From Gold Rush to Microgrid Push in Nevada County, California

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Nevada County in Northern California sprawls west to east from the foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada mountains over the top of the snow-covered peaks to near Lake Tahoe. Dotted with former mining towns, including the county seat, Nevada City, and the sister city of Grass Valley, the region is the heart of Gold Rush country. It is also a high-fire-risk district due to its heavily wooded terrain and exceedingly dry climate in summer and fall, making it a prime area for microgrids.

Nevada County

Downtown Grass Valley, Calif., a community severely impacted by PG&E’s power shutoffs last fall. Photo by Jason Fordney

Pacific Gas & Electric’s controversial public-safety power shutoffs (PSPS) hit the area hard last fall. The distress and economic damage has spurred county leaders and business owners to pursue microgrids and back-up power systems before the 2020 wildfire season begins.

“We are looking at all solutions,” Alison Lehman, county executive officer for Nevada County, told Microgrid Knowledge.

In late January, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors voted to approve a letter of support for Burlingame, Calif.-based storage company Spin Storage Systems as it sought a grant from the California Energy Commission to field test emerging storage technologies. The program is one of several state initiatives to deploy resiliency resources for high-fire-risk areas.

During the power shutoffs, the county struggled to retain core and emergency services, including health and human services, and more mundane, but important activities such as issuing building permits, Lehman said.

$400,000/day in losses for Nevada County businesses

The county, which has about 1000 employees and about 100,000 residents, activated its emergency operations center and reached out to constituents. Its facilities include 20 wastewater plants, an airport and other facilities, some of which had back-up generation and some that didn’t.

During the outages, PG&E responded by setting up portable diesel generation at the Grass Valley substation, and also established community resource centers to provide facilities for residents to charge electronic devices. The county also opened up some county buildings for that purpose.

Still, Lehman estimates that local businesses lost $400,000 a day due to the power outages. Some subsequently closed their doors. One local business, a food cooperative, told Microgrid Knowledge it lost $300,000 in two days from spoilage and lost commerce. Others reported $20,000 to $30,000 in losses per day.

Prior to her interview, Lehman had been meeting with representatives of BoxPower, a Grass Valley-based company that manufactures stand-alone storage/solar containers. BoxPower and other microgrid-related companies reported huge growth in call volume after the shutoffs.  

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Steve Monahan, Nevada County’s chief information officer, said the county seeks microgrids that use clean energy sources with storage, if at all possible. “Hopefully one of these technologies will fit in with that,” he said.

“The box power is technology that is available today,” he said.” It’s very interesting.” The county is working on penciling out the return on investment necessary for the systems.

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“I think it’s really close,” Monahan said. “We’d love to do a project with them.”

Angelo Campus, BoxPower co-founder and CEO, grew up locally, in the small town of North San Juan, and was homeschooled. He attended Princeton University where he majored in civil engineering and anthropology, allowing him to access the resources and contacts to start his company. His main area of interest is the human interface with energy he said, with the goal of bringing electricity to more of the world’s population. 

Campus originally considered operating the company as a non-profit but found a for-profit model to be a better choice, he said. The company’s systems are used in rural homes and farms in California, community microgrid projects in Alaska and disaster recovery in Puerto Rico.

microgrids

BoxPower co-founder and CEO Angelo Campus, with one of his company’s solar container/back-up generator microgrids at its Grass Valley, Calif. headquarters. Photo by Jason Fordney

Part of modular trend for microgrids

According to Campus, traditional solar developers and installers often don’t have experience installing battery systems, which are more invasive and more involved, requiring added features like fire suppression.

“A lot of companies shy away from battery projects because it’s outside their wheelhouse, outside their comfort zones,” he said. BoxPower’s goal was to make a solar and battery system as simple and easy to install as possible. The modular systems range from 3.5 kW to more than 22 kW per container, with options for additional solar via integrated rooftop or ground mount. Linked systems are capable of generating up to 528 kW. The company, which was a finalist in Microgrid Knowledge’s Greater Good Award competition last year, finances the full cost of a “minibox” for as low as $250 per month.

When asked what it will take for significant microgrid growth in the area and across the state, Campus said: “It’s going to take a lot more than us. It’s going to take a lot more than just private companies offering power solutions.”

Another of the microgrid-related companies hearing from customers is Utah-based Humless, which offers an all-in-one storage system that intelligently manages the flow of electricity from any source for any use. Dubbed the Humless Universal Energy Management System, it integrates with existing residential grid-tied solar systems and any manufacturer’s panels and enables simultaneous AC/DC Coupling with expandability.

“Millions of California customers have suffered this past year when PG&E cut off electric supply. Utilities in other states are following suit, negatively affecting the US power grid’s reliability,” said Glenn Jakins, Humless CEO. “With 200-plus coal burning power plants being retired, the fear of nuclear power, and the slow growth of utility grade renewable energy power plants, this trend of intermittent power outages will likely spread.” 

With PSPS events due to last for another five to ten years, and state officials and manufacturers working diligently to deploy microgrid solutions to carry communities and businesses through the events, it appears that microgrids are poised for huge growth in high-fire-risk areas such as Nevada County.

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