When power went out again in Northern California during the most recent series of public safety power shutoffs, thousands of households and businesses went dark. But a few kept their lights on – those with generators or other sources of stored power, such as the self-contained microgrid owned by Mac McQuown.
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. They had worked for years to prepare for this moment. 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.”
The future of power in California – localized generators, 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 might power a home, business or larger area. These 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. Both options likely will have a role as the region grapples with the likelihood of more power shutoffs as the climate warms.
Climate change is accelerating
“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 north-west of Calistoga and burned more than 5,500 structures, resulting in over $1.3 billion in losses and tragically killing 22 people.
PG&E will continue shutting off power for at least the next decade
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.
Today, 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.
The consequence of accelerating fire-favorable conditions coupled with PG&E’s aging overhead infrastructure is an increase in the frequency and duration of power shutoffs throughout the state.
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.
Population expanding into riskier areas
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When PG&E became official in 1905, the total population in the state of California was less 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 reported. “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.
Businesses affected by the shutoffs are at a disadvantage when competing with businesses that have a consistent source of power. Calistoga makes an interesting case study for this phenomenon. PG&E has constructed a diesel-power generator in Calistoga that powers homes and businesses on the east side of the Napa River. Those living and working on the west side of the river are not so lucky.
During the recent power shutoffs, one Calistoga business might have had power during the recurrent power shutoffs while another just 30 feet away was without. The result is insecurity and frustration. For example, 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 micro grids) as a way to address (shutoffs) in the future,” said Calistoga’s 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.
Transforming the future
Towns and cities from around the area, including Calistoga, are actively looking toward microgrids to help solve their short-term and long-term concerns over power outages. Many are looking closely at Stone Edge Farm’s microgrid as a potential model.
Since 2015, Jorge Elizondo, an electrical engineer who received his PhD. from MIT and co-founded Heila Technologies, a microgrid-technology company, has helped design and build the Stone Edge Farm’s microgrid.
Elizondo explained that their microgrids are built around two key principles. The first is “circularity,” which supports synergies among the parts, creating resiliency so that if any part malfunctions the system continues working. The second is “modularity and decentralization” that allow flexibility within the system so that components can be separated, changed and recombined.
The result of Elizondo’s principles is that the Stone Edge Farm’s microgrid can function in four different modes: 1) an “island” disconnected from the public utility grid (PUG) and supplied by their own energy sources, 2) connected to the PUG and drawing electricity from it, 3) connected to the PUG but neither drawing from nor supplying electricity to it, or 4) disconnected from the PUG and supplying any extra energy to the public utility grid.
The ability to operate in this last mode (4) – supplying energy directly to the public utility – is presently not allowed under the current regulations of California’s PUC. Rule 21 limits the ability of private microgrids to provide excess energy to the PUG. This limitation might soon change, however. Before leaving office, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1339, which will go into effect in December 2020. This new piece of microgrid legislation is intended to facilitate the commercialization of microgrids by streamlining the process for integrating them into the main electrical grid and establishing a value for the technology.
The Stone Edge Farm microgrid
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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