California Microgrids Flex Their Skills During Blackouts

Aug. 25, 2020
Here’s how California microgrids delivered flexible load and backup during the recent blackouts.

California microgrids stepped up during the mid-August rolling blackouts, delivering flexible load and providing backup electricity, as extreme heat left the state short on power.

Stone Edge Farm’s microgrid and three microgrids operated by Bloom Energy were among those that provided resiliency for their owners and community members on August 15. Other microgrids — including those at Blue Lake Rancheria, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and a series of home microgrids operated by OhmConnect — provided hundreds of kilowatt hours of much-needed flexible load.

In addition, the US Navy and Marine Corps disconnected 22 ships from shore power, transitioned a submarine base to backup generators and activated several microgrid facilities resulting in approximately 23.5 MW of load reduction, said the California Energy Commission (CEC), California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and California Independent System Operator (CAISO) in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom. The three agencies worked with the Navy and Marine Corps on those efforts.

And six microgrids funded by the state’s Electric Program Investment Charge reduced load by a total of approximately 1.2 MW each day, the letter said.

“The whole situation is a testament to what conservation and quick action can do,“ said Jana Ganion, director of sustainability and government affairs at Blue Lake Rancheria, a Humboldt County tribal facility that voluntarily moved two microgrids into island mode to free up power.

“The call for help went out from a number of people including the governor and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to conserve and take demand off the grid. People responded,” she said, adding that the response helped avert additional blackouts.

Home as hero

In fact, a network of home microgrids and networked home appliances controlled by OhmConnect on August 15 provided 220 MWh to the grid as a generating resource, said Cisco DeVries, CEO of OhmConnect, which operates a network of microgrids and a virtual power plant. The virtual power plant aggregates homeowners’ appliances such as smart water heaters and smart thermostats and offers these resources to CAISO.

The company paid homeowners $300,000 on that day alone, their portion of the amount OhmConnect made providing resources to the grid.

Cadir Lee, president and CTO of OhmConnect, was one of the company’s customers who provided power by islanding his microgrid.

He didn’t immediately realize his microgrid had transitioned into island mode during a three-hour blackout imposed by PG&E, he said. The microgrid consists of seven solar panels, two Tesla Powerwalls and controls.

“We didn’t notice a lack of power,” he said.

Lee installed the home microgrid last year after he lost power — including all the food in his refrigerator —during two public safety power shutoffs, one that lasted 24 hours and another 48 hours.

“I’m thrilled that I was able to get this setup. It is a big quality of life improvement now that we are in the midst of a whole set of wildfires,” he said.

Not only did Lee avoid having his lights, computers, refrigerator and other appliances and equipment down; he earned $200 on August 15 by participating in his company’s virtual power plant program.

“We paid customers over $300,000 on Friday alone for the services they provide and we also got paid”  —  Cisco DeVries, CEO of OhmConnect

Commercial microgrids also played an important role during the crisis.

Over the weekend of August 16, three Bloom Energy microgrids were in the path of California’s rolling blackouts and continued operating to keep customers powered on, said Asim Hussain, vice president of commercial strategy and customer experience for Bloom Energy.

Bloom has more than 30 microgrids in California that are serving facilities during the heatwave, he said. The Bloom distributed generation fleet in California provides more than 250 MW of power, which plays a role in relieving stress on the electric grid, he said.

“The rolling blackouts that California experienced this week highlight the importance of utilizing reliable distributed energy resources to take stress off of the electric grid,” he said.

Staying in island mode, just in case…

Like the three Bloom Energy microgrids, Stone Edge Farm’s microgrid was located in the blackout region, and continued to operate, said Jorge Elizondo, a founder and CTO of Heila Technologies, whose software runs the microgrid.

The owners of the Sonoma vineyard now are operating the microgrid mostly in island mode to guarantee they won’t be subject to rolling blackouts or public safety power shutoffs, he said.

“At this point. If there are blackouts, we don’t notice in real time,” he said. “The owner likes the independence and doesn’t want to worry about these issues.” He also wants to demonstrate that this is possible for public safety power shutoffs and other interruptions. “There’s too much load on the system. We can be off grid and forget about it.”

Blue Lake Rancheria. Courtesy of Siemens

Blue Lake Rancheria microgrids prove themselves again

Two other microgrids that are helping out during the crisis are owned by Blue Lake Rancheria. The tribe fielded requests from the CEC and PG&E to help conserve energy the week of August 15.

The tribe voluntarily moved both its microgrids into island mode during peak hours last week, from 3 pm until 10 pm, said Janion. The move conserved about 450 kW and the tribe was not paid for its contribution.

“One of the goals in building these microgrids was to ease pressure on the grid when it’s in danger of being overloaded,” she said. “The second is to avoid multiple blackouts when the grid is unstable.”

Blue Lake Rancheria, which uses a Siemens microgrid controller and Tesla batteries, received grant funding from the CEC as a demonstration project, and was a winner of the Greater Good Award at Microgrid 2019, a Microgrid Knowledge conference. The project was credited with saving several lives by providing electricty for medical equipment during a power outage last year.

A 6 MW rescue by the military

At Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, operators of the station’s sophisticated microgrid reduced power draw from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) by about 6 MW, said Capt Matthew ‘Red Bull’ Gregory, director of communication for the station.

The microgrid, located in San Diego, didn’t island in the traditional sense, but reduced power draw during peak hours. The microgrid includes five distributed energy resources, including solar, energy storage, landfill gas, diesel and natural gas plant plus EV charging.

“On average we draw about 10 MW of power for operations. We have an approximate 3 MW offset to that provided by our landfill gas generated power plant, this was already being utilized ahead of the peak demand,” he said.

In addition, a four-generator power plant — natural gas and diesel powered — lowered draw by about 3.3 MW, which reduced the station’s demand for power to 4 MW overall, with no changes or impacts on operations.

“Using both during these times allowed us to free up 6 MW of power for SDG&E and power approximately 2000 or more homes around San Diego during the high demand hours,” said Gregory.

The microgrid allows the station to island and continue operations with minimal effect for up to 21 days, which is 150% of the Department of Defense benchmark.

By Mihai Simonia/

“It’s really scary”

Meanwhile, hot weather and fires are expected to continue — well ahead of the traditional fire season, which generally starts in October, said Heila’s Elizondo.

Some of the recent fires have been sparked by lightning storms that don’t bring rain, which is frightening, he said.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and started seeing lights in the clouds, there was no sound, it was very strange, there was no rain. I never saw that before in California. It’s not even fire season yet and the rains don’t come until November. It’s really scary.”

The future? Flexible resources

To help ensure that microgrids and power plants can help during this crisis, utility customers need to learn about virtual power plant and load-shedding programs, said OhmConnect’s DeVries.

“We paid customers over $300,000 on Friday alone for the services they provide and we also got paid,” he said. Many utility customers don’t believe that they can actually get paid to participate in such programs, he added.

He’s been meeting with regulators and other stakeholders to discuss how to provide flexible resources with DERs to address the energy crisis.

“This week is about keeping the lights on. Next week is about how we avoid having this problem ever happen again,” DeVries said.

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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