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Some wonder if electric microgrids could light the way in California

Sophie Quinton, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

It's too early to tell how much money the town would have to spend on a microgrid, he said, but local leaders are looking for a solution beyond PG&E's generators -- which will burn fossil fuels, won't electrify neighborhoods close to a high-fire-risk zone and won't be a permanent fix.

"At the end of the day, even with our generator station, we're still at their mercy," Canning said of the utility.

For homeowners, buying solar panels and batteries also may present more challenges than buying a small generator.

Solar panels and batteries can cost thousands of dollars to purchase and install, though state and federal subsidies and leasing schemes can reduce the price significantly. Both methods require permits in California and need to be connected to the electric grid.

Portable generators and fuel, meanwhile, can be bought for a few hundred dollars at home improvement stores and connected directly to crucial appliances. Larger, more expensive generators can power an entire home.

While solar companies and nonprofits try to make it as easy and inexpensive as possible for people to set up solar panel systems, "the main barrier is definitely the high up-front cost," said Steve Campbell, policy and business development project manager at GRID Alternatives, an Oakland-based nonprofit that helps low-income people and communities install solar panels.

Most of the over 940,000 California households with solar panels don't have batteries to store that energy for use during a blackout, said Murtishaw of the California Solar and Storage Association. Only in recent years have customers started to add energy storage, as prices have fallen and the state has added subsidies, he said.

 

The California Public Utilities Commission has a program that helps utility customers pay for energy storage installations. The commission recently set aside $100 million to help vulnerable households and facilities such as hospitals in high-fire-risk areas pay for batteries that connect to solar panels.

But renewable energy advocates remain worried that blackouts may widen the divide between California's haves and have-nots, with wealthier communities embracing energy storage, microgrids and generators while low-income residents sit in the dark.

"We do not want to see a two-tiered system," Campbell said.

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