Some Small Towns Received Electricity From Microgrids During Power Shutoffs

December 6, 2019 Updated: December 6, 2019
FONT BFONT SText size

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which has faced widespread criticism from state leaders and residents, is experimenting with new methods for providing alternative power sources for its customers during scheduled Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS).

In October, PG&E provided diesel-fueled generators to commercial areas in four small towns: Calistoga and Angwin in Napa County, Grass Valley in Nevada County, and Placerville in El Dorado County.

“We did use [the microgrid generators] during the last few public safety power shutoffs, where we proactively turned off the power to reduce wildfire risk,” Deanna Contreras, a spokesperson for PG&E in the North Bay region, told The Epoch Times. “They did generate a large portion of Calistoga—with, of course, downtown being the main portion that we wanted to generate.”

“It is a way to help minimize impact to areas like Calistoga during these PSPS,” she added.

Contreras confirmed the generators were used “for the duration of the public safety power shutoff” in Calistoga and Angwin—the towns that represented PG&E’s two pilot projects with microgrids.

“We’re happy to be a guinea pig for this project,” Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We are fortunate to have grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops powered.”

However, the generators were not turned on in Grass Valley or Placerville, because the utility company scaled back on its initial shutoff plan.

Microgrids are becoming increasingly sought after as sources of power when a main grid is affected by shutoffs and power outages.

Unlike main grids, which are generally comprised of a system that connects power sources and users, microgrids are typically smaller and freestanding. Crucially, most microgrids have the ability to “island” themselves from parent grids, allowing them to supply energy when the main grids are inactive.

“We hope to set up about 40 microgrids over the coming years in areas subject to these frequent Public Safety Power Shutoffs,” Contreras said, noting that Calistoga is one area in particularly that is frequently impacted by the PSPS.

The central strengths of a microgrid are evident: they are resilient and reliable during emergency outages and shutoffs. However, they are not perfect solutions.

Quinn Nakayama, PG&E’s director of grid innovation, told the Chronicle that “microgrids are a powerful tool, but ensuring they are safe to energize during a (power shut-off) is going to be tantamount to ensuring that the general public remains safe due to high wind events and the wildfire risk.”

They also currently run on diesel—a fossil fuel. Still, Nakayama said the most important factor is that microgrids must “work on our system.”

“That’s the number one requirement, but as long as it meets those operational requirements, I will entertain cleaner solutions,” he said. “I’ll take just about anything over diesel.”

“We definitely hope to use other fuels in the future,” Contreras said. “But right now, diesel fuel is all that is available.”

During the first October outage, the switch to the microgrid in Angwin took nearly ten hours, according to the Chronicle.

PG&E said that switching off from the main grid in the ensuing three blackouts in Angwin and Calistoga were accomplished in three hours or less.

Others have suggested that the most effective clean energy solution would consist of solar panels supplemented by battery systems.

“When you combine solar with battery, when the sun comes back up the next day, it recharges the battery and then it continues to operate, whereas with a diesel generator you can run out of fuel,” Audrey Lee, vice president of energy services for the San Francisco-based solar provider Sunrun, told the Chronicle.

“It’s so important that we find more reliable solution that don’t make the problem worse and put more people in danger, such as these diesel generators,” Lee added.