Editorial: The power to adapt to wildfires

 In Blog

Two of the greatest climate challenges California faces are interconnected — the imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow the march of rising temperatures and the necessity of adapting to the harm climate change has already visited upon us.

Increasingly, California communities are turning to an energy technology that addresses both those needs. The most recent example will emerge in Ojai this summer with the installation of a solar-powered microgrid on the campus of Nordhoff High.

The project, launched by the Ojai Unified School District, will include power storage that will enable the school’s gymnasium and kitchen to serve local residents in the event that a wildfire — or a utility-ordered public safety power-shutoff designed to lower wildfire risks during extreme weather conditions — results in an electrical power outage.

The Nordhoff site serves as an evacuation center for displaced local residents.

Microgrids are local power grids that generate and distribute their own electrical power. They can be separate from or connected to the larger grid. Vulnerable communities in fire-prone areas across the state are turning to them to increase their resiliency at a time when climate-driven catastrophic fires and preventive power shutoffs have become an unwelcome way of life.

The scale of these projects is typically small, designed to serve schools, nursing homes, fire stations or other critical facilities. A Microgrid Incentive Program launched by the California Public Utilities Commission last year budgeted $200 million to support projects that improve electrical reliability and resiliency in communities at high risk to electrical outages.

Projects are typically powered by renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. They often include storage in the form of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells or even in some larger projects the production of hydrogen to be stored. As an emergency source of power, they are far superior to dirty, diesel-powered generators.

As California adapts and reacts to climate change, however, the scale of these projects has grown. The remote San Diego County desert town of Borrego Springs has a utility-scale microgrid that can serve the entire town of 2,700 when the single transmission line that connects it to the grid doesn’t function. The Central Valley city of Gonzales is building a microgrid and creating its own municipal power facility to make certain that electrical interruptions don’t threaten the food-processing plants that are the town’s economic lifeblood.

The list is growing. When an industry publication cited what it called the most intriguing microgrid projects around the globe this year, three of the top five were in California, topped by a network of eight microgrids being pursued by the City of San Diego to power city facilities. These would complement microgrids already in place at its port and zoo.

The challenge facing California is how to integrate decentralized microgrids into a complex electrical system that has taken more than a century to build. Utilities that purchase and distribute power are essential and must be protected from micro-competitors who seek to create energy islands and strand everyone else with the cost of maintaining and operating the power grid.

As California struggles to create real resiliency to cope with the heightened threat of wildfires, it remains a vexing regulatory challenge to fairly integrate microgrids into a power system that serves all and always. As it stands, microgrids cannot serve multiple users, cannot send electricity across the street.

But in communities such as Ojai, where fire is a perennial threat, resiliency means more than the welcome ability to ensure uninterrupted electrical power to an evacuation center. These communities can be crippled by prolonged power outages. As complex as the issues are, there must be a solution that would allow clean emergency power to be distributed across the street and down the block.

This editorial was originally published in the VC Star.

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