California Fire Blackouts: Good News and Bad News

October 28, 2019

I have good news and bad news.


As utilities halted service to more than 2 million people this week, lines formed at hardware stores selling portable generators, while many hospitals and businesses fired up their own. The prospect of emissions belching from untold numbers of the machines, some powered by diesel and gasoline as well as propane and natural gas, was troubling in a state already burdened with some of the nation’s worst air quality.

“It is a major concern,” said Dr. Laki Tisopulos, executive officer of the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District. “Imagine if you are in a large metropolitan area like Los Angeles or the (San Francisco) Bay Area and you have hundreds or thousands of these engines kicking in. All of a sudden you have many localized sources of pollution that are spewing carcinogens right where we breathe. It can be next door to a school, a hospital.”

On the other hand, the situation is jumpstarting efforts to create “island able” micrograms, an important development for adoption of renewable energy and creating a more sustainable grid.

Microgrid Knowledge:

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) may speed development of 40 microgrids to help customers maintain electricity when wildfire threats force it to deenergize portions of its grid.

The utility described its plans Friday in a four-hour emergency meeting called by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in response to the October 9-12 shutoffs to 2 million customers (738,000 accounts).

“There is a definite need to move toward some form of microgrid sectionalization,” PG&E CEO William Johnson told the commission.

On windy days California utilities have been undertaking public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) — intentional electricity shutoffs — because several wildfires in the state have been linked to their equipment.

Customers have expressed anger in the press and at the commission meeting over the shutoff. San Jose is considering exiting from PG&E’s service to run its own utility that would focus on microgrids.

During Friday’s hearing, Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, described plans to accelerate development of what the utility calls “resilience zones,” areas of the grid configured to act as microgrids with temporary, mobile generation. Eventually the utility may develop them into permanent microgrids, according to PG&E’s 2018 wildfire mitigation plan.

One zone is already operating in Angwin, a town in Napa County. The project taps into cogeneration at Pacific Union College and provides power for a fire station, gas station, apartment building and a plaza.

The utility had planned to develop 40 or more of the microgrid configurations over three years. “But we know we need to do better and we are in the process of re-evaluating our plans to identify what we can get done and how quickly we can get some of these things done in a safe manner.”

Singh said that the utility is prioritizing microgrids for sites that are susceptible to ignition and wildfire, experience high winds, and offer limited egress for the population.

Dave Roberts has a long explainer at Vox, that I’m working my way through.


..any system that can island off from the grid is a microgrid, a miniature, semi-independent grid of its own. Technically, a single building, even a single room could be a microgrid, but more often, when people refer to microgrids they are talking about groups of buildings and facilities — a campus, a neighborhood, or even a whole community.

With the right equipment and software, a microgrid can coordinate DERs within the group, maximizing local resources while ensuring that enough power is drawn from the larger grid to keep supply and demand matched. (It is possible to have microgrids nested within larger microgrids; a microgrid could even be entirely composed of smaller microgrids, like Russian nesting dolls.)

While there are freestanding microgrids in developing countries, microgrids are typically embedded in larger distribution grids in the US. Most of the time, they remain connected to the grid; they island only in the case of blackouts. From the utility’s point of view, a microgrid is just another customer, just another meter. What goes on behind the meter, whether it’s one building or 100, doesn’t make much practical difference, except in the size of the account.

The knock on microgrids has traditionally been that they’re expensive, but they are already reaching cost parity with California grid power in some places. And while it is true that, on an upfront-capital basis, they are more expensive than diesel generators, they are not more expensive on a lifetime basis because clean DERs, unlike diesel generators, can provide useful services even when there’s no blackout.

Solar microgrids don’t just provide their owners with backup power when the grid is off and clean energy when it’s on, they offer a number of benefits to the larger grids in which they are embedded.


First, remember that microgrids can island off from the larger grid. To the extent more areas have the capacity to island — to the extent the grid is more “modular” rather than one giant interdependent network — blackouts can be more carefully targeted. The communities in the path of wildfires can be shut down in an orderly fashion, without the need to black out giant swathes of territory around them.

Second, because they produce power close to consumers, DERs (both in front of and behind the meter) cut down on the need for long-distance grid infrastructure. They can help utilities avoid investments in costly new transmission towers, power poles, transformers, and power lines. At sufficient scale, they can avoid the need for new power plants, with savings running into the billions.

Third is “peak shaving,” a subset of avoiding infrastructure. The electricity systems in California and other states are wildly overbuilt; they have to be sized to meet the highest possible peak in demand. Because those peaks in demand are, by definition, exceptions, much of that capacity (especially a large fleet of natural gas “peaker plants”) sits idle much of the time. It is wasteful, again to the tune of billions.

3 Responses to “California Fire Blackouts: Good News and Bad News”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    In addition, in California it looks like the cost of overhead power lines is rising above the expensive option of burying them.

    The pros and cons:

  2. Kevin Boyce Says:

    It has always seemed odd to me that when there’s talk of a need for excess renewable generation capacity, it’s all “Oh waily waily! Curtailment! Look how expensive wind and solar are!” Yet when billions of dollars worth of gas peakers spend 90% of their time idle why that’s just the way things work, what’s your problem?

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    Fueled by Climate Change, California’s Raging Wildfires Are Threatening Vulnerable Communities First

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