With Wildfire Season Arriving, Microgrids Can Save Lives and Protect Health

May 20, 2024
Wildfire season has begun in Canada, and in the U.S., above normal fire risks are expected in some regions. Here’s how microgrids can help protect wildfire-prone communities.

During wildfire-related power shutoffs that took place in northwest Humboldt County, California, for multiple days in October 2019, the owners of Blue Lake Rancheria welcomed the broader community to take advantage of its microgrid’s ability to stay powered. That invitation saved the lives of at least four people.

Saving lives and protecting the health of vulnerable people are critical benefits of microgrids, as climate-change-driven wildfires and public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) increase.

Wildfire season has already arrived in Canada, creating smoky skies and prompting evacuations. In the U.S., above normal fire risks are expected in certain regions.

Health care centers seeking solar microgrids

During wildfire season, energy resilience is especially important to health care centers, for which there has been an uptick in requests for solar microgrids, said Ben Money, senior vice president of population health for the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC).

“A growing number of community health centers are reaching out with interest about solar microgrids given the essential role health centers play as first responders in weather related events,” he said. The health centers’ mission is to keep their doors open to respond to patients’ needs before, during and after disasters, he added.

NACHC earlier this year launched the Energy Improvements in Remote or Rural Areas project with partners Capital Link, Collective Energy and Clean Energy Group. The effort is backed by an award of up to $57 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations. The goal is to provide energy resilience for health centers in rural Southeastern regions by supplying solar panels, battery storage systems and microgrids for up to 175 health centers in rural Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Keeping medical equipment and refrigerators powered

Microgrids located in wildfire-prone regions can keep medical equipment powered and refrigeration for medicine available during an outage.

For example, Alliance Medical Center, located in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, California, recently completed a microgrid funded with a $495,000 grant from Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid organization, as part of its Power for Health initiative. The medical facility is the fifth microgrid Direct Relief has helped fund in California.

The project includes a 58-kW solar array and 330-kWh battery storage system designed to provide up to 15 hours of electricity during outages, ensuring power flow to medical equipment and refrigeration needed for medications. Sonoma County has experienced devastating wildfires in the past, including the 2019 Kincade Fire and the 2017 Tubbs Fire. The region also experiences PSPS.

Alliance Medical Center endures frequent power interruptions to its clinic sites, said Susannah Labbe, CEO of the center. The sites have had to grapple with outages related to the Tubbs and Kincade fires, numerous PSPS, unplanned outages and planned outages aimed at upgrading infrastructure to withstand wildfire risks, she said. During peak fire season, PSPS occur anytime there are high winds, resulting in PSPS events as often as a few times per month.

Helping vulnerable community members

“Having the ability to continue to operate our Healdsburg clinic site despite an interruption to the main power grid will allow us to continue to safely deliver medical, dental, behavioral health and pharmacy services to the vulnerable patient population we serve,” Labbe said. Alliance Medical Center serves about 13,000 community members regardless of their ability to pay. Many of them would not have access to care without the center’s presence in the community. Most of the patients are either uninsured or rely on Medicaid, and they are predominantly Spanish speakers, she said.

In addition to providing energy resilience, the microgrid will save money by operating during peak use hours, reducing grid power purchases, said Labbe.

Remote microgrids planned in wildfire-plagued PG&E territory

Also in wildfire-plagued California, New Sun Road and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in 2022 announced a partnership that they believe will help mitigate wildfire risk with remote microgrids. PG&E’s renewable energy “stand-alone power systems,” or remote grids, are designed to replace long electric distribution lines in the threatened areas across the company’s 70,000 square mile service area. Earlier this month, PG&E announced that it is planning six new microgrids in 2024 as part of that effort.

Building back power systems after wildfire destruction

Microgrids are also being chosen for building back infrastructure after wildfires.

In Maui, which was devastated by the Lahaina fire during the summer of 2023, residents are planning a solar, electric vehicle and microgrid-based system as the island builds back. The Lahaina fire was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, and the fifth deadliest on record since 1871. With most of the grid destroyed and 100 known casualties, the death toll surpassed that of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, which killed 85.

Hawaiian Electric has suggested that Lahaina’s energy infrastructure could be rebuilt as microgrids and has applied for funding for diesel generators to power the microgrids. But residents planning for the clean microgrids say that in sunny Maui, there’s no need for diesel.

And that’s yet another way that microgrids in fire-prone regions yield benefits. They can replace diesel generators, cutting pollution and improving the health of residents.

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

Facebook: Energy Efficiency Markets

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