When power went out in Northern California during PG&E’s series of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) last fall, thousands of households and businesses went dark. But a few kept their lights on – those with generators, and other sources of stored power, like the self-contained microgrid owned by Mac McQuown.
McQuown was ready for the moment the power went off. When it happened, he reached for his phone and pressed a few buttons. Seconds later, the lights sprang back to life.
“We can run our operations remotely through our phones even when the power is shut off by PG&E,” McQuown said. “Having a consistent and reliable source of power that is carbon-neutral is becoming more and more critical.”
Locally controlled microgrids
Few alternatives for generating localized electricity during a power shutoff exist. Most commonly, generators that run on fossil fuel are used as short-term backups to power homes, a business, or even a modestly sized neighborhood or town for short periods of time during power outages.
Microgrids, however, can power a home, business or larger area. They are locally controlled and operated energy arrays that can disconnect from a larger utility grid (such as that run by Pacific Gas and Electric) and safely operate as self–contained energy islands during power shutoffs. A microgrid includes energy generation (often solar), energy storage (batteries or as hydrogen gas), and can be controlled and monitored remotely to ensure vital services during power failures.
Whereas generators are fossil-fuel-burning engines that produce electricity for as long as the fuel holds up, microgrids can be fuel-generating systems that have the potential to run indefinitely.
Climate change is accelerating
For years, McQuown and his team have been preparing an intricate and innovative self-sustainable microgrid on his Stone Edge Farm, a 16-acre property in Sonoma County with extensive vineyards and gardens, as well as a home and other outbuildings.
His system could power operations for days, even weeks if needed.
“Our team has developed a way to capture solar energy and convert that to stored energy in both batteries and hydrogen to power daily operations when the power goes out,” McQuown said. “Climate change has exacerbated and will continue to exacerbate the need for reliable, clean power. This is our motivation.”
Since the early 1970s, summers in Northern California have warmed by about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit, records show. And although that might not sound like a lot, for every degree change there is an additive effect. According to The Atlantic magazine, “Every additional increment in heat in the environment speeds up evaporation, dries out soil and parches trees and vegetation, turning them into ready fuel for a blaze.”
The result has been an increase in both the frequency and ferocity of fires. For California, the top 10 most destructive fires in the state all occurred after 1990, statistics show. Those that have occurred since 1990 include the 2017 Tubbs Fire that started just northwest of Calistoga and burned more than 5,500 structures, resulting in over $1.3 billion in losses and tragically killing 22 people.
PG&E to continue power shut offs
Electric equipment failure ranks among the top three causes of California wildfires, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Tubbs Fire and the state’s most deadly blaze, the Camp Fire in 2018, both have been attributed to failed overhead power lines that sparked infernos during red-flag conditions.
In 2019, the residents of Calistoga endured five power shutoffs in October, with many locals wondering if this might become the new normal. As if to answer, Bill Johnson, CEO of PG&E, informed state regulators that the power shutoffs would continue for at least the next decade as the company makes repairs and upgrades its system.
On Oct. 10, 1905, the fledgling San Francisco Gas and Electric Co. and the California Gas and Electric Corp. merged to form the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E). Five years later, the state of California had more high-tension lines than anywhere else in the world. As they do today, many of those high-voltage power lines crossed fire-sensitive landscapes. And while many states and counties shifted power lines underground to both preserve the landscape and reduce fire risk, California’s network of overhead power lines remains the main mode of power distribution.
Populations expand into riskier areas
When PG&E was founded in 1905, the total population in the state of California was fewer than 2 million. Today, there are nearly 40 million residents, many of whom live near dense vegetation.
“People are increasingly building closer to fire-prone areas,” Vox.com reported last October. “In California, which is facing a severe housing shortage, homes are going up near wilderness areas full of fuel as people get priced out of big cities. Running power lines to these homes often near forests and shrubland increases the risk of igniting a fire.”
Gov. Gavin Newson recently called the increasing number of power shutoffs the “new abnormal,” pointing to the need to find alternatives so that businesses and residents can have access to consistent, safe and sustainable power throughout the year.
Both households and businesses are harmed by these shutoffs. For households, the impacts can range from the inability to cook or store food properly to life-threatening situations for those requiring life-support systems.
The cost of lost business, coupled with food spoilage, means that local grocery stores, restaurants and hotels affected by the recent power shutoffs lost many thousands of dollars for every day they were without power.
The case in Calistoga
Businesses affected by the shutoffs are at a disadvantage when competing with businesses that have a consistent source of power. During 2019, PG&E stationed diesel-power generators in Calistoga that powered homes and businesses on the east side of the Napa River. Those living and working on the west side of the river were not so lucky. One Calistoga business might have had power while another just 30 feet away was without.
The result is insecurity and frustration. The Weekly Calistogan reported that Jennifer Piallat, the owner of Lovina, a restaurant in Calistoga, said she “worried about [the] loss of revenue, loss of products and keeping her 21 employees, when they could go work for Solage or one of the other restaurants on the east side of the river.”
Other westside Calistoga business owners and residents lament over the extra costs they incur – food loss, generator costs, etc., when compared with their eastern neighbors. The result of this dynamic is just one of the reasons Calistoga is at the forefront of finding solutions.
“We are looking into a variety of options (including microgrids) as a way to address (shutoffs) in the future,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning. “It’s likely that there is not one perfect solution for what is a complicated and challenging problem, but Calistoga is committed to seeing that all its residents have alternative backup sources of safe, reliable power in the future.”
Beyond the costs of the power shutoffs, the combination of intermittent power outages and lost communication coupled with the risk of yearly fires have resulted in a disruption in the normal daily life of those affected, with many looking for alternatives to the current power grid.
Stone Edge Farm’s example
Since 2015, Jorge Elizondo, an electrical engineer who received his Ph.D. from MIT and co-founded Heila Technologies, a microgrid-technology company, has helped design and build the Stone Edge Farm’s microgrid.
Stone Edge Farm’s microgrid can function in several different modes including as an “island” disconnected from the public utility grid (like PG&E), supplied by their own energy sources, and disconnected from the utility and supplying any extra energy back to the public utility grid.
The ability to operate in that mode is presently not allowed under the current regulations of California’s PUC, however. Before leaving office, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1339, which will go into effect in December 2020, and is intended to facilitate the commercialization of microgrids by streamlining the process for integrating them into the main electrical grid.
McQuown’s team has transformed his 16-acre Stone Edge Farm in Sonoma County into a futuristic version of what can be achieved through developing a zero-carbon microgrid that sustained power throughout the 2017 and 2019 power outages. Their model, although costly to install with estimates in the millions, may be poised to take advantage of the impending rule changes that will provide microgrid owners the ability to sell back some of their stored power to public utilities.
“In some ways it might be unfortunate that we are at this point,” McQuown said. “However, there is an opportunity to take this challenge and build new infrastructure that not only deals with power shutoffs but also contributes to the healing of the planet.”
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