US: Microgrids could help California improve grid resilience in face of wildfire threat
by Peter Asmus
More than 1 million Californians were without electricity during the largest public safety power shutoffs in state history. The shutoffs were implemented during the second week of October by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) over its vast service territory, one of the largest in the United States. Already facing bankruptcy as a result of claims from major wildfires that occurred over the past two years, the utility was being proactive in moving forward with an aggressive approach to public safety.
In addition to digital grid automation investments and shutoff policies, perhaps a better solution is microgrids. Utilities such as PG&E are moving forward in partnership with community choice aggregation programs to develop such resiliency-based systems in Humboldt County, supporting a local airport. Clearly, the state needs a more comprehensive strategy to deploy microgrids more broadly, with greater regulatory clarity on the role for utilities, the private sector and local governments. Of particular concern are critical facilities, including first responders to wildfires and other vital infrastructure services, such as clean drinking water.
This approach is known as energy as a service. It is a global phenomenon that started in developing world markets such as Africa. In these markets, the customers — often referred to as the bottom of the pyramid — are impoverished. The only way for them to gain access to even small amounts of electricity to power lights, cell phones and other small appliances is through monthly mobile phone payments.
To protect these communities, microgrids — or a series of microgrids — could be created to protect entire communities, although that approach would require major regulatory action at the state level and would need to involve utilities such as PG&E.
In the meantime, microgrids targeting municipal and rural county critical facilities — especially fire stations and water districts — are an important first step in preparing California for heightened natural threats. In the future, the impact of the power grid could be a matter of life and death.