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Is there a better way to access clean electricity than through the existing grid?

Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

The future will be all-electric

If you have been paying attention to the energy policy in California, you will recognize a pattern. The idea of saving energy for its own sake is taking a backseat to the bigger goals of decarbonization and electrification. The state has embraced aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals which require reducing our dependence on all fossil fuels, including natural gas.

California has a long history with natural gas. The percentage of our homes that depend on it for heat is larger than most other states in the country. While natural gas has been promoted as the “clean fossil fuel,” it’s now clear that we will never meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals until we ween ourselves off all fossil fuels, including natural gas.

In addition to its emissions, natural gas has other problems. The natural gas distribution system in California is old. Much of it needs replacement. Natural gas lines run underground and are expensive to maintain and replace. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and its main component is methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Natural gas is volatile and has a nasty habit of leaking from pipes and sometimes exploding. Every year, people in California lose their lives in methane explosions. Methane’s short-term impacts on our atmosphere are more damaging than carbon dioxide.

These are just a few reasons why electricity will become the preferred energy choice of the future. Electrical generation from clean, renewable sources is more flexible than the natural gas distribution system. That’s not to say that electrical distribution is trouble-free. High-power electric lines often crisscross mountain ranges, making them susceptible to damage from high wind events. Downed power lines in difficult-to-access regions have caused devastating and deadly wildfires. Finding ways to meet these challenges is critical if clean electricity is going to replace natural gas and other fossil energy.

The electrical distribution grid needs to evolve

Our current electrical grid was designed around a system in which electricity flowed one way, from a large, centrally located power plant to the end-user. The grid today is much more complex. It includes a broad mix of generation sources, varying in capacity throughout the day. Trying to integrate rooftop solar, wind, utility-scale solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and nuclear across the same distribution system is a daunting task.

There is no question that the grid needs to be updated to reflect how we generate and use energy today. The problem is that the estimated cost to replace the grid nationwide would be roughly $1 trillion — that’s trillion with a “T.” As you can imagine, changes or upgrades at this scale will take decades to complete. These figures assume that we replace the centralized distribution system with a similar solution. Fortunately, there are other options.

Shutting down parts of the grid to prevent fires is a poor solution

High-voltage power lines that cross mountain ranges in difficult-to-access areas are a legacy of centralized generation and distribution.  The problem is when there is a high wind event, you might need to shut down one of these lines to prevent a broken piece of equipment from starting a wildfire.

PG&E has labeled these events as Public Safety Power Shutoffs or PSPS. During a PSPS, sections of the grid are de-energized to mitigate the potential to create a wildfire. The net effect is everyone on the “wrong” side of the mountain goes dark. These temporary outages have become a regular occurrence for people who live in a wildland-urban interface zone (WUI), such as the foothills of the Sierras.

Perhaps there is a better way

One of advantage of electricity is that it can be produced locally from renewable resources. Some of these resources, such as wind farms or hydroelectric generators, are geographically limited. Others, such as rooftop solar, are much more flexible.

Microgrids are one exciting way to solve many of the problems caused by centralized generation. A microgrid is a small group of electricity users who share a local electricity source. Microgrids frequently operate in parallel with the primary distribution grid. When the main grid cannot meet the demand, microgrids can enter “island mode” and provide electricity from shared local resources. Typically, a microgrid has a local source of generation and some form of energy storage.

Often microgrids are used in places where scale allows the costs to be amortized by multiple users, such as a large college or medical campus. But microgrids can also be effective at a smaller scale, such as in a housing development that combines rooftop solar and centralized storage.

Microgrids are flexible, and innovation and cost reductions will spur more and more adoption. Imagine if your neighborhood shared rooftop solar production, installed a limited amount of storage, and then relied on a small fuel cell to generate electricity when the microgrid was in “island mode.”

Microgrids have numerous advantages over centralized distribution. When high winds create a risk of fire, for example, microgrids allow utilities to shut off power in those areas without affecting adjacent communities. Even better, if you produce the energy close to where you use it, there is less need for miles of high-tension power lines to distribute it over large distances in the first place. Replacing the high-tension power lines that currently crisscross the nation with smaller sub-sets of local, mixed source energy production facilities can reduce the risk of power outages overall.

Microgrids are happening today

Fremont, California, uses a microgrid for three of its fire stations. Fremont built the microgrid using California Energy Commission EPIC grant. Each of the three fire stations has its own PV system, energy storage system, and microgrid energy management system. Obviously, there is a societal benefit of having emergency services that operate on microgrids, especially in earthquake and wildfire regions.

In Humbolt County, California, The Redwood Coast Airport (RCA) designed and installed a 100 percent renewable microgrid. This microgrid provides resilience for the regional airport, including medical life support flights for the Coast Guard. It is owned by the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) and will run on powerlines owned by PG&E. Funding for this project started with a $5M EPIC grant combined with $6M in matching funds from RCEA. The RCEA microgrid is currently exporting energy to the grid and is expected to have islanding capacity in early 2022.

Several colleges have built microgrids on their campuses, and others are considering similar applications. Many large corporations are investing in microgrids for their business campuses. The public sector is adopting microgrids too. The concept is gaining traction and does not always require massive scale to be effective.

At the Stone Edge Farm Winery in Sonoma County, a winemaker has installed a microgrid for their entire operation. The microgrid allows them to produce and store electricity from the sun, reducing their carbon footprint and increasing the resilience of their sixteen-acre operation. As a result, the they have reduced the winery’s carbon footprint to less than zero. The winery has been running in “island mode” since 2018, using zero energy from the grid for their entire operation.

Electrification will change electrical generation and distribution

It’s likely that the transition to an all-electric future will change electrical distribution much like our telecommunication networks have changed in recent decades.

The first telephone lines were based on telegraph lines that followed trains as they made their way out west. Eventually, these lines were augmented by telephone lines that branched out and went to each of our homes. Large centralized companies controlled the flow of information from one point to another.

Today, cellular phones have completely changed the way we communicate. Cell towers have replaced telephone lines. In many cases, the signals travel to space and back to provide coverage across the globe. Today, many homes no longer use “landlines” for telephone services at all. Cell phones and cell towers have allowed entire countries to rapidly deploy communications networks that do not rely on centralized distribution systems.

I anticipate seeing similar advances in the transmission and distribution of electricity in the coming decades. In 1901, Nikola Tesla imagined a world with wireless electrical distribution and then demonstrated how it could be done. He likely would have succeeded if it were not for the financial interests of others.

As we move further down the path of distributed electrification, the role of large regulated monopolies, such as PG&E and other investor-owned utilities, will diminish. Companies and even individual homes will share power generation and distribution. The role and responsibility of a generation and distribution provider, such as PG&E, will change significantly or perhaps disappear altogether.

Electricity has become the lifeblood of productivity. I challenge you to imagine a modern world without it. But the way we generate and consume electricity needs to change. Maybe the disruption from PSPS events is what will take to get the masses to consider a new approach to providing, sharing, and consuming electricity in the future.

Charley Cormany

Executive Director

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