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California's Microgrid Challenges Loom Before Wildfire Season Hits

Peter Asmus
May 22, 2020

wildfire

Vote Solar predicted 2020 “was going to be the year of the microgrid” in the California legislature. Then COVID-19 hit. What seemed to be the turning point for microgrids in a state ravaged by extensive wildfires for the last 3 years is now stalling due to shortened legislative sessions.  

Most Legislation Stalls, May Return in 2021

How can California deal with COVID-19 while simultaneously preparing for a wildfire season that promises to be as intense as recent years? This topic will be the focus of a Microgrid Knowledge virtual conference session held on June 3. To provide some context, here is a rundown of state legislation that was introduced this year, with only one bill still alive and the rest delegated until next year: 

  • SB 1215: In 2019, SB 1339 was designed to streamline interconnection processes and to develop new tariffs for microgrids. This new bill was originally designed to fund critical microgrids for municipal utilities and would have addressed the issues covered in a 2019 white paper by Guidehouse Insights. It is now undergoing major revisions as it works its way through committees before the end of May.
  • SB 1314: Titled the “Community Energy Resilience Act of 2020,” this bill would require the existing Strategic Growth Council to develop and implement a grant program for local governments to develop community energy resilience plans with a focus on critical facilities at locations susceptible to power outages.
  • AB 3256: Legislation linked to SB 1314, this assembly bill calls for $50 million in funds be dedicated for resiliency planning, focusing on low income communities and shifting priorities from diesel backup generators to clean energy infrastructure improvements. 
  • AB 3021: This bill would have focused on deploying solar plus energy storage microgrids at schools, of which 1,500 were closed during Public Safety Power ShutOffs in 2019. The bill would have earmarked $900 million over 3 years for clean energy resiliency upgrades.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison could have catapulted California into the single largest microgrid market in the world in 2020, but postponed their initiatives. Due to its compressed time schedule for deployments, PG&E instead shifted to temporary generation microgrids reliant on liquid fuels (possibly biofuels), arguing that the ability to move generators around was a more viable strategy in the short term. 

California Grid Struggles Could Find Hope in Modular Microgrids

Yet bright spots have emerged in California, many of them revolving around other concepts of modular microgrids. For example, Bloom Energy deployed a modular 400 kW system for emergency patient care at the Sleep Train Arena near Sacramento in only 5 days; in only 3 days a 400 kW fuel cell that was part of an existing 1.2 MW system at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area was also converted into a microgrid. 

How do California’s efforts to promote microgrids rate nationally? One industry veteran gave California an “F,” while giving New York an “A.” He cited the complexity of the California market and the difficulty for microgrids to sell ancillary services back to the grid. In contrast, he claimed New York had made progress under Reforming the Energy Vision, which proceeded to inspire ways for utilities to support distributed energy resource integration, with the Marcus Garvey Apartment microgrid as one example. 

California is not alone in seeking microgrids to avert power outages. Colorado State University predicts eight major hurricanes could hit the US this year. This is the new normal. COVID-19 may be exacerbating resiliency challenges in the short term, but it should not delay clean energy microgrids that are needed now more than ever.