All in with 100 percent renewable? Let’s reinvent our power grid

09/06/2018

Last week, the California Legislature passed a law—S.B. 100, by Democratic Senator Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles—that would phase out our reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity by 2045. Governor Jerry Brown, long a champion of the need to respond to global climate change, is expected to sign the bill, setting in motion a series of changes in the way we generate, consume and manage our electricity supplies. 

Moving to 100 percent renewable energy is now possible from a technology perspective, but such a shift will require us to reinvent the power grid. Because wind and solar come and go, there will be a greater need for batteries to help store this clean energy. These batteries can also provide another critical function of immense importance to isolated communities in West Marin: resilience.

Resilience can be defined in many ways. But in simple terms, it means having clean energy when we need it most—during an emergency. Right now, even if every single home in West Marin had a rooftop solar system, if an extreme earthquake or wildfire occurred, all of those resources would be rendered useless—unless they were paired with batteries and other complementary technologies that would allow for the creation of microgrids. 

The ever-present threat of earthquakes, and recent proposals by utilities to shut off electricity during times of extreme fire danger, highlight the need to invest in greater resiliency in isolated, rural communities such as ours. The impacts of global climate change will only increase our vulnerability. 

The California legislature also passed S.B. 1339, by Senator Henry Stern, a Democrat from southern California. The bill is designed to make it easier to permit microgrids developed by organizations and private companies that are not utilities. It would also, for the first time, create specific utility incentive programs promoting microgrids. 

The time is now right for West Marin to build new microgrids for community emergency shelters.

To shed light on how much microgrids cost, Commonweal’s Michael Lerner will host a conversation from 2 to 4 p.m. at Commonweal in Bolinas on Oct. 8. I will be there to set the stage, providing context on a global, national and regional basis. I will be joined by Margaret Bruce, program manager for the Local Government Sustainable Energy Coalition, an organization active in educating local government agencies on how best to move forward with microgrid projects.

Darren Malvin, CEO of American Solar, a Marin County-based installer of microgrids currently working on a microgrid project at the Bolinas Community Center, will describe that project as well as several others he is working on. The goal in Bolinas is to create a 100 percent renewable energy microgrid similar in concept to the one that has been successfully operating at the Dance Palace Community Center for about a decade. 

Perhaps Malvin's most novel twist on the microgrid concept is a project he is working on adjacent to the Homestead Valley Community Center in Mill Valley: a solar system paired with a battery at a private home. In the case of a grid outage during an emergency, a giant power cord will allow for electricity to be sent to the community center to serve as a resilient emergency shelter.

Commonweal itself is a designated emergency shelter and is exploring how best to build a microgrid. The Stinson Beach Community Center has a solar system to be used when the grid is up, and a propane generator for when the grid is down. The solar system here, as well as in Bolinas and Point Reyes Station, was stimulated by an event in 2006 which, in turn, was inspired by Tyrone Cashman, who worked in the Brown administration back in the ‘70s and came up the concept of a solar safety net. The idea was that each neighborhood should have a home designated as an emergency shelter, pairing a solar system with a battery. 

Should each community in West Marin think about a resiliency plan to extend emergency services to the elderly, children and others in need of special care?

Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni will attend an event at the Stinson Beach Community Center on Oct. 18, from 7 to 9 p.m. Speakers will include Craig Wooster, lead engineer for the Stone Edge Farm microgrid in the City of Sonoma, which successfully operated for 10 days during the 2017 Sonoma fires. 

Leading up to the events at Commonweal and the Stinson Beach Community Center will be a three-part series on KWMR. On Sept. 10, my program, “With Eyes Open,” will host Malvin, the CEO of American Solar. On Sept. 24 my guest will be Craig Wooster of Stone Edge Farms, and on Oct. 8 I will host Miriam Makhyoun and Heather Shepard of Marin Clean Energy. All interviews start at 9 a.m. For more information, visit peterasmus.com. 

 

Peter Asmus, a research director on microgrids for Navigant Research, is a Stinson Beach resident who has been covering energy issues for 30 years.