PG&E Needs to Get with the Program and Get Behind Microgrids
- Dec 3, 2019 5:23 pm GMT
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PG&E Needs to Get with the Program
Embattled utility should make solar-powered microgrids the centerpiece of its response to wildfires
By Gary Rasp
As regulators in California investigate whether PG&E acted properly when it turned out the lights of nearly one million customers in a series of mandatory power outages, a bigger question has emerged: what can be done to drag the besieged utility into the 21st century?
The California Public Utilities Commission is looking into whether PG&E properly planned and executed the outages, a policy the company maintains is the best way to prevent further fires while it safeguards its system, which it says will take 10 years.
In announcing the probe, the Commission characterized the first of the four PG&E blackouts as “ill-conceived, poorly planned, uncoordinated … and ineffectively communicated” – failings that could cost the utility millions of dollars in fines.
PG&E has acknowledged that its website crashed during the first power outage and that it failed to notify thousands of customers of the blackout; that it didn’t coordinate with local governments before and during the event; and that it did not consider how the outage would affect transmission lines and other infrastructure within its service territory.
On top of the financial implications, the investigation highlights PG&E’s striking failure to communicate effectively with its customers and other stakeholders. The company has made other blunders in the broader realm of communications – including a suggestion from its CEO that people struggling to replace food spoiled during the blackouts should be happy their homes didn’t burn down.
It won’t be fined for that gaffe, but the loss of goodwill is immeasurable.
PG&E’s short-term response to the threat of future wildfires is to establish ‘resilience zones’ that provide temporary backup power to local communities during outages. The zones feature mobile generators that run on diesel or natural gas, which PG&E would truck into fire-prone regions.
So far, PG&E has built two resilience zones in Napa County, and plans to add up to 40 more in its service territory. The company has touted the use of mobile generators, connected to pre-installed interconnection hubs, as an “innovative concept.”
While portable generators are relatively inexpensive, and provide flexibility since they can be moved from one area to another, they represent a temporary fix to a long-term problem.
They’re also dirty – something that matters a great deal in a state that’s committed to improving air quality and combating global warming.
While there may be a limited place for generators, an old-school technology that has been used for decades during blackouts, PG&E shouldn’t rely on them in its response to the threat posed by wildfires.
If the company is serious about regaining trust among its customers – and demonstrating to state officials its commitment to safeguarding its system – PG&E should strongly invest in community-based microgrids powered by solar panels in tandem with large lithium-ion batteries.
In addition to being cleaner, microgrids are able to generate power every day, not just during blackouts, allowing local residents to produce, store and control their own electricity.
Nationwide, several utilities are installing microgrids, and their efforts could serve as models for PG&E. Vermont's Green Mountain Power used a network of batteries installed in in customers' homes to keep power flowing during a recent statewide outage. Duke Energy is building a solar and storage microgrid in Hot Springs, North Carolina, and has also proposed a battery backup system at an emergency command center in South Carolina.
Regulated utilities are finding ways to address the concerns PG&E has expressed about the expense of microgrids and the challenges associated with creating resilient systems to help customers get through prolonged outages, planned or otherwise.
PG&E is working with local stakeholders to build one microgrid, in Humboldt County, that will feature solar generation and an electric vehicle station backed up by battery storage. The company also has boosted measures to isolate outages on the grid, which could help limit the number customers affected by future outages.
That’s a good start. But if PG&E has any prayer of restoring trust among its customers, it needs to fully embrace the latest and cleanest technologies available to show that it’s putting the welfare of its customers ahead of its bottom line.