who are working hard to prioritize public health.

Sincerely,

Patricia A. Turner
Senior Dean, UCLA College

 

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, will deliver the Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership at UCLA’s Royce Hall on April 1, 2020, as part of the celebration of UCLA’s Centennial year. The renowned animal behavior expert and conservationist is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a U.N. Messenger of Peace.

During the lecture, which marks the 60th anniversary of the start of her pioneering research, Goodall will discuss her journey from groundbreaking researcher of wild chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, to internationally renowned activist. She will also share her reasons for hope for the future, talk about the work of the Jane Goodall Institute and the organization’s Roots & Shoots youth program, and encourage audience members to make a difference every single day.

Following her remarks, Goodall will be joined by a moderator for a discussion drawing from questions submitted by UCLA students and alumni. The UCLA College lecture is a ticketed event.

Goodall began her pioneering research on wild chimpanzees in 1960 in what is today known as Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Goodall was the first person to formally observe and better understand wild chimpanzees, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom; her research revealed remarkable insights about chimpanzee behavior and humankind.

Since then, Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute have maintained what is now the world’s longest running study of wild chimpanzees. Through her critical work, Goodall has not only championed the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction, but she also has pioneered community-centered conservation through JGI, putting local people at the center of conservation decisions and action, across the chimpanzee range in Africa. Through JGI’s Roots & Shoots program, she empowers young people to improve their communities through service projects, ensuring that they become better stewards of the environment than previous generations.

As a global activist traveling nearly 300 days a year, she has devoted her life to inspiring all people to take action to improve the well-being of people, other animals and the natural world we share.

“Dr. Goodall’s focus on giving people, particularly young people, the knowledge and confidence to make an impact by being part of something bigger than themselves makes her an example to emulate,” said Patricia Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College. “She has moved beyond her role as a scientist to encourage all of us to become active partners in the future of our world.”

Goodall’s talk will be the fifth Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership. The series was established in the UCLA College by Meyer and Renee Luskin in 2011 as part of a transformative gift to UCLA. Their vision in establishing the endowed lecture series gives the UCLA College an unprecedented opportunity to share knowledge and expand the dialogue among scholars, leaders in government and business, and the greater Los Angeles community. Previous speakers have included former President Bill Clinton, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

About the lecture

This event is now sold out.

Are you a UCLA student? Win the incredible opportunity to meet Jane Goodall. Contest details can be found at the Luskin Lecture Contest website.

Picture of Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim.

Activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim wins Pritzker Award for young environmental innovators

Picture of Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim reacts to the award announcement as UCLA professor Magali Delmas (left) looks on. Photo: Jonathan Young/UCLA

The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability presented the 2019 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award to Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a member of Chad’s Mbororo indigenous semi-nomadic community.

Ibrahim promotes environmental protections for indigenous groups through work with international organizations, including as a member of the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Partnership’s policy board. She also leads a community-based environmental coalition in the region surrounding Lake Chad, a critical water source that has shrunk 90% since 1980 — in part because temperatures in the area rose 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past century. Violent conflict has occasionally broken out among groups competing for the vital resource.

The annual award carries a prize of $100,000, which is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators under the age of 40 — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.

Ibrahim said the award, which was presented Nov. 7 at UCLA’s Hershey Hall, will help amplify the voices of 370 million indigenous people around the world.

“The voices of indigenous people are being heard here — through me, through all of you and through this prize,” Ibrahim said. “We are all together. We will win this battle, I am so confident.”

University researchers, Pentagon experts and others have found that rapid climate change — driven largely by human-caused carbon emissions — have contributed to a growing number of armed conflicts. The phenomenon is expected to particularly affect regions that are already unstable.

To prevent and reduce conflict in the Lake Chad basin, Ibrahim developed a program that gathers information on natural resources from farmers, fisherman and herders in more than a dozen African ethnic groups, and then produces 3D maps of those natural resources that their communities can share. The effort is intended to reduce the chance for conflict among the groups.

“It’s amazing to see women and men who have never been to school working jointly to build 3D maps that share critical knowledge, like where fresh water can be found even in the worst days of a drought,” Ibrahim wrote in her award application. “But the most interesting aspect of this project is that it helps to reduce conflict and tension between communities.”

Hindou is an official adviser to the UN Secretary General in advance of a major climate summit taking place in Glasgow in September 2020. She also advocates for indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s rights and environmental justice in high-profile global forums, including as a National Geographic Explorer and a senior indigenous fellow for Conservation International.

Picture of a group taking a selfie.

Shawn Escoffery, executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Foundation, with the 2019 Pritzker Award finalists, May Boeve, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim and Varshini Prakash. Photo: Jonathan Young/UCLA

The Pritzker Award is open to anyone working to solve environmental challenges through any lens — from science to advocacy and entrepreneurism. But all three finalists for this year’s award were activists, which may reflect the global trend of young people taking a more vigorous role in fighting against climate change. In addition to Ibrahim, the finalists were May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, and Varshini Prakash, founder of the Sunrise Movement. Finalists were selected by a panel of UCLA faculty from 20 candidates who were nominated by an international group of environmental leaders.

Ibrahim was chosen as winner by five distinguished judges: Shawn Escoffery, executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Foundation; sustainability and marketing expert Geof Rochester; philanthropists Wendy Schmidt and Nicolas Berggruen; and Kathryn Sullivan, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the first American woman to walk in space.

Peter Kareiva, director of UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said the Pritzker Award’s biggest value is that it brings together a community of candidates, past winners, UCLA faculty and the environmental leaders who serve as judges and nominators.

“We’re way beyond the time where a single innovation is going to do it, a single policy is going to do it. We’re way beyond that,” Kareiva said.

After receiving the award from Tony Pritzker, Ibrahim echoed that sentiment and called the other finalists up to the podium.

