Some Wonder if Electric Microgrids Could Light the Way in California (and Elsewhere)
City leaders are eager to find a way to keep the lights on during emergencies, and they’re weighing an investment in a microgrid.
Stateline, an Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts
By Sophie Quinton
Calistoga, California, a city of some 5,300, lies tucked in the Napa Valley between wooded hills that state utility regulators classify as extremely susceptible to wildfires.
The town was recently threatened by the Kincade Fire and has endured several blackouts since the largest utility in the state, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), last year began a policy of shutting down power lines to prevent its equipment from sparking blazes.
City leaders are eager to find a way to keep the lights on during emergencies, and they’re weighing an investment in a microgrid: solar panels, batteries and other on-site generation and storage that would allow the town to stay electrified without depending on far-off transmission lines.
Meanwhile, PG&E has promised a short-term solution: trucking in natural gas generators big enough to power most of the town.
In the wake of power shut-offs that affected millions of Californians last month, clean energy advocates are calling for a transformation of the state’s electric grid. They want to see more home solar-panel and battery systems and microgrids, a catchall term that can mean on-site power for a business or an entire community. Both can allow homes and neighborhoods to remain electrified during a crisis.
It’s small power versus big power,” said Democratic state Sen. Henry Stern, who spoke to Stateline by phone hours after evacuating his home in Los Angeles County to escape a brush fire. “A grid that’s not driven by long lines going through precarious canyons, but by distributed power in communities.”
The threat of future blackouts could put California at the forefront of a national push toward localizing the energy grid, experts say. “I believe that these power safety shut-offs will thrust California into the national lead,” said Peter Asmus, a research director at Navigant Research, a clean energy market research and advisory firm.
But a more localized grid could be a long time coming — particularly as temporary generators may prove a cheaper and easier solution for utilities and homeowners alike.
Utilities agree that the grid needs to change. “There’s a definite need to move toward some form of microgrid sectionalization,” William Johnson, PG&E president and CEO, told the California Public Utilities Commission last month.
PG&E is working on only a handful of microgrid projects, however. PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty noted that community microgrids that include overhead transmission lines still may need to be powered down when high winds create a wildfire threat.
For now, utilities and elected leaders are in crisis mode as several fires continue to burn in the state. Stern and 10 other Democratic lawmakers are publicly calling on utility regulators to get backup power into communities, including boosting aid for homeowners who want to add energy storage.
Legislation to help people, particularly seniors and vulnerable residents, withstand power outages is pending, Stern said.
We’ll absolutely be introducing legislation, but the problem is legislation will take too long. This is a crisis today, literally today.”
A Power Breakdown
California wildfire investigators have found that utility equipment sparked several major fires in recent years, including last year’s Camp Fire, which killed more than 80 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. Wildfire liability claims sent PG&E into bankruptcy proceedings earlier this year.
Now the state’s major utilities are doing more to prevent wildfires, including shutting off the power during dry, windy conditions. Utilities statewide shut off power to tens of thousands of households last month, sometimes for several days.
They’ve made it clear that the blackouts won’t end anytime soon. PG&E’s Johnson told the California Public Utilities Commission last month that the utility may use power shut-offs to reduce wildfire risk for the next 10 years, until it has cleared vegetation around lines and improved transmission infrastructure.
State lawmakers already have been promoting local power sources. Starting in 2020, California will require solar panels to be installed on all new homes. Stern sponsored state legislation last year instructing the Public Utilities Commission to figure out how to reduce barriers to adopting microgrids, specifying that electricity must be generated in accordance with state emissions standards.
Microgrids can be powered by gas, steam and wind turbines, generators and solar power. Setting up a microgrid can take weeks or years, depending on its size, application and other factors, said Asmus of Navigant Research.
Since the power shut-offs began, more homeowners appear to be researching solar-panel and battery systems, and more communities, such as Calistoga, are talking about setting up a microgrid powered by renewable energy.
