California wildfires, renewables, grid infrastructure, microgrids

In early 2019 I met California Fire Captain John Gaddie in some of the hardest hit parts of Paradise, but really most parts of Paradise are the ‘hardest hit,’ because the town is now just rubble. There were 85 fatalities during the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Magalia, Butte Creek Canyon and Concow. He swallowed a lump in his throat and talked optimistically about rebuilding, but implied that few were finding reasons to return and do so. In addition to nothing much left to attract them, the local water bodies and ground water have been compromised and acidified.

Although they lost 85 people, Gaddie viewed California Fire’s efforts during the worst period as a success. As often happens with wildfires, locals kept hoping their homes would be spared, or that their families could time their exit just right, with their most valuable possessions.

This made it difficult for authorities to implement an evacuation, because residents didn’t see the big picture, ie. what would happen on the roads if everyone tried to leave at the same time. In the Paradise / Magalia area the population was located on a kind of a ridge, with really only one corridor in and out. By the time everyone decided they had no choice but to leave, the roads couldn’t accommodate tens of thousands of vehicles all at once.

Police and emergency personnel moved some of the gridlock trapped motorists into emergency temporary refuge centres at a Walgreen, K-Mart and Rite-Aid, until after the fire moved through and congestion decreased, then sent them on their way. “We evacuated 50,000 people,” said Gaddie.

Annual fires and other intense weather events claim lives, destroy property and in recent years have also been threatening California’s sometimes fragile main power grid, with blackouts accompanying and exacerbating the wildfire season. In 2020 wildfires killed 33 people and burned more than 4 million acres.

There is growing interest in clean renewable power, battery power, rooftop solar, microgrids and off-grid living. These can help with our climate crisis, and also with resilience during power outages and natural disasters of all different kinds, in all kinds of places.

In a September 2020 article the New York Times noted that many energy experts have noted that batteries could turn homes and businesses into mini-power plants that are able to play a critical role when the electricity system is under strain. They store excess power from solar panels and wind turbines and provide electricity in the evenings when the sun goes down and after wildfires and hurricanes.

The piece suggests that over the next 10 years, large rows of batteries owned by utilities will start replacing natural gas peaker plants, because those plants and nuclear plants often fail or must be shut down during natural disasters. That’s exactly what’s happening. Utilities in California are now installing storage at 582 megawatts (MW) at Moss Landing, 250 MW in San Diego, 150 MW near San Francisco, 100 MW in Long Beach and more.

In addition, California regulators are working on a plan to enlist rooftop solar, behind-the-meter batteries and other distributed energy resources (DERs) to substitute for expensive grid upgrades. The ‘Partnership Pilot’ will start to register solar, batteries, EVs and other assets as ‘non-wires’ alternatives during 2021.

One experience that likely contributed to these efforts took place during August in 2020, when California instituted rolling blackouts after a gas plant, some infrastructure and other power sources proved inadequate.

Stem, a San Francisco energy company organized some of its customers and provided 50 megawatts to the grid (enough for 20,000 homes) from batteries it had installed in businesses, local governments and at other individual customer properties.

This same company is known for helping numerous businesses around North America save money on high time-of-use peaking charges. In some cases there is no up-front cost to install the batteries, as Stem also offers lease-financing kinds of arrangements. Some of the unsung advantages of these battery systems is that they are all online and can be monitored and controlled remotely, precisely and quickly with sophisticated load and grid management software.

Below are some links to more information on these renewables, battery, micro-grid and similar initiatives.

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