Nearly two years ago, Briceburg lost its only connection to the electric grid after a wildfire ravaged the area.
Instead of rebuilding wires and poles on increasingly dry hillsides that could increase the risk of equipment setting off catastrophic fires, the nation’s largest utility decided to give Briceburg an independent power system.
This month, the stand-alone grid of solar panels and batteries was operational. This is the first of hundreds possible of this kind, as Pacific Gas & Electric attempts to avoid another deadly fire similar to the one that led to its bankruptcy filings in 2019.
This technology can be accelerated as one of many strategies to increase energy resilience in California. California is currently experiencing a vicious cycle of extreme heat and drought that has ravaged the West. It has caused massive blackouts and threatened the power supply in the nation’s largest state. Other strategies include increasing the price of electricity in high-demand hours, when it is most costly to provide, and offering cash or prizes to help conserve energy when the grid is stretched.
“I don’t believe anyone could have predicted how fast the climate change changes would occur. “We’re all scrambling for that,” Peter Lehman, founder of the Schatz Energy Research Center in Arcata, said.
This response was in light of widespread blackouts that occurred in California over the past two years, which exposed the power grid’s vulnerability for weather. In order to prevent high-voltage transmission lines from catching fire, utilities shut down large areas of power supply to California in response to intense windstorms. Last summer saw the first ever rolling outages in 20-years due to an oppressive heat wave. Over 800,000 homes lost power in August.
Two microgrids were used by a Native American reservation in California’s northern coast to keep electricity flowing during both crises. They can be disconnected from the larger electrical grid to switch to solar energy stored near the hotel-casino.
The Blue Lake Rancheria was a lifeline to thousands of neighbors as rural Humboldt County was left in darkness during an October 2019 shutoff. It provided fuel and supplies, a hotel and medical services, and the venue also housed patients. A local newspaper used the conference area to publish the next day’s edition. Meanwhile, a hatchery kept its fish alive by pumping water.
“We have had outages in the past, but they weren’t severe. “This one lasted almost 3 days for us,” Shad Overton, manager at Mad River Hatchery, said. “The microgrid provided the electricity that powered the diesel fuel we required to run our generator.
To ease the strain on the state’s grid, microgrids in the reservation went into “island” mode during rolling blackouts last august.
Jana Ganion is the tribe’s director for sustainability. She stated that she arrived just in time to deal with these emergencies. “It’s about good governance over a number of decades that paid attention… to what tribal elders were describing about how the circumstances were changing and taking that information and planning accordingly.”
Experts in energy said that the $8 million tribe’s microgrids demonstrate the technology’s potential to provide reliable power to small-scale operations such as fire stations, hospitals, and other emergency services.
It is extremely valuable to have anything that can provide electricity, charge your phone, or keep the fridge fueled when it is dark. Severin Borenstein, an energy economist from the University of California at Berkeley, said that microgrids could play a significant role in this.
Numerous projects have been funded by the state’s energy commission. These are being used as testing grounds for policies that could lead to the commercialization of microgrids. Regulators are working to fix a long-standing rule that prevents private microgrids selling excess electricity “overthe fence”, as they are not regulated.
Paul Doherty, a utility spokesperson, stated that in Briceburg, PG&E decided the cost of installing and maintaining a remote grid outweighed any long-term risk of having to replace power lines. It will be charged the same rate to five customers that draw power from it as before.
The state’s grid managers continue to face the same challenges as last year. California buys electricity from neighboring States when it runs out of power. However, imports can be difficult to find when California is hit by the same heat wave.
Utilities across the U.S. West are preparing for another summer of heatwaves and have signed contracts for additional emergency power supplies. They also want to ensure they don’t rely on the same suppliers.
The grid must be balanced between demand and supply at all times. It is most important to balance the grid on hot days in the afternoon and evening when solar power generation slows down after dark.
According to the California Independent System Operator, there have been improvements in power storage and transmission over the summer. This includes four times more battery storage than the 500 megawatts currently stored on the system. The storage will increase to 2,000 megawatts by august. There will be approximately 3,500 megawatts of power storage capacity, enough to power about 2.6 million homes.
Officials warn that power shortages could still occur this summer.
Borenstein, who is also a member of ISO’s board and governors, stated that “We don’t know how hot it will get” or how much demand there will be.
Utility customers are being encouraged to shift energy use to when renewable resources are more plentiful. To do this, they are switching to new rate plans that pay less during the day and more during peak demand hours.
One company offers incentives in the form cash or gift cards to households that reduce household consumption during key times. OhmConnect, an electricity market participant, stated that customers who agreed to allow the company to manage their smart thermostats or appliances saved almost one gigawatt-hour of energy during the four-day period when ISO issued FlexAlerts urging conservation.
Cisco DeVries is the CEO of the Oakland-based startup. He joked that the chance to save energy and make money seems too good to believe so the company hired Kristen Bell.
DeVries stated that blackouts can feel like something you cannot control, but that we can actually prevent them if we work together.