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California's wildfire threat could be an opportunity for clean-energy microgrids

Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

To the untrained eye, the shipping containers clustered on the outskirts of Borrego Springs, Calif., don't look like an innovative clean-energy technology that could help California cope with wildfires.

But these containers, in the remote desert of eastern San Diego County, are packed with lithium-ion batteries -- and they're part of one of the world's most advanced microgrids. It combines solar panels, diesel generators, energy storage and something called an ultracapacitor to power Borrego Springs, even when electricity isn't flowing through the single transmission line that connects the town to the main power grid.

"I believe this is the only microgrid in the world that does what this does," said Steven Prsha, an engineer for San Diego Gas & Electric, as he wrapped up a tour last month.

The technology SDG&E is demonstrating in this rural town could serve as a lifeline to homes and businesses in fire-prone areas.

The state's biggest investor-owned utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, are expected to de-energize power lines more frequently this year to stop them from igniting fires when the weather is dry and windy. It's one of the fastest and cheapest ways for utilities to keep wildfires from sparking.

But there's an obvious downside: Whole communities can go dark for hours or even days, preventing residents from cooling homes, refrigerating food and charging phones. If a fire ignites despite the shutoff, the lack of electricity could imperil the work of first responders and complicate evacuation plans.

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With those concerns in mind, some energy companies are urging state officials to incentivize microgrids and smaller standalone energy systems, such as rooftop solar paired with batteries, in fire-prone communities. Those technologies, the companies say, could help keep the lights on during preemptive power shutoffs.

At the same time, the typical start of California's peak fire season is coming in June, and it's not clear how much support there is among regulators or the state's biggest utilities for quick action on backup power sources. In their recent wildfire plans, Edison and PG&E had little to say about microgrids and home energy systems for areas facing preemptive power shutoffs. And the California Public Utilities Commission's safety chief downplayed the potential for microgrids to make a significant difference in the immediate future.

"It doesn't seem like we have the technical capabilities right now to do system-wide microgrids that can withstand multi-day outage events," said Elizaveta Malashenko, director of the Public Utilities Commission's Safety and Enforcement Division. "Even if that's where we end up going as a state as a long-term solution, you can't just plug in a bunch of batteries and 1/8protect3/8 communities in the next six months."

There's no one definition of microgrid. The term generally refers to an energy system that's either disconnected from the main grid or can be "islanded" from the grid to keep supplying electricity during an outage.

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