Pacific Gas & Electric has never had many loyal friends, not since 1905 when the San Francisco Gas and Electric Company and the California Gas and Electric Corporation merged to form the utility giant usually referred to as PG&E.
The company has been increasingly unpopular ever since gas leaks led to a big explosion and the death of consumers— eight people in San Bruno just south of San Francisco. Nor has the company made new friends ever since its power lines were found to have caused wild fires and huge property losses in California.
Earlier this year—to protect its profits and stockholders— the company filed for bankruptcy, though it still has citizens in a chokehold otherwise known as a monopoly. If consumers want electricity and gas in their homes and businesses they have little choice but to rely on PG&E, which owns and controls the power lines.
There are alternatives, including Sonoma Clean Power that sources clean energy from renewables: geothermal, water, wind, solar, and biomass. But Sonoma Clean Power doesn’t have its own power lines. PG&E has said it will cut off all power if and when there’s wild fire and high winds. That could save lives and protect property, but it also sounds like PG&E letting Californians know that it’s still the all-powerful boss.
With big bucks, access to the latest technology and technological wizards, citizens can by-pass PG&E. That’s what Mac and Leslie McQuown have done at Stone Edge Farm, a model of organic agriculture and a center for innovation in the field of energy. The farm is on Carriger Road, outside the town of Sonoma, where olives and grapes are grown. Not long ago, the visionary McQuowns had a big dream: reduce their carbon footprint. They’ve realized that dream and gone beyond it.
Now, Stone Edge generates electrical power on a micro-grid that serves all its energy needs. What the McQuowns and their team have done suggests that real innovation takes place in the private sector, without government funding or oversight.
“The bourgeoisie,” Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto (1848), “has played a most revolutionary role.” It still does. The micro-grid at Stone Edge Farm has created local and global buzz.
During the Sonoma County firestorms of October 2017, when some homeowners were without electricity and felt powerless, too, Stone Edge Farm, which was evacuated, went into “island” mode. For ten days, it operated on its own micro-grid, independent of PG&E. The system was monitored and controlled remotely.
Mac McQuown, who has an MBA from Harvard, was formerly an investment director at Wells Fargo where he made extensive use of data analysis and created equity index funds. Though he’s clearly a success story, Mac, as friends call him, understands the importance of failure, which he calls “the crucible of success.” He adds, “You must fail to learn.” Stone Edge’s success has come in part as a result of Mac’s mantra, though it has also helped to have lots of capital to invest, and be willing to gamble.
This morning when it’s 100 in the shade, Ryan Stoltenberg— the program manager for Wooster Engineering, the prime contractor for Stone Edge’s micro-grid system—uses a PowerPoint presentation to offer a crash course on the complex electrical system on the McQuown’s 16-acre parcel. Behind stonewalls there are elegant buildings, lush gardens, vineyards and orchards and the all-essential wells that pump water from underground and make everything else possible. Electricity + water = an oasis with trees, bees, insects, birds and happy people.
If PG&E lines were to go down today, Stone Edge could continue to function quite nicely on clean energy that creates fuel for the farm’s zero-emission vehicles and electricity for the house where the McQuowns live the good life. No wonder that Stoltenberg tells me, “This is the most complex micro-grid system in the U.S.” He adds, “We’re better positioned than anyone else that I know of in case of an emergency.”
The Stone Edge website calls the system “an independent paradise that can store energy indefinitely, access it instantly and export it to the grid.” In fact, it’s a paradise created with capital and labor. In January 2018, the farm received the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA) in recognition for its “advanced technology to generate, store and distribute clean energy to its property and beyond.”
Stoltenberg studied Environmental Science and Engineering at Chico State University where he learned about watts, amps, ohms and more. His advanced education didn’t really begin until he arrived at Stone Edge 5 & ½ years ago. “What we have here is way beyond Electrical Engineering 101,” he says. When Stoltenberg started to work at Stone Edge, he was employed as an electrical technician for Wooster Energy, a company founded and owned and operated by Craig Wooster until his death in October 2017, after a career devoted to building sustainable energy systems.
“The micro-grid system we have now is not how we pictured it when we started,” Stoltenberg says. “When we began, we had an idea, but not a full system design. We built out modularly. As a result, the system we have is more complex than originally planned.”
Trenches had to be dug in hard ground; a vast infrastructure had to be created, including the arduous task of laying a trunk line made of copper. “Irrigation lines are everywhere underground,” Stoltenberg tells me. “They made it challenging to dig trenches.” There’s nothing like hard labor to get a job done.
Today, five years after the project began the Stone Edge micro-grid has eight solar arrays, a gas micro-turbine, battery and hydrogen energy storage and a micro-grid “controller” developed by the Heila Company. The controller might be described as a “translator” that blends and unifies the different “languages” that the individual energy sources “speak.”
When school kids come to Stone Edge to learn about the micro-grid, Stoltenberg uses examples and metaphors they grasp. “I think of the micro-grid as a pool,” he tells students. “Solar arrays are hoses feeding into the pool. Loads are drains drawing from the pool. The batteries we have are like sponges that store and provide energy. The goal is to balance generation, storage and usage so you don’t overflow or go dry.”
Stoltenberg can monitor the whole system and each separate component. “It’s agile and decentralized,” he says.
One of the incentives for producing hydrogen from the surplus solar energy in the micro-grid is a recent program initiated by the California State legislature that says that for every kilogram of hydrogen produced, the state offers a credit of $2.17.
The Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) program, as it’s called, is administered through the California Air Resources Board (CARB). A website describes LCFS as “a fuel-neutral, market based program” that aims to reduce greenhouse gases from transportation fuels in California.
Stoltenberg says that, “The hydrogen component of the the micro-grid is crucial because it provides for long-term energy storage. It can be generated from renewables, like solar, when they’re available, and brought back to electricity, instantly, via a fuel cell when renewable resources are unavailable.”
Hydrogen has the potential to play a huge role in the future, Stoltenberg argues, as electrical and transportation industries are de-carbonized.
Will private citizens and businesses follow the trail that Mac McQuown, Craig Wooster, Ryan Stoltenberg and the team have blazed at Stone Edge? The short answer is yes. “What we have here is a demonstration project,” Stoltenberg tells me. Stone Edge has worked with Électricité de France (EDF), a utility giant based in Paris, and funded by the French government. (EDF is one of the world’s largest producers of energy.)
Stoltenberg adds that “Representatives from PG&E have also come to look and see. PG&E is not the enemy. We want to work with them and help them understand that micro-grids can be integrated into their existing system and play a beneficial role.”
The Stone Edge micro-grid hasn’t been duplicated anywhere. Nothing like it is on the shelf and ready for purchase, but Stoltenberg says it’s coming in the not-too distant future. The threat of disaster— whether from fire, drought, flood or earthquake—and the desire to reduce the global carbon footprint, and have zero emissions, will drive the new technology.
“At Stone Edge, we’re on the cutting edge of the energy future,” Stoltenberg says. “People who come here today can see what tomorrow will bring.” Indeed, visitors are impressed with Stone Edge’s fail-safe system that guarantees a constant supply of power. In a world threatened by energy shortages, the Stone Edge system, Stoltenberg says, “is a model for grid-wide modernization that could provide resilience and reliability for all.” Currently, it’s a luxury few can enjoy. Meanwhile, it’s reassuring to know it’s possible to live PG&E free.
PG&E Free: Revolutionary Energy at Stone Edge Farm in Sonoma, California, by Jonah Raskin, CounterPunch, August 29, 2019.