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Microgrids Could Alleviate some of California's Energy Challenges

                California’s deadly Camp Fire, that killed 85 people and brought the town of Paradise to its knees, is not only ushering in a new debate about how utilities manage their systems in the face of unrelenting dry weather and winds, but what the concrete steps will be to prevent such tragedies in the future. Pacific Gas & Electric’s vegetation management and equipment maintenance issues are among the litany of factors that contributed to the tragedy. But sadly, PG&E’s decision to keep the power on at time when the company was well aware of the hot and dry conditions was another massive oversight.  In fact, PG&E warned 70,000 customers in the days leading up to the fire, that it might shut off power in areas including the Paradise, CA but did not. 

                One potential approach to dealing with future weather induced grid catastrophes is the use of the microgrid. As sources of energy that can be “islanded” from the grid and act as a mini-grid insofar as the ability to generate power, store it and distribute it locally. Microgrids have been growing in popularity with universities, hospitals and the military. Some of this is being tested in the remote deserts of eastern San Diego County. Touted as some of the world’s most advanced microgrids, the systems in Borrego Springs combine solar panels, diesel generators, ultracapacitors and energy storage. Microgrids are not quite at the level where they can economically deliver power to entire communities for multi-day outage events, according to Elizaveta Malashenko, director of the California PUC’s Safety and  Enforcement division. However they still offer a plausible alternative to simply dealing with the fallout of de-energized power lines and can deliver power to communities for limited time spans.  

                San Diego Gas and Electric has made great use of microgrids and in recent testing was able to “island” off the town of Borrego Springs for 4 and half hours during a planned outage in May, keeping Borrego springs fully powered. Though the fire-induced tragedies that befell so many in California are highly complex issues, microgrids may be part of any future solution.


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