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Some wonder if electric microgrids could light the way in California

Sophie Quinton, on

Published in News & Features

For now, utilities and elected leaders are in crisis mode as several fires continue to burn in the state. Stern and 10 other Democratic lawmakers are publicly calling on utility regulators to get backup power into communities, including boosting aid for homeowners who want to add energy storage.

Legislation to help people, particularly seniors and vulnerable residents, withstand power outages is pending, Stern said. "We'll absolutely be introducing legislation, but the problem is legislation will take too long. This is a crisis today, literally today."

California wildfire investigators have found that utility equipment sparked several major fires in recent years, including last year's Camp Fire, which killed more than 80 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. Wildfire liability claims sent PG&E into bankruptcy proceedings earlier this year.

Now the state's major utilities are doing more to prevent wildfires, including shutting off the power during dry, windy conditions. Utilities statewide shut off power to tens of thousands of households last month, sometimes for several days.

They've made it clear that the blackouts won't end anytime soon. PG&E's Johnson told the California Public Utilities Commission last month that the utility may use power shut-offs to reduce wildfire risk for the next 10 years, until it has cleared vegetation around lines and improved transmission infrastructure.

State lawmakers already have been promoting local power sources. Starting in 2020, California will require solar panels to be installed on all new homes. Stern sponsored state legislation last year instructing the Public Utilities Commission to figure out how to reduce barriers to adopting microgrids, specifying that electricity must be generated in accordance with state emissions standards.


Microgrids can be powered by gas, steam and wind turbines, generators and solar power. Setting up a microgrid can take weeks or years, depending on its size, application and other factors, said Asmus of Navigant Research.

Since the power shut-offs began, more homeowners appear to be researching solar-panel and battery systems, and more communities, such as Calistoga, are talking about setting up a microgrid powered by renewable energy.

San Francisco-based solar provider Sunrun is seeing more interest in its home battery technology, media manager Shave Levy said in an email to Stateline. In the days after the first power shut-off this year, he said, web traffic to a company page describing how solar and batteries can power homes during a blackout jumped 1,500%.

Scott Murtishaw, a senior adviser for regulatory affairs at the California Solar and Storage Association, a trade association, said that one of the group's member companies is reporting a tenfold increase in calls from interested customers.


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