How Nanogrids Assist with Public Safety — Wildfires, Power Outages and Other Challenges

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This entry from a new special report series  explores how wildfires, storms and other disasters plague the interconnected grid. Public safety nanogrids can help. 

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Get the full report.

The grid challenges associated with wildfires, especially in California, are significant. To help prevent power lines from sparking wildfires in areas where fires frequently occur, some utilities have begun shutting down the grid during periods of high winds. The practice is called a public safety power shutoff, a de-energization of power lines.

These events are more likely to occur when conditions exist that might cause a power line to fall and spark. High winds (including red flag warnings declared by the National Weather Service), low humidity, or the presence of dry vegetation can fuel fires. In addition, on-the-ground observations, firethreats to electric infrastructure and public safety risks all are considered when such events are called.

Because they are lower cost and less complex, public safety nanogrids can be deployed more quickly to protect communities and families from shutoffs.

The shutoffs create havoc. Occurrences of car accidents increase as drivers try to get around without traffic lights.
The health and safety of people who need electrically-run medical equipment becomes jeopardized. Stores and homeowners lose frozen goods. Schools close. The environment suffers harm as households and businesses turn on fossil-fuel backup generators.

Two of California’s biggest investor-owned utilities abandoned their 2020 plans to install multiple permanent microgrids. That’s due to high costs, complexity, and the urgency of coping with wildfire season. Because they are lower cost and less complex, nanogrids can be deployed more quickly to protect communities and families from shutoffs. In addition, nanogrids help protect California’s climate goals better than the temporary diesel- fueled mobile generators that consumers, businesses and utilities are using.

Concerns about shutoffs and the elderly, disabled

Local and state officials are concerned about how such shut-offs will affect disabled and elderly residents.

“We’re all worried about it for the elderly. We’re worried about it because we could see people’s power shut off not for a day or two but potentially a week,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said about the public safety power shut-offs.

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Local and state officials are concerned about how such shut-offs will affect disabled and elderly residents. Photo: By Simone Hogan/

Homeowners who own solar systems may assume they’re immune to such shut-offs. But unless they have the proper equipment, they can’t separate their systems from the grid. As we discussed earlier, solar energy systems that lack transfer switches — equipment that prevents electricity from backfeeding to the grid — will also be shut down during such events.

Nanogrids with transfer switches can operate independently of the grid when it’s shut down because of wildfire concerns. They can be installed in whole neighborhoods that are susceptible to fires and keep power flowing to homes.

Given all of the benefits public safety nanogrids offer, why aren’t there more of them? One reason is that they are still relatively new, but another is that they face obstacles that better rules and regulations could solve, as we’ll describe next.

Now that you’re aware of the potential of public safety microgrids. Catch up the first entry in the special report series, and learn how solar nanogrids can help solve the challenge of variability on the grid. 

Over the next two weeks, this special report article series will explore the following topics exploring solar nanogrids: 

Download the full report, “Nanogrids: A New Opportunity for the Solar Industry,” courtesy of Instant ON, to learn more.

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