California regulators on July 30 expressed concerns about potential increases in diesel generator sales due to utility power shut-offs planned for this wildfire season.

California Energy Commission Vice Chair Janea Scott said people who lose power during a shut-off might not have an alternative power-generation source, and therefore could end up using backup power that runs off fossil fuels, such as diesel.

“I’ve been reading about how people were going to buy diesel backup generators, and that is so much the opposite of where we’re trying to go,” Scott said. “I’m intrigued about how we get storage factored into small quantities or community-scale. What can we do to get that into place as we juggle our way through where we are right now?”

Aaron Jagdfeld, CEO of generator manufacturer Generac, said the company has seen a 600-percent increase in requests for generators by California customers over the past year. Likewise, Liesl Ramsay, CEO of Leete Generators in Santa Rosa, said the company has seen a significant increase in requests about backup power systems.

The workshop on July 30 highlighted problems accessing energy storage technology within California’s disadvantaged and low-income communities. California Public Utility Commission member Clifford Rechtschaffen said the CPUC is trying “some new approaches” to incentivize storage solutions in disadvantaged and low-income communities, especially with power shut-offs imminent.

“There are dozens of tribal communities, lots of other vulnerable communities, and several hundred thousand medically vulnerable customers who are potentially affected by de-energization,” Rechtschaffen said at the workshop. “I think it’s a larger conversation that the state needs to have . . . the question of who bears the cost of mitigating the risk of de-energization.”

The CPUC currently funds the Self-Generation Incentive Program, which provides rebates for distributed energy systems installed on the customer side of the utility meter. Qualifying technologies include wind turbines, waste heat-to-power technologies, pressure-reduction turbines, internal combustion engines, microturbines, gas turbines, fuel cells and advanced energy storage systems, according to the CPUC.

The CPUC created an “SGIP Equity Budget” as part of the program. The equity budget allocates 25 percent of the program’s funds to nonprofits, small businesses, educational institutions and governments, along with disadvantaged and low-income communities. However, Rechtschaffen said “the program hasn’t worked. Clearly, we need to do something different. We heard from a lot of parties that we need to raise the incentive levels because they don’t work in disadvantaged communities.”

The CPUC currently plans to add up to 500 MW of additional storage at the distribution level, with priority given to systems for the public sector and low-income customers.

Pacific Gas & Electric forecasts that some areas in the state could face power outages 15 times a year, and expects to provide a two-day notice to customers before a power shut-off (see CEM No. 1539 [14]).

The CPUC said reaching vulnerable communities to warn them of power shut-offs and talk about backup energy generation has been difficult. In a May 30 decision, the CPUC proposed to identify vulnerable communities based on the number of people enrolled in medical baseline [D19-05-042]. The CPUC said investor-owned utilities should increase outreach to vulnerable populations to talk about power shut-offs and backup power options. Southern California Edison disagreed with the CPUC’s recommendation, stating that it should not be forced to use additional notification streams to reach communities disproportionately affected by de-energization.

As for next steps, Rechtschaffen said the CPUC plans to issue a new decision on the SGIP in the “next couple of weeks.”

Staff Writer

David Krause is an energy reporter covering the California Energy Commission and Air Resources Board. He writes about transportation, climate change, utilities, and wildfires. He has an MFA in Writing, an MA in English, and a BS in Civil Engineering.