Utility Microgrids Come to California with Speed — and Invention

Jan. 28, 2020
Utility microgrids are coming to California with speed and innovention. Here’s a look at some of the innovations described in last week’s state filings before the public utilities commission.

Utility microgrids are coming to California — and fast — according to plans filed before state regulators last week by the state’s three investor-owned utilities.

At the urging of the public utilities commission, the utilities are trying to install microgrids quickly, many in 2020, to reduce power outages when the next wildfire season strikes. Millions of Californians lost power in October and November when utilities de-energized lines to avoid sparking fires.

But the plans encompass more than quick-to-build utility microgrids. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE) also are casting an eye toward longer term innovation to improve and scale microgrids.

SCE, for example, is not only getting ready to solicit vendors for immediate help with microgrids at high risk circuits, but also wants to build an additional, smart city microgrid. The utility, which serves 14 million people in southern California, intends to leverage $4.2 million from a state grant to install a front-of-the-meter microgrid to support a significant portion of a city’s essential facilities. What’s interesting is that the smart city microgrid wouldn’t operate on utility assets alone; it would also make use of customer distributed energy resources.

“SCE has not yet selected a partnering city for this demonstration project, and is open to all proposals, with a focus on disadvantaged communities,” the utility said in the filing.

SCE hopes to choose a city in the first quarter of 2020.

The southern California utility also plans to demonstrate how to add islanding capabilities to existing solar plus storage system at a school. This would allow the San Jacinto High School to serve as an electrified community shelter during a disaster. Many schools across the US have already installed solar, or solar plus storage, but did not include a microgrid. As concerns rise about resiliency grow, some are trying to determine how to add microgrids. 

Will power outages discourage EVs?

In San Diego, SDG&E is examining the use of microgrids and back-up power at a range of strategic locations, such as fire stations, medical centers, schools and evacuation centers. The utility also wants to begin installing electric vehicle charging stations with some of the microgrids. Its premise is that power outages dissuade consumers from purchasing electric vehicles.

“Such an outcome is antithetical to California’s electrification and GHG emissions reductions goals,” wrote SDG&E, which has 3.3 million customers in the San Diego area.

The electric vehicle charging stations would be installed behind a utility meter, and customers would pay for charging on a time-varying rate. How many charging stations the utility installs would depend on the number of electric vehicles in any given location.

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PG&E, the state’s largest utility with 16 million customers, was the first out of the gate with a large solicitation for microgrids in mid December. The utility is seeking 20 microgrids totalling 522 MW. The solicitation, itself, is market-transforming since PG&E could end up building close to as much microgrid capacity as the entire US installed last year, according to Wood Mackenzie data.

Remote microgrids

But several other resiliency efforts also are in the works at PG&E, among them a ‘remote grid initiative’ that it describes as a new utility service concept. The utility would take down long feeder lines to remote communities and replace them with microgrids. In many circumstances, these feeders traverse through areas that experience high wildfire threat. If the long lines are removed, and the customers are instead served by utility microgrids, the threat diminishes. 

The utility hopes to build 4-8 remote grid pilots this year, at a cost of about $2.5-$6.5 million. The microgrids would be about 20 kW each. If the pilots are successful, PG&E hopes to scale up the program to additional areas. 

PG&E also proposed a $69 million program to help communities that want to build microgrids. The utility would provide technical support, improved access to relevant utility information, and financial support for qualified projects. One or more tariffs would be developed to support the accounting for the flows of services, energy, and costs between the parties.

By Aarti Kalyani/Shutterstock.com

Pressure to build utility microgrids

These programs are among a few detailed in the filings. In addition to describing their own microgrids, the utilities noted microgrids under development by customers in their service territories. 

California utilities face increasing pressure to build microgrids, not only to keep the power flowing during wildfire threats, but also to retain customers, especially cities. Some, like the city of San Jose, have threatened to exit utility service and set up their own microgrid-based public utilities. Others are turning to community aggregators.  

Last week’s filings are part of a proceeding (R.19-09-009) underway at the public utilities commission to implement a state law (SB 1333) to boost the commercialization of microgrids. 

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is the editor and founder of EnergyChangemakers.com. She is co-founder and former editor of Microgrid Knowledge.

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