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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.

'It would be a respite area for folks that need to charge their cell phones and keep their (medications) cold,' Stillman said. 'It would be a place where they can go so they don't have to completely move out during a power outage.'

Oakmont could become a pilot project for other communities such as the Springs, Glen Ellen and Kenwood, and any region whose power is at the mercy of PG&E.

'The main thing is to get it going to see what goes wrong, what needs to be fixed,' McKinney said. Operating the microgrid would give hands-on understanding of how to do this kind of thing in high fire-risk, high PSPS-prone areas, he said.

Future plans could include expanding solar power and battery storage systems throughout the community, which would put power into the systems when there is solar energy and store it for evening hours when energy demands increase, McKinney and Stillman said.

Stone Edge Farm on Sonoma's western edge is a proof-of-concept project that was recognized in 2018 for its energy microgrid. It was named one of 13 winners of California's highest environmental honor, the Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA).

Stone Edge is an organic comprehensive microgrid that is fully self-sustaining with its own air and water conservation system and an energy storage system that allowed it to be fully powered during the blackouts and when they were evacuated during the 2017 fires, Stillman said.

'Stone Edge is famous in this area' for its innovation and accomplishments, but, Stillman said, the cost of what Stone Edge uses is 'not necessarily economical.'

'They did it as an experiment. They've spent a lot of money,' Stillman said of the farm's owners – Leslie and Mac McQuown, a former Wells Fargo Bank investment director.

Expanding microgrids that are still connected to the public utilities through lines owned by PG&E, for example, would also give public utilities more control and precision on which areas would lose power during a PSPS, but that involves investment in infrastructure and technology, Burr said.

Some public utilities are working on updating and improving their systems, but not all, Burr said. In part, they have shareholders and have a 'fiduciary responsibility' to produce revenue.

He called the utility structure 'antiquated' and said nothing is going to change without pressure on regulators, such as California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and state legislators.

Public utilities are 'regulated monopolies' and 'people have been willing to put up with it for the most part because they provide reliable service and it's been affordable. When you start to see it fall down, people get mad really quick,' Burr said.

The 'antiquated' model does not inspire innovation or creativity in changing the model, said Burr.

'This regulated construction does not reward a utility for innovating, taking risks and investing in (research and development) in a meaningful way,' Burr said.

'(Utilities) are a charging monopoly' whose infrastructure has been 'depreciating for decades.'

It's time to 'break the utility model,' Burr said, because what is 'alarming' is that the only entity that has the ability to protect the community in energy supply is the utility itself.

In the Oakmont model, Burr said the community is going to need to get the cooperation and permission from PG&E to move forward, or get the CPUC to tell PG&E 'your monopoly doesn't apply' here. He's working with a large city, which he declined to name, that is trying to create its own series of microgrids.

'They're afraid to go to battle with the utility. If a big city isn't going to do it,' it will be difficult for small communities to do it, too, he said. 'The regulator has to pave the way and carve out' the model that will create an opportunity for 'innovation and competition.'

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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