“We need action, and this action can only happen if we all join hands,” Ibrahim said. “We will make it all together.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

The stone faces and human problems on Easter Island

Photo of Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati. Photo credit: Easter Island Statue Project

In 1981, archaeology graduate student Jo Anne Van Tilburg first set foot on the island of Rapa Nui, commonly called Easter Island, eager to further her interest in rock art by studying the iconic stone heads that enigmatically survey the landscape.

At the time, Van Tilburg was one of just a few thousand people who would visit Rapa Nui each year. Although the island remains one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world, a surge in visitors has placed its delicate ecosystem and archaeological treasures in jeopardy.

“When I went to Easter Island for the first time in ’81, the number of people who visited per year was about 2,500,” said Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, the longest collaborative artifact inventory ever conducted on the Polynesian island that’s part of Chile. “As of last year the number of tourists who arrived was 150,000.”

Journalist Anderson Cooper interviewed Van Tilburg on the island for a segment that aired Easter Sunday on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Cooper spoke with Van Tilburg about efforts to preserve the moai (pronounced MO-eye) — the monolithic stone statues that were carved and placed on the island from around 1100 to 1400 and whose stoic faces have fascinated the world for decades. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with much of the island protected within Rapa Nui National Park.

Van Tilburg, who is research associate at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and director of UCLA’s Rock Art Archive since 1997, was the first archaeologist since the 1950s to obtain permission to excavate the moai, granted from Chile’s National Council of Monuments and the Rapa Nui National Park, with the Rapa Nui community and in collaboration with the National Center of Conservation and Restoration, Santiago de Chile.

She has spent nearly four decades listening, learning, establishing connections, making covenants with the elders of Rapanui society and reporting extensively on her findings. Major funding has been provided by the Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Fund.

“I think my patience and diligence were rewarded,” she said. “They saw me all those years getting really dirty doing the work.”

Photo of Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes interviews Van Tilburg.

Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes interviews Van Tilburg. Photo credit: Keith Sharman.

Bringing together research and teaching

Van Tilburg credits the sustained support of UCLA’s Cotsen Institute as critical to her work on the island. She regularly includes both UCLA undergraduates from a variety of academic disciplines and passionate volunteers in the hands-on work on Rapa Nui.

Van Tilburg, who received her doctorate in archaeology from UCLA in 1989, is working on a book project that will harness her massive archive as an academic atlas of the island. She used the proceeds of a previous book to invest in local businesses, the Mana Gallery and Mana Gallery Press, both of which highlight indigenous artists. She also helped the local community rediscover their canoe-making history through the 1995 creation of the Rapa Nui Outrigger Club.

Her co-director on the Easter Island Statue Project, Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, is Rapanui and a graphic artist by trade. Van Tilburg exclusively employs islanders for her excavation work. She’s traveled the world helping catalog items from the island that are now housed in museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the British Museum in London. Van Tilburg does this to assist repatriation efforts.

Culture and environment at risk

Her work is important to the 5,700 residents of the island, who also are coping with increasing waves of tourists into their fragile ecosystem, Van Tilburg said. Only in the last decade or so have they been given governance of the national park where the moai are located.

“But by Rapa Nui standards, on an island where electricity is provided by a generator, water is precious and depleted, and all the infrastructure is stressed, 150,000 annual visitors is a mob,” she said.

What’s more disheartening are travelers who ignore the rules and climb on the moai, trample preserved spaces and sit on top of graves, all in service of getting a photo of themselves picking the nose of an ancient artifact, Van Tilburg said.

Hierarchy and inequity in Rapanui society

Van Tilburg’s original impetus behind studying the moai is rooted in her curiosity about migration, marginalized people and how societies rise and fall.

Rapanui society was traditionally hierarchical, led by a class of people who believed themselves God-appointed elites. These leaders dictated where the lower classes could live and how they would work to provide food for the elites and the population at large.

The ruling class also determined how and when the moai – used as the backdrop for exchange and ceremony – would be built.

“This inherently institutionalized religious hierarchy produced an inequitable society,” Van Tilburg said. “They were very successful in the sense that their population grew. But they were unsuccessful at understanding that unless they managed what they had better, and more fairly, that there was no future.”

Population growth and rampant inequity in a fragile environment eventually led to wrenching societal changes, she said. Internal collapse (as outlined in UCLA professor Jared Diamond’s book Collapse), along with colonization and slave-trading in the 1800s, caused the population of Rapa Nui to drop to just 111 in the 1870s.

As an anthropologist, Van Tilburg is concerned with equity.

“I’m interested in asking why we keep replicating societies in which people are not equal, because in doing so, we initiate a crisis,” she said. “Inequity is at the heart of our human problems.”

UCLA students aim to help island nations balance economics with ocean conservation

Blue Prosperity aims to mitigate the threats of climate change and overfishing to marine ecosystems through strategic economic growth and management, working hand-in-hand with local governments, businesses and communities.

UCLA student wins national award for environmental justice work

Her mission for the environment and social justice is just getting started, but she’s already built an impressive resume.

Alumnus Morton La Kretz awarded the UCLA Medal, campus’s highest honor

“Morton’s leadership and philanthropy are testaments to his belief that the true measure of a life is not what you get, but what you give,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block at the medal ceremony.

Hydrogen cars for the masses one step closer to reality, thanks to UCLA invention

UCLA researchers have designed a device that can use solar energy to inexpensively and efficiently create and store energy, which could be used to power electronic devices, and to create hydrogen fuel for eco-friendly cars.

UCLA presents inaugural Pritzker Award to environmental economist Dan Hammer

Hammer is an environmental economist and data expert, and the co-founder of Earth Genome, a nonprofit that seeks to provide environmental data to decision makers.