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PG&E Needs to Get with the Program and Get Behind Microgrids

 

PG&E Needs to Get with the Program

Embattled utility should make solar-powered microgrids the centerpiece of its response to wildfires

By Gary Rasp

As regulators in California investigate whether PG&E acted properly when it turned out the lights of nearly one million customers in a series of mandatory power outages, a bigger question has emerged: what can be done to drag the besieged utility into the 21st century?

The California Public Utilities Commission is looking into whether PG&E properly planned and executed the outages, a policy the company maintains is the best way to prevent further fires while it safeguards its system, which it says will take 10 years.

In announcing the probe, the Commission characterized the first of the four PG&E blackouts as “ill-conceived, poorly planned, uncoordinated … and ineffectively communicated” – failings that could cost the utility millions of dollars in fines.

PG&E has acknowledged that its website crashed during the first power outage and that it failed to notify thousands of customers of the blackout; that it didn’t coordinate with local governments before and during the event; and that it did not consider how the outage would affect transmission lines and other infrastructure within its service territory.

On top of the financial implications, the investigation highlights PG&E’s striking failure to communicate effectively with its customers and other stakeholders. The company has made other blunders in the broader realm of communications – including a suggestion from its CEO that people struggling to replace food spoiled during the blackouts should be happy their homes didn’t burn down.

It won’t be fined for that gaffe, but the loss of goodwill is immeasurable.

PG&E’s short-term response to the threat of future wildfires is to establish ‘resilience zones’ that provide temporary backup power to local communities during outages. The zones feature mobile generators that run on diesel or natural gas, which PG&E would truck into fire-prone regions.

So far, PG&E has built two resilience zones in Napa County, and plans to add up to 40 more in its service territory. The company has touted the use of mobile generators, connected to pre-installed interconnection hubs, as an “innovative concept.”

While portable generators are relatively inexpensive, and provide flexibility since they can be moved from one area to another, they represent a temporary fix to a long-term problem.

They’re also dirty – something that matters a great deal in a state that’s committed to improving air quality and combating global warming.

While there may be a limited place for generators, an old-school technology that has been used for decades during blackouts, PG&E shouldn’t rely on them in its response to the threat posed by wildfires.

If the company is serious about regaining trust among its customers – and demonstrating to state officials its commitment to safeguarding its system – PG&E should strongly invest in community-based microgrids powered by solar panels in tandem with large lithium-ion batteries.

In addition to being cleaner, microgrids are able to generate power every day, not just during blackouts, allowing local residents to produce, store and control their own electricity.

Nationwide, several utilities are installing microgrids, and their efforts could serve as models for PG&E. Vermont's Green Mountain Power used a network of batteries installed in in customers' homes to keep power flowing  during a recent statewide outage. Duke Energy is building a solar and storage microgrid in Hot Springs, North Carolina, and has also proposed a battery backup system at an emergency command center in South Carolina.

Regulated utilities are finding ways to address the concerns PG&E has expressed about the expense of microgrids and the challenges associated with creating resilient systems to help customers get through prolonged outages, planned or otherwise.

PG&E is working with local stakeholders to build one microgrid, in Humboldt County, that will feature solar generation and an electric vehicle station backed up by battery storage. The company also has boosted measures to isolate outages on the grid, which could help limit the number customers affected by future outages.

That’s a good start. But if PG&E has any prayer of restoring trust among its customers, it needs to fully embrace the latest and cleanest technologies available to show that it’s putting the welfare of its customers ahead of its bottom line.

 

 

Gary Rasp's picture

Thank Gary for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 3, 2019 5:41 pm GMT

It won’t be fined for that gaffe, but the loss of goodwill is immeasurable.

Seems like an evergreen comment on this situation, sadly

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 3, 2019 5:55 pm GMT

"In addition to being cleaner, microgrids are able to generate power every day, not just during blackouts, allowing local residents to produce, store and control their own electricity."

