Juice: Beyond Diesel Backup Generation and Blackouts

28 Apr 2020

The use of clean-fueled microgrids to keep power flowing to vulnerable people and critical services—from safety to water supply—during upcoming fires and outages was the talk of the town. Unfortunately, the talk led to little action on installing these types of projects in high fire threat areas in California before wildfires start this year.

Pacific Gas & Electric has contracted for 300 MW of temporary diesel powered backup generation to ensure electricity powers critical resources, community resource centers and medically vulnerable customers during shutoffs. Using this polluting fuel caused an outcry when the utility revealed its 2020 microgrid proposal earlier this year.  The pandemic subsequently drowned out this and other controversies. New studies have shown higher death rates of COVID-19 patients living in polluted areas. Diesel fumes also exacerbate respiratory diseases.

The utility told Current it is working to ensure these mobile backup facilities can run on renewable diesel, emitting less greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. But the use of renewable diesel by the vendors PG&E works with “will be dependent upon availability of fuel supply and logistics,” spokesperson Paul Doherty added.

He said PG&E is committed to finding “cleaner solutions for any temporary generation that may be needed beyond 2020.” Regulators should require that it does just that.

Since last year’s fires, Southern California Edison has worked to install only one microgrid, which is to be powered by renewable resources.

This project at San Jacinto High School, supposed to come online this year, combines solar generation and energy storage. It is expected to be able to power the gym’s “electric loads, including air conditioning, lighting, and plug loads, almost continuously during a potential extended outage during the summer,” Edison said. The exact capacity is confidential.

In January, the utility rejected all the microgrids proposed for this year due mainly to costs and also vendors’ intentions to use fossil fuels. The proposed projects would have cost between $15 and $30 million, which Edison said was “13 times more expensive than viable alternative solutions.”

The utility acknowledged its tight two-week timeframe seeking projects this year to reduce power shutoffs. The time squeeze also would have knocked the projects out of the interconnection queue, which would prohibit them from participating in the market to recoup costs. That raised the price of the microgrid bids.

Edison told the Commission in a mid-March filing that it is looking at installing temporary diesel microgrids and utility scale mobile battery energy systems if updated systems can be ready this year. They would be located near circuits that lost power during recent safety shutoffs.

This utility also needs to be prodded to install nonpolluting backup systems.

In contrast, Marin Clean Energy is pursuing clean microgrids, and no diesel back up. But the installations are not expected to be up and running until later this year.

Marin, which is dependent on PG&E’s distribution lines, allocated $6 million for alternative backup generation. That includes funding for installing 15 MWh of backup battery projects for vulnerable people and critical facilities over two years. 

Marin also is adding energy storage to its San Rafael office to store solar electricity produced by its existing 80 kW photovoltaic rooftop system. The new storage, which is not expected to be online before the fall, will allow part of the office to be used as a community center to provide electricity during fires and shutoffs, and to charge electric vehicles.

The community energy agency also plans to provide 100 small batteries for customers deemed medically vulnerable later this summer. These Goal Zero Yeti 3000 batteries have a 3 kWh capacity, with the amount of time they supply power dependent on what they charge.  

Marin is a good role model for the utilities, though its territory is far smaller. At the same time, PG&E’s and SCE’s financial resources are far larger.  

The two private utilities should invest only in backup systems that run on clean power. The public should not have to choose between the profound disruption of blackouts and respiratory health.

Elizabeth McCarthy

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