Microgrids can help reduce wildfire threats in California, allowing utilities to de-energize electric utility power lines during storms and high winds without cutting power to entire communities, the California Energy Commission said at an April 26 public workshop.

The CEC discussed the potential of microgrids in its 2018 Integrated Energy Policy Report, but noted that microgrid distribution lines could also be subject to shut-off protocols if high winds elevate local wildfire risk.

Wildfires, exacerbated by drought in Northern California last year, killed at least 85 people, caused about $3.5 billion in damage, and burned more than 2,900 square miles, or about the size of the state of Delaware.

During a wildfire at Blue Lake Rancheria in 2017, a microgrid kept power on for community members. The wildfire broke out about a quarter of a mile from the ranch’s designated regional American Red Cross shelter, according to CEC Manager Erik Stokes. “Crews were actually using the [Red Cross] center to combat the wildfire. So loss of power to the center could have had some pretty impactful consequences,” he said.

“The microgrid—its response to the outage in how it islanded from the larger grid—was so seamless that they didn’t even notice [the utility power outage] until they went back and checked the log,” Stokes said.

Blue Lake’s microgrid was partially funded by the CEC’s Electric Program Investment Charge program. Six other customer-funded microgrid projects, most funded by EPIC, were reviewed at the public workshop. The projects reviewed were:

  • Borrego Springs: Owned and operated by San Diego Gas & Electric; 26-MW capacity. CEC funds: $4.7 million.
  • City of Fremont Fire Stations: 115 kW of solar-photovoltaic power to three City of Fremont fire stations. CEC funds: $1.8 million.
  • Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center: A 250-kW microgrid that provides increased renewable energy and reduces the critical-care facility’s dependence on diesel backup generators. CEC funds were not awarded to this project; however, the project was discussed at the public workshop.
  • American Honda Motors Co.: Provides 286 kW of direct current to connected commercial loads at a warehouse facility, as well as increased energy efficiency and solar energy. CEC funds: $2.8 million.
  • Las Positas College: Provides 2.35 MW to college facilities in order to demonstrate a potential model for other California public education facilities. CEC funds: $1.5 million.
  • Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant: Supports the operation of a City of Santa Rosa critical regional wastewater-treatment facility with 126 kW of solar power and 2 MW of battery storage. CEC funds: $5 million.
  • Blue Lake Rancheria: Provides 420 kW of solar power to a Native American tribal government and a designated regional American Red Cross shelter. CEC funds: $5 million.

The CEC’s EPIC program funds clean-energy technology projects and technological advances in the electric utility industry. Twenty microgrid projects using a total of $84.5 million in CEC funds are planned to be completed on 30 sites, CEC Program Manager Mike Gravely said. Half of the projects will be located in Pacific Gas & Electric’s service area, 40 percent in Southern California Edison territory, and 10 percent in SDG&E territory.