Microgrids are coming, say local energy watchdogs
The region's recent round of PG&E-forced power outages caused long lines at gas stations, demand for bags of ice and generators, and spurred more conversation around the concept of electrical microgrids.
The microgrid concept is broad and can be utilized in a variety of ways, but the basic idea is to create an island of electricity self-reliance, of sorts, as it pertains to powering neighborhoods and distinct communities. In some cases, microgrids are created as back-up electrical power sources when public utility power outages occur. In other cases microgrids are intended for self-reliance and as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
'We have, in the city, talked about the need to have a minigrid,' said Sonoma Mayor Amy Harrington after the fourth power outage imposed by Pacific Gas and Electric's (PG&E) so-called Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) in October.
The Sonoma Valley Unified School District is already in partnership with the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to install a microgrid on the district's bus barn, said Bruce Abbott, associate superintendent of the school district.
EPRI received a research grant to install a potential bus barn microgrid that will provide power to the main grid, and after its research project is complete the equipment will be left behind for the district to use as either a revenue generator – by selling the power it produces – or as a way to charge its electric bus fleet, for example, Abbott said.
The district already has solar panels installed at all its schools – the largest expense in an alternate power source – and Abbott said the district is exploring options for storing more energy and being able to independently power each school off the solar system during PG&E outages.
'We're just starting that' exploratory work, which includes figuring out just how much power schools need to continue instruction, he said.
As for the City of Sonoma, Harrington said there are plans to invite Sonoma Clean Power (SCP) to present ideas in public meetings – to help the city better understand what options are out there for energy independence for individuals, businesses and communities.
Cordell Stillman, director of programs at SCP, is working with Oakmont, the 55-and-over active-senior community west of Kenwood, in an advisory capacity on creating a microgrid there. Stillman said there has been some talk of other black-out vulnerable Sonoma County communities such as the towns of Occidental and Guerneville, and the Santa Rosa community of Coffey Park, looking into their own independent power sources, but 'it's not an easy thing to do,' Stillman said.
'It takes patience and time and money,' he said. 'But it's coming, it's going to be part of the future. There's going to be microgrids.'
The desire is to be less reliant on fossil fuel-produced energy, as well as to gain distance from PG&E's control over power – the discussion of which was exacerbated during the recent outages under PG&E's self-imposed power shutoffs in October.
'I think this is something the (Board of Supervisors) may want to prioritize,' said Susan Gorin, 1st District Supervisor, whose district includes Sonoma Valley. Gorin said the issue is farther-reaching than just electricity and includes the discussion of climate change. She and District 5 Supervisor Lynda Hopkins have been working together on a county-wide climate change initiative since before the 2017 fires, she said.
Gorin is displeased with the increase in carbon dioxide released by generators, the use of which increased dramatically during PG&E's outages. A microgrid could eliminate the need for personal generators.
Microgrids are a discussion gaining traction nationwide, said Michael Burr, executive director of Microgrid Institute. He said there has been 'an uptick' in interest in microgrids since PG&E started its PSPS, and as power outages occurred during wildfires.
'There is a greater sense of urgency,' Burr said of project planning and work being done on microgrids, but projects 'can take years' to complete.
Oakmont is poised to be one of the first communities in the region to get a start on creating a microgrid, but organizers there aren't ready to claim victory just yet.
'The main target is to have a lot of this done by the next fire season,' said George McKinney. 'The problem is not engineering… it's all about permits and financing.'
McKinney, who is working on the project with a 15-person committee on overall long-range plans for the community, said the initial microgrid wouldn't take the community off the main grid. It would provide an electric oasis during a PSPS event, where power would be centered in what he called 'downtown Oakmont,' meaning where the fire station, local grocery market, Berger center, banks and such are located.