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Some wonder if electric microgrids could light the way in California

Sophie Quinton, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Calistoga, Calif., a city of some 5,300, lies tucked in the Napa Valley between wooded hills that state utility regulators classify as extremely susceptible to wildfires.

The town was recently threatened by the Kincade fire and has endured several blackouts since the largest utility in the state, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), last year began a policy of shutting down power lines to prevent its equipment from sparking blazes.

City leaders are eager to find a way to keep the lights on during emergencies, and they're weighing an investment in a microgrid: solar panels, batteries and other on-site generation and storage that would allow the town to stay electrified without depending on far-off transmission lines.

Meanwhile, PG&E has promised a short-term solution: trucking in natural gas generators big enough to power most of the town.

In the wake of power shut-offs that affected millions of Californians last month, clean energy advocates are calling for a transformation of the state's electric grid. They want to see more home solar-panel and battery systems and microgrids, a catchall term that can mean on-site power for a business or an entire community. Both can allow homes and neighborhoods to remain electrified during a crisis.

"It's small power versus big power," said Democratic state Sen. Henry Stern, who spoke to Stateline by phone hours after evacuating his home in Los Angeles County to escape a brush fire. "A grid that's not driven by long lines going through precarious canyons, but by distributed power in communities."

 

The threat of future blackouts could put California at the forefront of a national push toward localizing the energy grid, experts say. "I believe that these power safety shut-offs will thrust California into the national lead," said Peter Asmus, a research director at Navigant Research, a clean energy market research and advisory firm.

But a more localized grid could be a long time coming -- particularly as temporary generators may prove a cheaper and easier solution for utilities and homeowners alike.

Utilities agree that the grid needs to change. "There's a definite need to move toward some form of microgrid sectionalization," William Johnson, PG&E president and CEO, told the California Public Utilities Commission last month.

PG&E is working on only a handful of microgrid projects, however. PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty noted that community microgrids that include overhead transmission lines still may need to be powered down when high winds create a wildfire threat.

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