It’s Dark in California but the Message is Clear: More Microgrids Needed

Oct. 11, 2019
California is the poster child for microgrids, usually in a good way, this week in a bad way. Some Californians had access to microgrids when the power outages struck; most still did not.

California is the poster child for microgrids, usually in a good way, this week in a bad way.

The power outages to 738,000 electric customers illustrated that even California, one of the lead states deploying microgrids, is not building them quickly enough. Microgrids act as local islands of power when the central grid fails, or in this case when power is intentionally shut down as a safety precaution.

Some Californians had access to microgrids when the outage struck; most did not.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) began shutting off power Wednesday under threat of high winds. The utility was concerned that downed power lines would spark fires that would quickly spread in windy conditions. In bankruptcy over earlier wildfires that resulted in loss of life, the utility was taking no chances.

Press reports described chaos as a big swath of the world’s fifth largest economy this week found itself without an essential resource.

The chaos of power outages

Car accidents increased as drivers tried to navigate without traffic lights. Stores lost perishable inventory. Those who require medical devices for their health counted the hours before they could no longer manage without them. Schools closed. Workers were sidelined without the Internet. 

People were angry. The governor was angry. Economists warned that the cost to the California economy could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, or even “a cool billion.”

The Los Angeles Times described the power outage as “humiliating.”

“The state is confronting its reliance on a transmission network that predates climate change, solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, depending instead on electric lines strung over thousands of miles on vulnerable wooden poles,” wrote the newspaper.

And unfortunately, public safety power shutoffs, the term used by California utilities, may not be an anomaly, given heightened concern about wildfires following the deadly 2018 season. 

Extended outages may, in fact, be the “new normal,” FEMA Region 9 tweeted.

“Therefore it is not about averting; it is about preparing for them,” said Gregg Morasca, vice president of strategic customers for Schneider Electric.  

“Businesses will need to look at microgrids” — Gregg Morasca, Schneider Electric

“Communities have to be prepared to assist those where electricity is critical, especially those more vulnerable like the elderly and the young. Public safety facilities, senior centers, and healthcare units all need to address the need to be able to operate off-grid for these situations,” he said. “Businesses will need to look at microgrids, not just to address their bottom line, but also to provide their employees with the safety of a shelter-in-place location.”

Even energy experts found themselves in the dark. The DER-CAM team, part of the renowned Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, posted a message that its servers would be down for the duration of the outage.

“Events like these help illustrate the importance of distributed energy resources and microgrids to preserving and enhancing reliable electricity service against a growing potential for disruptions,” DER-CAM wrote. “We’re thankful to be part of a community working to make access to reliable, affordable and sustainable energy a reality.”

To its credit, California is working in many ways on reshaping its grid to incorporate microgrids. The California Energy Commission has invested more than one-hundred million dollars to jumpstart microgrid development. And the Public Utilities Commission has begun considering regulations to further support microgrids, in keeping with a law passed in 2018.

Several California microgrids stand out as world-class models. These include microgrids at the University of California, San Diego; Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar, also in San Diego; the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County; and the Kaiser Richmond Medical Center in Contra Costa County.

But most Californians who faced the power outages still had no microgrids or access to them.

Stone Edge Farm, Blue Lake Rancheria using microgrids to help others

Seeing an uptick in microgrid enquiries — Clark Wiedetz, Siemens

The exceptions — those with microgrids — often shared their microgrid power with others in the community.

“We are currently running three households, one spa, one woodworking shop, two car storage barns and two trailers and as a part of our community outreach, we are powering a refrigeration van that stores food from a couple of restaurants from Downtown Sonoma,” said Troy Wooster of Wooster Engineering, which operates a microgrid installed at Stone Edge Farm, a winery in Sonoma.

When Wooster contacted Microgrid Knowledge, the Stone Edge Farm microgrid had been islanded from the power grid and supplying power on its own for 33 hours.

