Julian Spector, Green Tech Media
Bankrupt California utility Pacific Gas & Electric has come under fire on many fronts for the scope and execution of its self-imposed blackouts last month. The blackouts will continue as the company pursues a decade-long grid-hardening project.
Electric utilities bear the solemn mission of keeping the lights on, but PG&E's intentional shutoffs leave customers to fend for themselves. That divergence from standard operating procedure poses a question for the embattled utility: How will it take care of its millions of customers who lose access to power when the risk of starting a wildfire gets too high?
The October fires and shutoffs inspired a flurry of commentary on how microgrids and distributed energy could save the day by localizing power production and allowing communities to operate independently of the fire-threatened grid. Though sensible in theory, microgrids must navigate a thicket of regulatory and logistical barriers before they can serve as an effective tool during California blackouts.
Greentech Media dug into what action, if any, PG&E has taken to build local grid resilience that softens the blow of its power shutoff strategy. Not much has happened yet, but the utility is doing more than the casual observer might realize.
PG&E does not operate any community-scale microgrids, though it is working on one in Humboldt County. But it recently built two "resilience zones" that provide temporary backup power in fire-prone Napa County towns, and it plans to scale this concept to 40 other communities.
Microgrids remain stuck between possibility and execution. The technologies that power them are mature and already at work in numerous privately located projects, but few utilities have actually built community-based grid controls. Other utilities have taken that initiative, however, and their early efforts could serve as models for PG&E as it grapples with the new era of regular shutoffs.