San Francisco-based solar provider Sunrun is seeing more interest in its home battery technology, media manager Shave Levy said in an email to Stateline. In the days after the first power shut-off this year, he said, web traffic to a company page describing how solar and batteries can power homes during a blackout jumped 1,500%.
Scott Murtishaw, a senior adviser for regulatory affairs at the California Solar and Storage Association, a trade association, said that one of the group’s member companies is reporting a tenfold increase in calls from interested customers.
Environmentalists and solar energy supporters say solar panels are a better choice for households and communities than generators, because they’re more reliable, better for the environment and can lower ratepayers’ electricity costs. Solar power also can help the state reach its ambitious renewable energy goals.
Relying on diesel fuel could present a fire risk of its own. Stern recalled racing to obtain more fuel for an urgent care center in his district during last year’s Woolsey Fire. “We literally had to run a fuel convoy, through a fire zone, full of those red diesel fuel containers ... to turn those generators back on,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether distributed energy systems can eliminate the need for risky, long-distance transmission lines, said Malini Kannan, a senior engineer for the Clean Coalition, a nonprofit with offices in California and Colorado that advocates for renewable energy.
But there’s nothing that shows that it’s not possible,” she said. “So I think longer term, there is definitely the potential to power local loads with local generation, and decrease the need for that transmission line.”
There are over 100 microgrids in California that involve two or more buildings, and such systems are likely to become more common, said Asmus of Navigant Research.
But truly reconfiguring the electric grid poses technical challenges, and encouraging homeowners to go solar — particularly in low-income communities — could require additional public subsidies.
“It’s not going to happen on its own,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.
The temporary microgrids that PG&E says it has created in Calistoga and Angwin, another small Northern California town, could be converted to permanent microgrids eventually, complete with more on-site generation such as solar panels, said Doherty, the PG&E spokesman.
But for the utility, the easiest solution to power outages may be simply to move generators around during a crisis. “We see this as a more cost-effective approach,” Doherty said.
Calistoga is talking to several companies about possible energy storage and microgrid ideas, Mayor Chris Canning said. “We’re happy to be guinea pigs at this point.”
It’s too early to tell how much money the town would have to spend on a microgrid, he said, but local leaders are looking for a solution beyond PG&E’s generators — which burn fossil fuels, won’t electrify neighborhoods close to a high-fire-risk zone and won’t be a permanent fix.
At the end of the day, even with our generator station, we’re still at their mercy,” Canning said of the utility.
For homeowners, buying solar panels and batteries also may present more challenges than buying a small generator.
Solar panels and batteries can cost thousands of dollars to purchase and install, though state and federal subsidies and leasing schemes can reduce the price significantly. Both methods require permits in California and need to be connected to the electric grid.
Portable generators and fuel, meanwhile, can be bought for a few hundred dollars at home improvement stores and connected directly to crucial appliances. Larger, more expensive generators can power an entire home.
While solar companies and nonprofits try to make it as easy and inexpensive as possible for people to set up solar panel systems, “the main barrier is definitely the high up-front cost,” said Steve Campbell, policy and business development project manager at GRID Alternatives, an Oakland-based nonprofit that helps low-income people and communities install solar panels.
Most of the over 940,000 California households with solar panels don’t have batteries to store that energy for use during a blackout, said Murtishaw of the California Solar and Storage Association. Only in recent years have customers started to add energy storage, as prices have fallen and the state has added subsidies, he said.
The California Public Utilities Commission has a program that helps utility customers pay for energy storage installations. The commission recently set aside $100 million to help vulnerable households and facilities such as hospitals in high-fire-risk areas pay for batteries that connect to solar panels.
But renewable energy advocates remain worried that blackouts may widen the divide between California’s haves and have-nots, with wealthier communities embracing energy storage, microgrids and generators while low-income residents sit in the dark.
“We do not want to see a two-tiered system,” Campbell said.