With its microgrid, Blue Lake Rancheria, a tribal community in Humboldt County, kept its casino, hotel and government offices operating during the outage. Seventy-five percent of the energy came from the sun. The tribe opened a community support center at the casino for people to come and charge their phones and for students to do their homework, or for community members to just socialize with movies and board games. It supplied ice to the public. And car charging was also available at four charging ports for electric vehicles, powered by the microgrid. Fittingly, Blue Lake Rancheria was a 2019 winner of the Microgrid Greater Good Award.

Some Californians experienced the frustration of having their microgrids in development, but not finished before the outage.

Update There has been significant microgrid activity in California since this story was first published. Here are a few of the most recent articles we’ve written on microgrid development and efforts to make California’s grid more resilient.

One was Peter Asmus of Navigant Research, well-known in the microgrid community for his research on the topic. Asmus had to find a cafe to communicate with Microgrid Knowledge, since power at his home was out. He has been working to get a microgrid built in his community.

“I’m in the process of getting estimates from vendors for the fire station, water district and community center. I received an email just a few days ago, which implied the projects may finally get fast tracked because of this shutdown,” he said. “The challenge remains for these small overworked districts to figure out how to finance such systems.”

Asmus added: “In an ideal world, utilities such as PG&E would follow the lead of proposals for Puerto Rico and sectionalize its grid into a series of microgrids. Rather than the blunt instrument of just cutting off customers from electricity, the utility could then better manage and protect critical facilities and allow customers to still have power even in the face of bona fide threats.”

Solar is good. Solar microgrids are better.

The power outage also acted as a wake up call for those with solar panels who thought — wrongly — that their panels would continue to supply power when the grid goes down.

“Small communities and campuses, along with the utilities serving them, are starting to realize the vast potential positive role that microgrids.” — Will Agate, Ameresco

AJ Perkins, president of DR Microgrids, said his company was working with one of its dealers and the dealer’s customer, who said, “I have solar and didn’t think I have to worry about the blackouts. I guess I need a nanogrid [a kind of microgrid]. How quickly can you install one on my home?” 

Perkins added, “It’s important to remember that, for various reasons, typical grid-tied solar systems will not function when the grid goes down unless they have special switchgear, inverters and controls that allow them to function in microgrid or nanogrid mode, cutting themselves off from the grid. This is to prevent power from flowing into the grid while utility workers are working on it — a potentially fatal problem.”

Microgrid companies say they expect to see an uptick in development activity following the outage. Even before this week’s massive power outage, the threat of such an event and more to come, has created heightened interest in California, said Clark Wiedetz, microgrid director for Siemens Energy Management, which provided the control and management system for the Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid. Enquiries are coming directly from customers as well as from energy service companies and engineering firms working on projects, he said.

“Small communities and campuses, along with the utilities serving them, are starting to realize the vast potential positive role that microgrids can address, namely, recent technology and financial viability advances are making it feasible to deploy microgrids as part of the overall strategy for providing the most reliable electricity for all customers,” added Will Agate, vice president of microgrid services for Ameresco.

“…increases the value of distributed energy resource-powered microgrids” — Jack Griffin, Veolia

Increases value of microgrids

Jack Griffin, vice president and business manager-Boston for SourceOne, Veolia North America’s energy resources subsidiary, said that the utility strategy of shutting off power during times of high wildfire risk “increases the value of distributed energy resource-powered microgrids.”

“Microgrids can present Californians with the option of having an advanced energy delivery system that is economical, sustainable and resilient. In times of a grid emergency they can provide power to the community without the inherent hazard of high voltage transmission lines,” Griffin said.

PG&E reported that it had restored power to all but 312,000 customers as of Thursday night. The true number of those without power was in the millions, since a ‘customer’ is a home or business which likely encompasses multiple people. 

Now two questions loom. How many more times will California utilities shut the power off for safety reasons? And will the state ramp up microgrid development quickly enough to make future outages less painful?

Lisa Cohn contributed to this article.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

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

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