Sonoma Valley school district eyes energy microgrids

Sonoma Valley Unified School District officials are exploring ways to bring each of its 11 district schools onto a smaller energy “microgrid” in order to be less energy dependent in the event of future PG&E power shutoffs.

Sonoma Valley Unified School District lost seven instructional days in October due to PG&E power shutoffs and fire threat.

The district has applied to the state school board for an allowance of attendance due to emergency conditions – which would mean it doesn’t have to reschedule the lost days.

Bruce Abbott, associate superintendent of Sonoma Valley Unified School District, said district officials are gathering information on each school’s energy needs as part of a feasibility study into the potential conversion to microgrids.

“We are also working on grants to convert the school lighting to LED to reduce the (energy) load,” said Abbott.

The district has already launched efforts to convert its bus yard to a separate microgrid, partnering with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto to install a microgrid for the bus barn, which will provide power for the bus yard and for the district’s new electric buses.

Through a research grant, EPRI is installing the microgrid that will provide power to the main grid, and after its research project is complete the company will leave behind the equipment for the district to use. The district could opt to use it as a revenue generator by selling the power it produces, or as a way to charge its electric bus fleet, for example, Abbott said.

“Work continues on the microgrid at the bus yard (and we’re) hoping to (have it up and) running by the end of this school year,” he said.

Possibly the largest expense in the microgrid system is the solar panels, which are already installed at all the schools, Abbott said. Relying on the solar panels during PG&E induced power outages isn’t possible because the district doesn’t have a way of storing the energy the panels produce.

Microgrids create an “island” of sorts, said Peter Asmus, an energy consultant who works on new energy business models such as microgrids, nanogrids and other cutting edge energy programs. He is principal research analyst with Navigant Research and president of Pathfinder Communications.

Microgrids are not a new concept, he said, it was the self-contained plan Thomas Edison worked on when electricity was first supplied. But as the industry grew, so did regulations.

“Bigger is better was the thinking. Now everything is reversing,” Asmus said.

Microgrids are the way of the future, growing interest is concentrated on the East Coast – mostly north of Washington, D.C. – and on the West Coast, Asmus said. Most of it is driven by the escalation of weather severity and climate change and, of course, school districts across California lost several days of instruction to PG&E’s power shut off under its so-called Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS). Shoreline Unified School District, located in Tomales, is exploring microgrids, as are Santa Rita Union School District in Salinas, Santa Barbara Unified School District and others, Asmus said.

Asmus said he has seen “a huge uptick” in microgrid interest by school districts.

“Demand is going through the roof,” he said, adding that a lot of the companies providing services and equipment related to microgrids are located in California so that is also providing “a local form of economic development, too.”

With microgrids – also called “islands” – the district would have more control of maintaining instruction days, and ultimately could be a source of respite for community members who lose their power.

Energy islands don’t necessarily have to consist of renewable energy, they can be powered by fossil fuels, too, but that isn’t the most desirable composition, Asmus said. They also come in all types of “sizes and shapes” based on the needs of the project, he said. For example, military bases have more cyber-security needs than a school, he said.

Abbott said they have talked to a few consultants and contractors, as well as the team that designed and built Sonoma’s Stone Edge Farm “to get an idea on how to approach the project.”

Stone Edge, which launched its own energy microgrid at the foot of Sonoma Mountain on Carriger Road in 2016, “is one of the best things Sonoma has going for it because it is a center of innovation,” Asmus said. “It is privately funded and in some ways they can do things faster” because of that.

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