Environmentalists and solar energy supporters say solar panels are a better choice for households and communities than generators, because they're more reliable, better for the environment and can lower ratepayers' electricity costs. Solar power also can help the state reach its ambitious renewable energy goals.
Relying on diesel fuel could present a fire risk of its own. Stern recalled racing to obtain more fuel for an urgent care center in his district during last year's Woolsey Fire. "We literally had to run a fuel convoy, through a fire zone, full of those red diesel fuel containers ... to turn those generators back on," he said.
It remains to be seen whether distributed energy systems can eliminate the need for risky, long-distance transmission lines, said Malini Kannan, a senior engineer for the Clean Coalition, a nonprofit with offices in California and Colorado that advocates for renewable energy.
"But there's nothing that shows that it's not possible," she said. "So I think longer term, there is definitely the potential to power local loads with local generation, and decrease the need for that transmission line."
There are over 100 microgrids in California that involve two or more buildings, and such systems are likely to become more common, said Asmus of Navigant Research.
But truly reconfiguring the electric grid poses technical challenges, and encouraging homeowners to go solar -- particularly in low-income communities -- could require additional public subsidies.
"It's not going to happen on its own," said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.
The temporary microgrids PG&E plans to establish in Calistoga and Angwin, another small Northern California town, could be converted to permanent microgrids eventually, complete with more on-site generation such as solar panels, said Doherty, the PG&E spokesman.
But for the utility, the easiest solution to power outages may be simply to move generators around during a crisis. "We see this as a more cost-effective approach," Doherty said.
Calistoga is talking to several companies about possible energy storage and microgrid ideas, Mayor Chris Canning said. "We're happy to be guinea pigs at this point."