Is West Marin ready for the wildfire season and power outages?

05/19/2021

With a record-breaking drought in the works after three successive major wildfire seasons, we clearly need to be better prepared in 2021. Luckily, local institutions are stepping up to the plate. Although utilities such as PG&E have developed some temporary fixes like public safety power shutoffs, we need longer-term solutions. Relying upon traditional fossil fuel backup generators is a temporary stopgap that does not represent a viable solution for our future.

The better solution is microgrids, which can create small islands of power leveraging cleaner resources such as solar panels and batteries to keep power flowing for critical community assets when the larger grid goes down. I’ve studied the evolution of microgrids, which are now affordable and viable thanks to innovations from private sector financing, for over 10 years. New programs offered by MCE, formerly known as Marin Clean Energy, are having a major impact after a stumbling start, and PG&E has launched a new community microgrid program. Now is the time for action. 

There are several microgrids in the works throughout West Marin. Here’s a round-up of recent activities at key sites. 

In Stinson Beach, the county water district will use its own funds to install two Tesla Powerwall batteries to support an existing rooftop solar array that will bolster resiliency at the agency’s headquarters. The primary fire station, located adjacent to the community center, is tapping MCE’s energy storage program to help finance batteries to supplement existing solar arrays as well as an ancient propane generator that kicks in to support both facilities when power goes out. Thanks to the integration of the battery with both solar and generator power, these critical community resources will both retain electricity and reduce emissions contributing to global climate change—at essentially no cost to the fire district and community center, thanks to MCE and the state’s Self-Generation Incentive Program. 

In Bolinas, the community center has an existing solar array but no backup generator; the center is probably following the same path as the Stinson Beach Community Center by financing new batteries via MCE’s energy storage program. Meanwhile, another microgrid is moving forward right next the community center. Funded by an anonymous philanthropist on behalf of the Bolinas Community Land Trust, a unique microgrid being installed by Sun First Solar will not only support the only gas station in town, but also some affordable housing units on the property. A microgrid is also in the works at Commonweal, which installed one of the largest solar arrays in West Marin last year. Commonweal, a designated emergency shelter, is investigating the viability of integrating recycled batteries to bolster resilience at its remote site.

Up in Tomales, the Shoreline Unifired School District has been contemplating a microgrid for quite some time, as reported by the Light in January 2020. With help from the vendor Cleanspark, which offers controls to optimize the different energy resources included in the microgrid, the project would install new solar panels on the roofs of Tomales High and Tomales Elementary Schools, as well as the Shoreline district office and maintenance garage. The microgrid would also provide support to keep the PG&E grid in balance during so-called “blue sky” days. The project is looking at the same MCE energy storage program to help finance batteries. It is also now exploring a new PG&E program authorized by state regulators, the Community Microgrid Enablement Program, which would have the utility pay for the special switches needed for microgrids to disconnect from the larger grid during emergencies. 

It’s not all good news for West Marin and the rest of the county. In April, the Tomales Village Community Services District elected to hold off on exploring a microgrid for its facilities, preferring to revisit the topic once existing projects are completed. 

A microgrid has been operating at Point Reyes Station’s Dance Palace for over a decade. Though simple in design and limited in scope, the solar and lead-acid battery system has worked. (It was spearheaded by the late Jerry Lunsford.) Microgrids are also in the works in Fairfax and Sausalito, the latter of which has the most unusual project. The so-called Marinship Battery Barge project would be a floating mobile microgrid that could not only keep power flowing to business operations in the former shipbuilding industrial corridor in Sausalito, but also support electric vessels, a way to reduce emissions from maritime sources. The Army Corps of Engineers is supporting the project, but project advocates are seeking outside financing assistance. 

Although bills designed to support microgrid development for communities and critical facilities in the California legislature all failed during the 2020 legislative session, a ray of hope for other West Marin communities lies with S.B. 99 this year. Dubbed the Community Energy Resilience Act by the Climate Center of Santa Rosa, the bill passed out of committee on a unanimous bipartisan vote of 12-0 on April 19. The legislation would authorize the California Energy Commission to offer grants and technical assistance to local governments to help create microgrids. 

 

Peter Asmus has been writing about energy issues for over 30 years and is an internationally recognized expert on microgrids. To learn about the new PG&E community microgrid program, tune in to his KWMR radio show “With Eyes Open” on Monday, June 14 at 8:30 a.m.