“The most controversial part of PG&E’s plan is to dramatically expand the scope of planned grid outages, which are intended to preempt the risk of its grid sparking more deadly wildfires this summer, and the disruptions and dangers those blackouts could cause… [PG&E is] also proposing some novel concepts, like working with non-utility partners to install or utilize on-site generation or distributed energy resources for continuous power during safety outages, and exploring the potential for true microgrid systems to play a role.” - GTM: Breaking Down PG&E’s Plan to Use Power Outages to Prevent Wildfires
California utility PG&E has a plan to prevent catastrophic forest fires like last year’s Camp Fire, but it potentially leaves millions without power during the upcoming summer. The California utility has been linked to multiple wildfires, including the devastating Camp Fire last November, as their transmission lines and equipment were found to have started the fires. So, the essence of the plan is to turn of the grid during peak fire times.
While the power outages are making the headlines, buried in PG&E’s plan is to develop distributed (on-site) power generation and “sectionalizing” its grid or creating true microgrids.
Distributed generation is done best with renewable energy. While wind power isn’t best for residential areas, it has been a good fit for industrial installations. Solar works well in all areas. The main difficulty with this is the variability of generation inherent in renewables. The wind and sun don’t necessarily blow or shine when power is needed. But established microgrids with multiple sources of renewable power and the capability for power storage would be ideal for the Northern California areas susceptible to catastrophic fires. Michael Wara, the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, notes in an LA Times op-ed last December, the utility needs to “make it acceptable” to turn off the grid, and implementing these changes is how it needs to happen.
This approach could work well nearly anywhere in the US. For example, renewable energy coupled with microgrids could help the recovery of areas affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, or a man-made catastrophe.
The more than a dozen fires that PG&E has been linked to have driven the utility to bankruptcy. The utility literally cannot afford to be the cause of more forest fires and is looking for options from the state to implement its plan. However, the integration of distributed generation, microgrids, and other renewable options is nearly impossible to achieve before the fire season of 2019. Expect the pressure on PG&E from consumers without power, or if another wildfire is caused by the utility, to increase 10-fold to implement these changes. And expect other utilities to follow suit.