Earthquakes, fires and isolation point to need for microgrids

01/18/2018

The earthquake that struck the Bay Area on Jan. 4 served as a reminder that we who live in California do so with risk. While the 4.4-magnitude earthquake centered near Berkeley did little damage—other than wake folks like yours truly up from a deep slumber—it could perhaps foreshadow a much larger and more damaging quake in the near future.

Seismic experts estimate there is a one-in-three probability of a major earthquake hitting somewhere in the Bay Area within the next 30 years. It could be tomorrow, or it could be decades from now. What should communities in West Marin do to prepare for such a potential catastrophe?

I would argue that key emergency shelters should consider creating a “microgrid” as a first step to making our communities more resilient. Eventually, both homeowners and local businesses could also create such islands of resilience, taking advantage of advances in clean energy technologies such as solar panels and new kinds of batteries. But just what is a microgrid? 

A microgrid is a small power grid that keeps running when the larger utility grid goes down. Absent a microgrid, solar panels shut off like the rest of the grid, rendered useless when they could be providing their highest value. 

The traditional solution to blackouts for utility customers has been to use diesel or propane generators. But these energy sources pollute the air. As Easterners will tell, many also failed during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the more recent hurricanes that hit both Texas and Florida. California’s clean air and climate change regulations limit the burning of diesel and propane, both fossil fuels. In contrast, microgrids can integrate batteries, which, like solar panels, keep dropping in price, providing emergency power while also reducing pollution. 

And what would happen if an earthquake similar in magnitude to the 1906 quake struck? A project developed by the San Francisco Department of the Environment asked that very question. While 96 percent of the city’s consumers could expect their electricity to be back on-line within a week, it could take six months for the natural gas infrastructure to be fully operational. 

After a mapping exercise located critical facilities in San Francisco that could serve as emergency shelters during such a cataclysmic event, a dozen projects relying on new solar and battery systems were identified. So far, funding for initial groundwork has come from a $1.2-million grant from the federal Department of Energy. 

Since 2011, a parade of East Coast states launched state funding programs for microgrids. According to Navigant Research, over 100 microgrids are operating or in the works in California. State agencies such as the California Energy Commission are developing a roadmap to further commercialize microgrids, and will soon announce the winners in a competition whereby state ratepayers will invest $44 million in a series of new microgrids. 

This emerging industry has attracted both large industrials like General Electric and Silicon Valley start-ups. But will any of these private companies be interested in the scale of microgrids that is needed in West Marin? 

The Dance Palace actually has a microgrid, installed about a decade ago by Jerry Lunsford and solar installers at Muir Beach-based SunFirst. The center’s technical director, Burton Eubank, just changed out the lead-acid batteries, which died after their expected 10-year life. When the grid goes down, the microgrid supports refrigerators, telecommunications and other vital equipment. “It works great,” said Eubank, who hopes to install a Tesla battery at his own home, which already has solar panels, when the so-called “Powerwalls” feature warranties for 25 years. “I’m all over with PG&E,” he said. “I want to be truly independent.” 

Another microgrid in the region, located on the outskirts of the City of Sonoma, operated continuously for 10 straight days while neighbors lost power due to wildfires. The Stone Edge Farm microgrid features 10 different types of batteries and the farm offers educational tours. Even when folks there were evacuated, operators continued to manage the microgrid’s operation remotely. 

The following statistics underscore why military bases, hospitals and, increasingly, communities see value in improving the resilience of regional power grids. Last year, 16 natural disasters, including hurricanes and wild fires, cost taxpayers $1 billion apiece. All told, natural disasters cost the United States $306 billion in 2017, a new record. With climate change and lingering terrorist threats, the promise of microgrids to provide emergency services is picking up around the globe. Shouldn’t we in West Marin consider a community plan for more microgrids?

 

Peter Asmus has been covering energy issues for over 25 years and is currently seeking potential sites for microgrids in Stinson Beach and Bolinas. Learn more at www.peterasmus.com. Mr. Asmus will host Burton Eubank on his KWMR show, “With Eyes Open,” at 9 a.m. on Feb. 12.