The wildfires raging across California are providing a stark reminder of the urgency of climate change, with an increase in fires in recent decades attributed to a warming climate. The fires also highlight the role that utility providers play in helping to prepare critical infrastructure for more frequent and severe extreme weather events. Changing weather conditions may be helping to fuel the fiery blaze, but the lack of adaptation and preparation is making matters worse.

While Massachusetts does not regularly experience catastrophic wildfires, we do experience flooding, wind and other climate-driven extreme weather. These impacts can be just as deadly and just as damaging to our infrastructure, and they require the same preparation and foresight by our utility companies.

Unfortunately, there are many recent examples of utilities failing to prepare for our changing world. Last year, California fire investigators found that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was responsible for the deadly Camp Fire. Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the energy infrastructure in New York and New Jersey was equally devastating. Electrical stations were flooded causing explosions and massive blackouts where millions went without power.

Much of the energy infrastructure in the United States is ill-prepared for climate impacts, and will become increasingly vulnerable as the climate continues to change over the next century.

During a heat wave, the electricity sector can suffer problems with generation, transmission, and distribution, potentially causing blackouts or brownouts, which have detrimental effects on human health and the economy. Sea level rise and storm surge also put low-lying infrastructure at risk, which can lead to damage, power outages, and the associated human impacts as well.

Currently, utility providers in Massachusetts, like National Grid and Eversource, are only required to engage in “emergency response” planning. These plans only cover short-term, reactive responses to storms or other disasters after they occur. The companies are not required to engage in long-term planning efforts that take climate change impacts into consideration, and we are already seeing the consequences.

In the past few years alone, the Commonwealth has endured devastating flood impacts during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, as well as massive snowfall and blizzard conditions during the severe winter storms of 2015. An unprecedented stretch of three nor’easters over 11 days in 2018 left hundreds of thousands of residents without power and caused significant flooding.

According to an Eversource representative, the damage to the system from one storm was so severe that in some cases, it necessitated rebuilding entire sections of the local electric system.

During a record cold snap in February 2016, sub-zero temperatures across the Commonwealth, along with some wind chills down to -40°F, left more than 14,000 utility customers in Lynn and Saugus without power overnight.

Utility companies are simply not doing enough to proactively plan for these climate impacts that are becoming all too common. Two bills introduced this session in the Massachusetts legislature seek to address this shortcoming. Filed by Representative Sarah Peake (H.841) and Senator Nick Collins (S.79), the bills will mandate that investor-owned utility companies identify and prepare for climate risks before they happen.

We know that infrastructure that has historically been safe from extreme weather events cannot be assumed safe from future events. Both National Grid and Eversource acknowledge that the impacts of severe storms and climate change pose a significant risk to electric facilities. Yet, Eversource is in the midst of obtaining approvals for a high voltage electrical station in a floodplain in East Boston that is expected to experience chronic flood inundation.

These companies have already incurred significant costs associated with climate change. National Grid reported that between February 2010 and February 2016, storms in Massachusetts resulted in approximately $252 million in incremental costs. Similarly, Eversource reported that 2018 storms in Massachusetts resulted in restoration costs of approximately $94 million. Keep in mind who is paying for these costs – Massachusetts electricity customers.

In the battle against climate change, Massachusetts must be proactive, not reactive, to the impacts we know are coming. PG&E recently admitted it may take a decade for them to ensure that its wires in California are fireproof. How long will it take Massachusetts’ utility companies to prepare for extreme weather? We can’t afford to wait and find out.

Deanna Moran is Director of Environmental Planning at Conservation Law Foundation.