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California’s wildfire threat could be an opportunity for clean-energy microgrids

To the untrained eye, the shipping containers clustered on the outskirts of Borrego Springs, Calif., don’t look like an innovative clean-energy technology that could help California cope with wildfires.

But these containers, in the remote desert of eastern San Diego County, are packed with lithium-ion batteries — and they’re part of one of the world’s most advanced microgrids. It combines solar panels, diesel generators, energy storage and something called an ultracapacitor to power Borrego Springs, even when electricity isn’t flowing through the single transmission line that connects the town to the main power grid.

“I believe this is the only microgrid in the world that does what this does,” said Steven Prsha, an engineer for San Diego Gas & Electric, as he wrapped up a tour last month.

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California’s wildfire threat could be an opportunity for cleanenergy microgrids, by Sammy Roth, The Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2019.

 

This East Bay Energy Startup Is Building Microgrids for California’s Fire Stations

As California leaders scramble to address the fallout from devastating wildfires that have ripped across the state in recent years, the California Public Utilities Commission is reviewing rules that allow the state’s electric utilities to cut power to communities when there is a major risk of forest fire.

The goal: pre-emptively shut off power to sections of California’s aging grid so that it doesn’t spark any more deadly blazes. These wildfires have also destroyed homes and entire towns, and this week brought the state’s largest utility to the brink of bankruptcy.

Shutting off power may well be a necessary step, but — beyond potentially leaving communities in the dark for days or longer — it also risks handcuffing first responders who need power to do their work if the fire comes from another source.

One possible answer to the dilemma: Fremont-based Gridscape Solutions, a renewable energy project developer, is working with California fire stations to build resilient microgrids.

“As soon as utility power is shut off, our controller detects the loss of…power and will automatically switch to the battery and solar power,” said Vipul Gore, the company’s president and CEO. “All the loads in this fire station are critical loads. With our system, there’s full power at the fire station, even if there is no power to anyone else, and then it will run on the solar and the battery system.”

Gridscape’s microgrids allow fire stations to run islanded from the grid, and the company believes it’s a model that can be replicated across the state — especially in areas at risk of wildfire. So far Gridscape has piloted microgrids at three fire stations in Fremont, one of the largest cities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pacific Gas & Electric is under immense public scrutiny for its role in causing multiple small fires and possibly several major ones that have burned across its territory in recent months. CEO Geisha Williams stepped down from the company on Sunday, after the utility saw its credit rating downgraded to “junk” status and shares tumbled. The utility announced Monday that it will file for bankruptcy protection by the end of the month, facing billions of dollars in potential wildfire liabilities.

Regardless of what happens to PG&E, it’s clear that the state’s power grid is a risk and new solutions are needed.

A virtually connected and controlled microgrid

California regulators are examining plans to prioritize de-energizing large sections of the state’s electric grid in the wake of recent wildfires. They’ve already ordered utilities in the state to hold workshops in areas that could see preventative outages. If a utility does cut power, it is supposed to alert customers and emergency service operators a couple hours before.

Peter Asmus, associate director of utilities and energy companies for Navigant Research, said the main concern with cutting power as a preventative measure against fires is ensuring that these critical services remain operational.

“I’m not opposed to that idea,” he said, “But what about those first responders? Does that mean they’re not going to have power? Which means they’re probably going to rely on their diesel generator backups, which means that they could…burn through a lot of fuel, even when there’s not a fire. Then, if an actual fire occurs, what are they going to do?”

Gridscape’s system solves this problem by allowing the station to run on power generated by its solar system or stored in a battery. At the very least, it can extend the number of days that a fire station can run its backup generator. “It’s a factor of the battery,” Gore said. “With a larger battery…I think it can run 24/7 without any problem.”

Photo: California Energy Commission, Source: Greentech Media

In Fremont, Gridscape has deployed 40-kilowatt solar arrays on car canopies combined with 110-kilowatt-hour battery energy storage systems. These distributed energy resources are not the most innovative piece of the project, however. The most innovative aspect is on the back end.

Gridscape’s microgrids are virtually connected with cloud-based software and controlled with a smart controller that manages power flow from the distributed resources and from the grid. It is one of a few companies to market this type of system for building resiliency into an emergency management and wildfire protection.

“We can detect signals from the utility,” said Alok Singhania, a partner in Gridscape. “We can make sure that battery is full, and if we know a shutdown is coming, we can start to cut down on the consumption. [If] the utilities say, ‘Well, we think the outage is going to be four days.’ We can plan for that based on the weather conditions. That’s the power of the software.”

Beyond resiliency, the software also allows fire stations to better manage their energy use. “There’s more solar production between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and not enough later in the day,” Singhania said. “The microgrid allows you to manage the time shift, very effectively, without adding anything. That’s the point we’re trying to make. It’s cost-effective — period.”

Fremont’s fire station microgrids

Rachel DiFranco, Fremont’s sustainability manager, said that the city’s goal with the project is to support local clean technology businesses, demonstrate the benefits of renewable energy storage for the community, and prove that a microgrid system can work at its fire stations.

