In April of this year, the California investor-owned utility (IOU) Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announced the launch of a new program intended to facilitate the growth of community microgrids in its service area. In particular, the Community Microgrid Enablement Program (CMEP) focuses on supporting the development of customer-owned microgrids to ensure energy security in low-income and wildfire-vulnerable areas.
Given the growing plague of seasonal wildfires that have devastated the state for the last decade – and PG&E’s notorious role in thousands of them – this is a step toward ensuring that Californian communities have access to resilient, safe electricity during heatwaves, drought, and utility power shutoffs.
A microgrid is an electric system that can disconnect and operate independently from the utility grid, a capability known as “islanding.” Microgrids are typically powered by renewable energy or diesel generation and paired with battery energy storage. Community microgrids are specifically intended to support critical facilities and community resources such as hospitals, fire stations, and schools during grid outages.
As extreme weather has increasingly forced widespread blackouts across the country, community energy resilience is top of mind for communities and utilities alike. As a result, many utilities are trying to figure out how to promote microgrid development in a way that effectively supports vulnerable communities during hurricanes, wildfires, and other potentially dangerous weather events.
CMEP has roots in the 2018 state law SB 1339, which directed the CPUC to reduce barriers for commercial microgrid development by developing standards, tariffs, and other microgrid-related protocols. Early last year, the CPUC required the three California IOUs to accelerate the development of their own resiliency plans, including microgrid development, in anticipation of the upcoming summer’s wildfire season.
CMEP will provide financial and technical support for communities that want to develop microgrids to power critical community resources. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) authorized $27 million in matching funds for the program, $9 million of which is reserved specifically for disadvantaged and wildfire-impacted communities.
First and foremost, the microgrid must serve a region that has been or will likely be severely impacted by seasonal wildfires, PG&E power outages, or both. This means the project must be located in one of the following areas:
Tier 2 or Tier 3 High Fire Threat District: These are areas that have been officially defined as wildfire-prone areas by the CPUC. You can view a GIS map of the CPUC Fire Districts here
An area that has been impacted by a prior Public Safety Power Shutoff event: Utilities depower equipment (and cut off power to customers in that area) if they anticipate any possibility of the equipment sparking fires. These Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events have become increasingly common as wildfire season has gotten worse in recent years. The CMEP fine print clarifies that your area will not qualify if there are no future anticipated PSPS events in your region due to “other mitigation activities.”
An “Outage Prone Area”: PG&E defines this as “the top 1% ‘Worst Performing Circuits’ in either the AIDI (total minutes without power) or AIFI (total number of outages) category” in one of the last two years. This likely means very few areas in PG&E’s service territory.
The project must also have a community focus, meaning it is able to serve the energy needs of at least one critical facility, as well as one additional customer. A “critical facility” includes medical facilities and emergency services, among others. PG&E lists all critical facilities in the CMEP FAQs section. Project size is limited to 20 megawatts (MW) or smaller.
PG&E will cover up to $3 million in eligible equipment necessary for safe islanding capabilities. This includes microgrid controllers, isolation devices, and fault protection devices. It does not include generation or storage-related costs. Funding is available through the end of 2022 or until it runs out.
PG&E’s technical support includes:
PG&E also provides a dedicated project management office to the program. You can learn more about PG&E’s technical support here.
The first project to be supported by CMEP is the Redwood Coast Airport Microgrid, which is a collaboration between PG&E, Redwood Coast Energy Authority, Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University, Humboldt County, and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories. The 2.2 MW solar + 2 MW / 8 MWh microgrid will serve roughly 20 customer meters, including the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station. It is expected to be operational by the end of the year, which PG&E is promoting as the country’s first multi-customer community microgrid. Thus far, it is the only project supported by CMEP.
Resiliency has been a hot topic in wildfire-prone California for several years, yet community microgrids have been very slow to materialize across the state.
PG&E and its fellow California IOUs San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE) made national headlines in the fall of 2019, when they collectively shut off power for millions of customers. While these shutoffs, known as Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events, are intended to prevent utility equipment from sparking wildfires, the prolonged lack of power also creates health and safety risks for communities. In fact, the CPUC recently fined PG&E more than $100 million for its failure to follow safety protocols during these PSPS events.
PG&E had been under immense public and regulatory pressure to take preventative action, as its equipment had sparked more than 1,000 devastating and deadly wildfires in years prior, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed more than 80 people. In early 2019, the utility filed for Chapter 11, in large part due to the billions of dollars it owed for the deaths and extensive damage caused by the fires. As of this year, PG&E is still sorting out settlements and agreements and paying millions for its role in state wildfires and failure to execute safe PSPS events.
SCE and SDG&E have also been exploring microgrid options, although neither has made much progress.
With a record 4.25 million acres burned in last year’s fires, California needs all the resiliency help it can get.
As part of its Public Safety Power Shutoff Microgrid Pilot, SCE is adding islanding capabilities to its solar + storage project at San Jacinto High School. During past community emergencies, the high school gymnasium has doubled as an evacuation center; with its microgrid upgrade, the school will be able to keep the power on for those seeking shelter.
SDG&E’s Borrego Springs Microgrid became the first utility-owned community microgrid in the country when it was constructed in 2013. With 26 MW of solar, 4 MW of diesel generation, and 1.5 MW of battery storage, it provides backup power for about 2,800 people. Last year, SDG&E was awarded a federal grant to upgrade the system to 100% renewable energy.
2019 was a wake-up call. Industry stakeholders agreed that PG&E needed improved energy safety and security measures to protect customers from both the dangers of utility equipment-sparked fires and risky PSPS events.
Whether due to regulatory pressure or financial liabilities (or a combination of the two), PG&E seems to have a newfound commitment to safety and community resiliency. The utility is still saddled with billions in debt, but the Community Microgrid Enablement Program is one of several steps that it is taking to provide resources and support to its most vulnerable customers.
For now, the program seems promising. According to PG&E, other communities have expressed interest in participating, including the Yurok Tribe of Native Americans. With a record 4.25 million acres burned in last year’s fires, California needs all the resiliency help it can get.
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