Microgrids: What are They and Can They Increase Resiliency in Sierra Communities?

Have you heard the term “microgrid” being tossed around recently? It’s a term that has gained renewed popularity in response to Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), wildfires and other disasters affecting California landscapes. It’s no secret that during the 2019 PSPS events, more than 1 million Californians were left without power with effects that trickled down much further than most could have predicted. We’ve heard story after story about how people could not purchase supplies because the ATM could not withdraw from accounts, of fully stocked refrigerators that went to waste, or of the many small businesses forced to shut down and wait for the power to return. Unfortunately for most, this will continue to be the reality until a new energy management system is implemented. Many experts and industry leaders believe that part of the answer to increasing California’s energy resilience lies in microgrid technology.

CB Microgrid Blog 2020 01So, what is a microgrid? A microgrid is a local, coordinated energy system that can use renewable energy resources like wind, solar, biomass, hydro, or fuel cells to provide electricity at a smaller, more resilient scale. Microgrids consist of three essential parts, energy resources, an energy management system, and some type of storage capacity.

Essentially, a microgrid is a miniature, semi-independent grid of its own that can isolate from the broader grid in times of crisis. Microgrids typically work simultaneously with the investor-owned utility grid to supply electricity but during times of crisis, microgrids can isolate themselves to provide energy to residents and critical infrastructure, depending on the scale. The energy provider simply views the community’s microgrid as another ratepayer and delivers the energy as usual.

An example of a microgrid that rural communities could look to for inspiration is Borrego Springs, California. This small city, an hour north of San Diego implemented a microgrid after storms repeatedly took out the only power transmission line that connects the community to the electric grid. The microgrid system in this case allows for the local community to be connected to the larger grid on most days but if an emergency were to occur or the line is down, they will still retain power locally through their microgrid and provide electricity to the community.

Sierra Nevada communities should look into microgrids to increase resilience during wildfire, PSPS or other disasters. Climate change is predicted to increase events like these in the region. A microgrid has the potential to isolate electricity to critical infrastructure like fire stations, dispatch centers, hospitals or emergency shelters that can provide heat, fresh air and water, charging areas, and bathrooms. These sorts of planning steps increase community preparedness and its ability to recover from a disaster if one were to occur.

Another important factor in a microgrid system is the large load of renewable energy that is typically integrated into the system. The majority of microgrids are built on extensive sources of renewable energy like wind, solar, fuel cells or biomass with most systems having some sort of combination. Each system is unique to the area that it is installed, which provides options that best fit the community’s needs and potential renewable energy sources. By increasing renewable energy in Sierra Nevada communities, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced to mitigate future climate change and meet state emission reduction targets.

The future is bright for microgrids. In 2018, Senate Bill 1339 passed in the CA State Legislature, requiring the California Public Utilities Commission to develop regulations, standards and guidelines for microgrids by December 1, 2020, to facilitate the commercialization of microgrids for customers of large electric utilities. In addition to enabling policies, many microgrid businesses and think tanks are coming online to assist in the development of microgrid systems and provide industry research.

Now, microgrids are not the end all be all solution for energy and climate resilience. However, they provide an important piece of the puzzle needed to do so. It is crucial to prepare communities for the increased risk of emergencies due to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Microgrids provide a replicable solution to do both of these and much more.

The Sierra Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Partnership (Sierra CAMP) recently published a white paper that outlines the benefits of a microgrid system for Sierra Nevada communities and the framework for development. To learn more visit SBC’s Sierra CAMP website.