Rob Thornton, IDEA
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle 2018
During this month’s public safety power shut-offs, in which more than 2 million households and businesses lost electricity from a disabled grid, thousands of Californians exercised their only apparent option to keep lights on and safely store medicines and food.
They bought a dirty, diesel-powered electric generator.
News reports documented that store shelves were emptied, and on the first day of the shut-offs, stock in the nation’s largest manufacturer of backup home generators surged by 10%.
The prospect of entire communities enduring days without electrical power without backup plans in place is unacceptable. But widespread reliance on diesel-powered generators makes a bad situation worse.
Those generators are expensive, inefficient and unhealthful. Federal EPA calculations show that if every currently permitted diesel generator in the San Francisco Bay Area was powered up during a 48-hour power shutdown, they would emit the carbon dioxide equivalent of burning 2,000 tons of coal, spewing tens of thousands of pounds of toxic air pollutants.
California can do better than to turn back the clock to 20th -century technology. If state officials act quickly, they can implement regulations for Californians to deploy proven, safe and cleaner technologies before another fire season comes around.
Microgrids utilize a combination of clean and efficient technologies — such as solar, wind, batteries, fuel cells and other sources — to create a local, mini-power grid that can provide longer-duration, more-resilient power during extended outages.
Because they can disconnect from the larger electricity grid and run independently, microgrids can provide locally sourced power even during extreme weather, natural disasters or planned shutdowns of the grid. Because they are not solely reliant on tanks of stored fuel, they can operate for extended periods, even in the event of a prolonged power shut-off.
Microgrids are proven to be reliable and resilient, especially in regions susceptible to power outages from extreme weather or aging infrastructure. Princeton University’s microgrid performed for 200-plus hours during Hurricane Sandy and Houston’s Texas Medical Center powered through Hurricane Harvey, maintaining continuous energy services for residents, patients, researchers and first responders.
In the past, energy regulators have expressed concerns that low-income residents might end up subsidizing microgrids. Low-income residents don’t have the hundreds of dollars to purchase a backup generator for days. Local microgrids that power a hospital, a grocery store, a community center or a school may be their only options for refuge and resupply during a prolonged grid outage.
Resistance from incumbent utilities and outmoded state regulations have largely discouraged deployment in California. Excessive and inappropriate “departing load charges” and standby rates have often dissuaded California companies, institutions and health care facilities from making private investments in microgrids — private investments that would clearly provide public benefit.
By adopting sensible and transparent rules to facilitate deployment and interconnection of microgrids, the state can create a more level playing field to stimulate private investment that will, in turn, help mitigate potentially huge economic losses and real public safety risks inherent in power outages.
In the aftermath of this month’s widespread power shut-offs, the Legislature and state Public Utilities Commission face growing urgency to focus on ways to refine and minimize the use of that public safety measure. And after experiencing the economic and social disruption of multiple shut-offs, constituents will rightly demand better solutions — if not, they will install their own unsafe systems.
California cannot simply legislate away the frightening fire risks from power lines running over tinder-dry wildlands nor regulate away decades of greenhouse gas emissions that have exacerbated those risks.
But it is possible, through prompt, thoughtful revision of laws and regulations, to enable microgrids that can mitigate the impact of shut-offs and provide local economies with more-resilient, sustainable and reliable sources of thermal energy and electricity.
SB1339 from state Sen. Henry Stern, D-Malibu (Los Angeles County), is a good start. It directs the California Public Utilities Commission to open proceedings to further develop microgrid policies. That process is now under way, and time is of the essence.
It will be important for the microgrid industry, utilities and regulators to collaborate to accelerate microgrid development in California — before next fire season. It’s long past time to reconsider arcane rules that help preserve the status quo and embrace the common-sense regulatory reforms that foster cleaner, more-resilient energy solutions.
Rob Thornton serves on the executive committee of Microgrid Resources Coalition, a national nonprofit organization composed of microgrid owners, operators, developers, suppliers and investors working together to advance clean, resilient energy solutions.