Gary, though it seems to be a common assumption:  what evidence do you have that microgrids - with backup diesel generators, even more transmission to maintain, and zero economies of scale - would collectively emit fewer GHGs than the CAISO grid?

Gary Rasp's picture
Gary Rasp on Dec 3, 2019 9:20 pm GMT

Bob - You've misstated / misinterpreted what I wrote. I was making a direct and specific comparison between the use of diesel- or natural gas-fueled generators within so-called 'resilient zones,' as proposed by PG&E, vs. solar-powered microgrids backed by large batteries. I was not talking about overall emissions or the CAISO grid as a whole. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 4, 2019 12:19 am GMT

"The battery backup service lasted nine hours on average, but the longest instance stretched to 82 hours."

For more than half (1,100 out of 2,000) of participants in Vermont's program the lights went out, and there's no evidence the Tesla batteries in their homes were charged with renewable energy (under the terms of the program, Green Mountain Power is able to charge them with whatever they want).

More than likely, in October, they were charged with electricity from the New England grid, 15% of which was wasted in battery resistance losses. From an environmental standpoint, they would have been better off with local diesel generators.

Gary Rasp's picture
Gary Rasp on Dec 4, 2019 2:34 pm GMT

Here's an article written by an engineer in NYC that lays out some of the reasons why microgrids are superior to diesel generators: https://www.ny-engineers.com/blog/microgrids-the-next-step-after-backup-generators

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 4, 2019 7:35 pm GMT

Gary, all microgrids in the real world rely on diesel generators, and Michael Tobias is a mechanical engineer. He may be an excellent one, but for the same reason I wouldn't trust the advice of a cardiovascular surgeon for a root canal, his article is lacking a fundamental understanding of grid electricity.

Tobias is apparently unaware solar, in New England, has a horrible capacity factor (13% in Vermont). That means due to clouds, nighttime, and latitude Vermont solar panels generate one-eighth the power at which they're rated.  It's the reason all solar in the state combined generates less than 1% of the state's electricity.

For any solar array to generate even half of a microgrid's electricity would require more solar panels and storage than they could possibly afford. In California, we have more sunlight. Now - would solar-powered microgrid customers rather collectively pay the $millions required for two cloudy days of storage and additional solar (those batteries need to be charged, after all), and replace it every ten years - or let the lights go out after one cloudy day? Neither option is acceptable, of course, but those are the only two options you're offering.

No one affected by the recent Public Safety Power Shutoffs decided it was time to install a solar array + batteries. They went out and bought diesel generators, for good reason. If there is one positive about the outages it's teaching idealistic Californians the value of a dispatchable supply of electricity, that renewables + storage + efficiency etc etc won't cut it here, or anywhere else.

Gary Rasp's picture
Gary Rasp on Dec 4, 2019 7:59 pm GMT

Bob - You keep changing the argument. I never said anything about an entire CAISO run on solar panels, storage and improved enegy efficiency. Nor was I talking about individual CA residents purchasing home generators in the wake of the latest fires and outages. I was simply making the point that PG&E and its customers would be better served by investing in microgrids rather than generators it proposed 40 'resilient zones.' And BTW, even the utility has suggested it may install microgrids in those areas down the road, relegating the stinky old generators to purely back-up status. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 4, 2019 10:14 pm GMT

I was simply making the point that PG&E and its customers would be better served by investing in microgrids rather than generators it proposed 40 'resilient zones.' 

Do you see this also taking place in areas of critical importance, like the grid directly connected to hospitals?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 5, 2019 11:41 pm GMT

"If the company is serious about regaining trust among its customers – and demonstrating to state officials its commitment to safeguarding its system – PG&E should strongly invest in community-based microgrids powered by solar panels in tandem with large lithium-ion batteries."

Gary, do you have evidence of a single microgrid, anywhere in the world, powered by "solar panels in tandem with large lithium-ion batteries" alone?

