Solar Advocates See Opportunity to Take Microgrids to the Next Level in California

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California’s response to the twin threats of wildfires and power shutoffs should encompass solar-plus-storage solutions, including large scale microgrids, according to a new report from advocacy group Vote Solar.

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The report raises concerns that Pacific Gas & Electric will choose only fossil fuel generators at 20 substations in Northern California, where it plans to install microgrids to keep electricity flowing to customers when it shuts off power lines to prevent wildfires. PG&E is currently reviewing bids from a solicitation for the microgrids and is expected to announce winners in the second quarter.

It’s unclear yet exactly what the resource mix will be, but environmental groups are concerned that the microgrids may rely heavily on fossil fuels. The utility, however, says it is attempting to secure renewable natural gas as a subsitute.

“Installing hundreds of megawatts of large fossil generators in towns that experienced power outages in 2019 is the wrong way to build community resilience and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires,” Susannah Churchill, California director for Vote Solar, said in a statement.

Street lights, fire stations, batteries on wheels

Resilient Clean Energy for California argues that solar-plus-storage solutions are more cost effective than fossil fuels and compatible with California’s 100% clean energy mandate. And, because solar-plus-storage installations are modular, they can be deployed in a variety of configurations, from small to large, the authors of the report say.

The report advocates for a range of solutions, from small-scale installations such as solar-powered street lights and stop lights and medium-scale solutions where solar panels power buildings, including homes, businesses, and critical facilities, such as fire stations, to large-scale solutions such as clean microgrids that can power campuses or clusters of buildings.

Microgrids set up at fire stations in Fremont serve as an example of a medium-scale solution in the report. For a large-scale solution, Vote Solar cites the microgrid installed at Blue Lake Rancheria in Humboldt County that was able to provide services to 13,000 visitors and save the lives of seven medically vulnerable people.

Electric vehicles as “batteries on wheels” also offer an “emerging opportunity” that could be tapped to provide power during an outage, the report says.

Village power and modular microgrids

Vote Solar recommends taking microgrids “to the next level” by working on standardized microgrid designs to drive down costs and to demonstrate full community or “village power” microgrids as an alternative to running wires in dangerous terrain.

Microgrids are still an evolving industry in which there is a tendency to customize each installation, says the report. But efforts are way to standardize design at places like the Schatz Energy Center at Humboldt State University in California, where researchers are  are working on a standardization for the state’s 12,000 gas stations and convenience stores. Schatz Energy Center took the lead in developing the Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid and the Redwood Coast Airport microgrid project.

An out-of-the-box design that would enable modular microgrids to be put together “like Lego blocks” could shrink design and deployment costs and could result in cost savings of up to 30%, according to the report, which cited research by Peter Asmus, an analyst with Navigant Research.

The Vote Solar report also recommended that the California Energy Commission establish more ambitious goals to demonstrate fully off-grid communities in fire hazard and vulnerable zones that would enable the removal of problematic power lines in what the authors call a “village power” approach that is common on island and in remote communities in Alaska.

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