The month is October. The place is California. High winds are starting to ramp up, and the power is about to ramp down. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is cutting power to more than 2 million people to reduce wildfire risk. Almost all the lights will go off, but not those on the 100-acre reservation of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe. They have a state-of-the-art microgrid that integrates with the larger PG&E power grid. This system kicks in to keep the lights on.
PG&E serves 16 million Californians, but the company filed for bankruptcy in 2019. The company is responsible for an estimated $30 billion of the damage from the devastating 2017 wildfires. Dozens of people perished, and billions of dollars in property burned. Equipment owned and maintained by PG&E is alleged to be responsible for some of the fires.
Without the financial and logistical ability to immediately replace critical infrastructure, the 2019 solution is to cut the power when wildfire danger is high. The cradle of innovative technology in northern California is held hostage by faltering equipment and an outdated regulatory system. Microgrids are a local solution to the problem.
A microgrid is a small, locally sourced electric power supply attached to a larger centralized utility but also able to operate independently. If my neighbors and I have a set of solar panels, batteries, and controllers supplying us with electricity, then we have a microgrid. If the main utility power goes out, then we still have access to electricity.
In general, microgrids consist of distributed energy resources, including electric generating systems, energy storage devices, and controls to regulate the system. These systems have become popular with small businesses and public entities where continuity of power is essential.
Two barriers facing microgrid solutions are costs and regulations. Upfront costs for building and installing a system are considerable, and just as significant is the burden imposed by some regulatory environments. In many states, the regulatory framework for managing electricity has not kept pace with rapidly advancing technologies. This situation is unfortunate but not surprising.
Conservation and security
Microgrids guarantee power continuity but not green energy. If the energy source for a microgrid is some form of renewable or sustainable energy, then the gird moves us towards a more environmentally friendly solution. JFK Airport in New York is moving towards 100 percent renewable energy for one of its microgrids at a new terminal.
Electricity is the foundation of our civilization. Sit on a hill overlooking Los Angeles one night and observe the light show. Now imagine the city descending into chaos if the electric supply disappears. Without electricity, the lifestyle and culture of urban America cease to exist.
Microgrids move us towards energy security, and they can move us towards a more sustainable environment if we so desire. The technology is here. Our local, state and federal governments need to catch up.
Microgrids Key to Bringing a Billion out of the Dark (Chad Lipton – National Geographic) – https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2015/05/15/microgrids-key-to-bringing-a-billion-out-of-the-dark/ Also:
Amid shut-off woes, a beacon of energy (Scott Wilson – Washington Post – January 2020) – https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/01/01/amid-shut-off-woes-beacon-energy/?arc404=true Also:
Making sense of the California power outage (Aamir Paul – SE Blog – October 2019) – https://blog.se.com/smart-grid/2019/10/09/making-sense-of-the-california-power-outage/ Also:
Microgrid Definitions (Berkeley Lab) – https://building-microgrid.lbl.gov/microgrid-definitions Also:
Feature Image: Solar panels Mesa Verde (Dennis Schroeder – NREL Photographer) (Modified) Public Domain