“We always thought of this as a really key strategy for resiliency,” DiFranco said. “And we started this before all these really significant wildfires that happened in Northern California. It’s even more important now that in the last couple years we’ve seen extreme fire events that have been exacerbated by climate change.”

DiFranco estimates that the system will save — at minimum — $250,000 in power costs over about a 10-year period. But she expects even higher savings as the battery saves on peak demand charges at the fire stations.

Additionally, the city will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80,000 pounds annually. “This was always a great idea from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, and it will add operational resiliency. But it also hit so many value-adds beyond the sustainability factor,” DiFranco said.

Photo: California Energy Commission, Source: Greentech Media

Fremont’s microgrid system was built for $2.4 million. The California Energy Commission kicked in $1.8 million, and Gridscape Solutions paid for the rest, which it will recoup through a power-purchase agreement with the city of Fremont.

“The fire station microgrids allow us to significantly save on our operational costs while at the same time introducing an aspect of resiliency by providing us with energy independence,”  Alexander Schubeck, the emergency services manager for Fremont Fire Department, said in a statement.

Gridscape won a $4.9 million grant from the Energy Commission in 2018 to build out these types of microgrids, as the startup competes with other microgrid players like Sunrun and Schneider Electric. Gore is in talks about building microgrids at fire stations in Richmond and other cities across the state. He said the next site could be in the city of Stockton, California.

“They also housed the 911 emergency dispatch center at the fire station in Stockton,” said Gore. “All [of] the county calls come there. It is as critical as it can get.”

This East Bay Energy Startup Is Building Microgrids for California’s Fire Stations, by Kevin Stark, Greentech Media, January 15, 2019.

Modern energy infrastructure could mitigate California’s wildfire crisis

What is the value of technology that can sense a problem with a power line and cut the electricity flowing through it faster than it’s able to hit the ground and ignite nearby vegetation? What about mini independent power grids that can disconnect from the main utility and function in the case of a system-wide failure — allowing critical infrastructure like hospitals and first responders to still operate while mitigating the potential fire hazard for the larger community?

Clean technologies like these that allow greater control over the power grid already exist.

They’re the kinds of solutions that should make hard choices easier — like the decision that local utility PG&E had to make about whether or not to keep power running during November’s fire in Paradise, California. Solutions like these mean that people may not lose their homes to fire, that power can be restored in minutes or hours versus days or weeks, and that essential services can keep lights and heating and cooling systems on during emergencies.

The question is — why aren’t utilities racing to incorporate them?

We used to be a nation that invested in energy technology and while some utilities have begun testing and incorporating newer clean technologies — we’re not anywhere near a transition.

The conversation has been stuck at the estimated $1 trillion cost of building a modern smart grid across the country. But we’re already spending $150 billion per year right now from outages due to weather alone. And in 2017, PG&E faced up to $6 billion for damages from that year’s wildfires. At that price, across the country, we could be integrating synchrophaser sensors that can detect and react within seconds to problems along miles of power lines, (which San Diego Gas and Electric has begun doing), along with microgrids.

Microgrids would make the biggest difference in a natural disaster. A large connected grid means limitless vulnerabilities that can wipe out the entire system, and continuous power that’s hard to isolate and manage when there are trouble spots. Self-contained and resilient — if there’s a problem with a microgrid, it only affects the immediate area. In the case of a wildfire it can be entirely shutdown, remotely managed, and easily restarted once danger has passed. Their small, compact nature also means that select sections of the grid can be kept in operation even if everything else is off.

While major utilities in the state have yet to adopt them, California has notable microgrids in operation — several of which belong to the military and serve as teaching examples: Camp Pendleton, Fort Hunter Liggett and Borrego Springs. Even Alcatraz runs on a microgrid.

Historically, the United States has always made the shift to the next era of power generation — from wood and hydro, to coal, to oil and then nuclear — but that hasn’t been happening this time around as renewables and clean technologies have become viable. The current power grid is literally stuck in the 60’s — an analogue system that relies on centralized generation and endless miles of cables, poles and substations spread over long distances. One major disruption along the line and the whole thing can go down, and worse, as we’ve repeatedly now seen in California — it can contribute to the damage done.

The unfortunate short answer to why utilities have been slow to adopt these innovations is that “it’s complicated.” It involves changing behavior and re-orienting and aligning current disincentives built into the regulated utility system into incentives to invest and deploy. This is the nature of moving from central generation to the future of distributed generation. Utilities, regulators and politicians are unsure of how to control and make money from distributed generation.

As the fires in California have demonstrated, natural disasters as a result of drier land from lack of rainfall, increasingly dangerous storms and other climate change related problems are already here and will only get worse. The California Climate Assessment forecasts that by 2050 the area burned by fire in the state will increase by 77 percent and costs will go up by 24 percent.  — But the need for better technology is as simple as the reality that it will always be impossible to maintain tens of thousands of miles of cables and the natural world that grows around them to a level that ensures safety without incident.

Making the investment in modernizing our energy infrastructure means we’ll be prepared with a more resilient system for future natural disasters. Now that we know — there’s no excuse for inaction.

Jigar Shah is the founder of renewable energy company SunEdison.

 

Modern energy infrastructure could mitigate California’s wildfire crisis, by Jigar Shah, The Hill, January 12, 2019.