Gary Rasp's picture
Gary Rasp on Dec 9, 2019 5:16 pm GMT

Yes, Bob, there are microgrids powered by solar and backed by batteries, and no generators. Here's one:

https://microgridknowledge.com/maryland-campus-microgrid/

The University of Texas at Austin has its own microgrid, too. It's powered by dual-cylce on natural gas, with chilled storage, and no diesel generators for back-up. Not the same system I referenced (i.e., solar with battery storage), but I've included it to further demonstrate that varying technologies are available and in use that do not rely on diesel generators:

https://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2014/07/18/how-university-texas-runs-largest-microgrid-us

 

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 11, 2019 8:09 pm GMT

"The Blue Pillar network created for this project gives TimberRock and Bar-T access to real-time data from the utility electric meter..."

Gary, Timber Rock, like all microgrids which claim to be "powered by solar and backed up by batteries," is lying. It has a natural-gas-powered grid connection to fall back on, and does so probably more than they acknowledge.

Natural gas, like diesel, serves as fossil fuel backup. Why would you believe gas-powered microgrids emit fewer GHGs than diesel?

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 11, 2019 10:02 pm GMT

Why would you believe gas-powered microgrids emit fewer GHGs than diesel?

Doesn't natural gas emit fewer GHG per unit of energy generated than diesel?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 12, 2019 1:04 am GMT

Matt, I don't know. I know for a fact diesel emits more sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and particulates, but I can't find any GHG comparisons for home generators.

One of the more frightening aspects of the privatization of electricity is the move toward home generation. It could put a response to climate change beyond our control.

Rami Reshef's picture
Rami Reshef on Dec 5, 2019 2:25 pm GMT

Hi Gary,

Certainly the decision to invest in diesel or gas generators as a "short-term" solution for the shutdowns problem will turn out to bring long-term pollution and is a big step backwards in a state that has made so much progress on  decarbonization. It is probably a good idea to create resilience zones, but they don't have to rely on generators. Microgrids can incorporate many different types of complementary backup energy sources which can be redundant to one another and provide a much more reliable solution. Solar, wind and batteries are all relevant depending on available space and other logistical conditions. Microgrids can also incorporate hydrogen fuel cells, another excellent method to achieve resilient backup. For more details, you can check out this source: https://www.bcse.org/fuel-cells-for-resilience/ 

Considering that the phenomenon of shutdowns will probably not be temporary, PG&E will do well to look at the bigger picture, and as you say, "fully embrace the latest and cleanest technologies available to show that it’s putting the welfare of its customers - and the environment - ahead of its bottom line."

Best Regards,

Rami Reshef

Greg Lamberg's picture
Greg Lamberg on Dec 10, 2019 5:11 pm GMT

A "Microgrid" without a diesel or natural gas generator as a part of the system is the functional equivalent of a Unicorn on a treadmill.  No resiliency or duration without a readilly dispatchable resource as part of the system.  As John Adams said: "Facts are Stubborn Things!"

Gary Rasp's picture
Gary Rasp on Dec 11, 2019 3:03 pm GMT

Greg - Nice quip, but you are mistaken. I'm not an engineer, but I checked in with an engineer I know well who is an expert on grid matters, large and small. Here's part of what he told me: 'The term “Microgrid” is very general and there is no singular definition.  A microgrid can be nothing but solar panels and energy storage or nothing but a diesel generator connected to a stand alone home ... the term doesn’t imply that some form of fossil fuel back up is required.'

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 11, 2019 8:06 pm GMT

"A microgrid can be nothing but solar panels and energy storage or nothing but a diesel generator connected to a stand alone home ... the term doesn’t imply that some form of fossil fuel back up is required."

Gary, are you aware of even a single home powered by solar + storage without a grid connection, a tank of propane, etc.? I have yet to see evidence of anyone relying on solar panels and energy storage alone.

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