Microgrids are Critical to Battle Outages Caused by Wildfires

wildfire forest

(Credit: Pixabay)

by | Feb 25, 2022

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When San Diego Gas & Electric installed a utility-scale microgrid in 2013 in the remote desert town of Borrego Springs, it wanted to keep on the most vital services — things like fire and police, hospitals, and schools. It is part of a broader design that uses onsite generation and battery storage. Given that the town, home to 2,700 residents, has experienced extreme heat and monsoon rains, the urgency was palpable.

California is the national leader in addressing climate change and facilitating the use of renewable energies and green technologies. State law requires the deployment of microgrids, and it has set aside $200 million to assist in their development. The goals are multi-faceted but center on resiliency, economic development, and increasing the use of green energy. The San Diego utility says that Borrego Springs is teaching it to build more microgrids in high-fire threat districts across the company’s service territory.

It’s all in the context of a just-released United Nations report, which says that higher temperatures and changing land patterns are leading to more wildfires and polluted air. Climate change leads to warmer weather and more prolonged droughts that lead to more wildfires. Fifty scholars from 6 continents researched the report. It concludes that without severe mitigation, the risks of dangerous wildfires increase by 57% by the century’s end — all attributed to climate change. 

The Los Angeles Times has reported that the state’s three investor-owned utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric sparked 2,000 fires between 2014 and 2017, all because of defective equipment.

“Reliability had been the utilities’ number one issue,” says Michael Powers, co-founder of Stellar Solar in San Diego, in an interview with Environmental Leader. “Now they are more concerned about liabilities. They cut off the power if high winds and high temperatures lead to wildfires. Now it is up to the customers. We’d love to see sustainability be a top concern, but it is taking a back seat to reliability.”

Solar-plus batteries are providing reliable backup power for critical businesses, he adds. But hospitals still rely on propane tanks or diesel generators if the primary grid goes down. The University of California at San Diego, which has a microgrid covering its campus, can operate independently of the main network. But it must still prioritize its most critical electricity loads. 

UN Report Focuses the Eye

In 2019, PG&E Corp. filed for bankruptcy due to deadly and destructive wildfire a year earlier. The San Francisco-based utility allowed unwieldy trees to interfere with power lines. As part of an agreement, it will upgrade substations and procure generators ahead of wildfire season. The three investor-owned utilities are expected to build several dozens of microgrids.

But the Brattle Group says that natural gas may be the go-to energy source for backup power. The cost of solar and storage have fallen, it adds, but it would take too much battery capacity to keep the lights on for extended periods. Even PG&E expects diesel generators to provide backup power during outages while natural gas will play a key role in firing up onsite generators.

Consider the Montecito Community Microgrid Initiative, which aims to provide Santa Barbara County with green, resilient backup electricity, While it will be linked to the primary grid, it can disconnect if there is a blackout. That will allow critical facilities like fire stations, emergency shelters, and water and communications infrastructure to remain connected during outages.

Meanwhile, the town of Camarillo is creating hybrid solar microgrids that will serve its city hall, police station, library, and wastewater treatment plant. The projects aim to be net-zero over their 30-year life, reducing the carbon footprint at the sites by 88%. The town, located in Pleasant Valley, California, will also use diesel-fired generation. Not only will Camarillo save money, but it will also be resilient — better able to bounce back after an outage. 

The Santa Barbara Unified School District gets its power from one transmission line — routed through mountainous terrain prone to wildfires and mudslides. Its onsite solar generation is in solar parking canopies — staged in parking lots that will soon be home to EV charging stations. Mission-critical loads freezers and refrigerators will run all the time, while “priority loads” will go 80% of the time. Discretionary loads will be online 25% of the time.

“The District’s Solar Microgrids (will) serve the entire community during grid outages, including those resulting from high-impact disasters,” says Steve Vizzolini, director of facilities. “We will be positioned to support everything from emergency sheltering with food service to internet access and electronics charging stations.”

Climate change is leading to more wildfires. And microgrids using onsite solar and battery storage are being used to battle subsequent outages — especially in California, where policymakers are trying to motivate power companies and local jurisdictions to deploy them. 

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