As California looks to power shut-offs to prevent fires, Sunrun touts microgrids
- The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) unanimously voted on Thursday to open a proceeding on the practice of de-energizing power lines as a precautionary measure during conditions that could spark wildfires.
- The new order began with a stakeholder workshop on Friday and will examine the effects of de-energization and an approach to "minimizing unintended consequences" of leaving communities without power to mitigate the threat of wildfires. Distributed resource developer Sunrun sees the proceeding as an opportunity to extend microgrids to critical energy-use areas that are likely to be cut off from the central grid for wildfire prevention.
- Wildfire liability will be a focus for the state legislature in 2019, which kicks off its next session in January.
The CPUC's de-energization rules, adopted this summer, signal the increasing use of the practice as the state's fire season lengthens year-after-year.
The practice of de-energization has been used sparingly in southern California, by San Diego Gas & Electric and by other investor-owned utilities. Notably, in October, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) was forced to cut power to nearly 60,000 people due to high wind conditions.
PG&E has been under particular scrutiny for its role in sparking the deadly Camp Fire blaze, telling regulators that it had considered de-energizing its power lines in the area on the morning of the fire's ignition, but ultimately decided to keep power flowing because wind speeds were decreasing.
"We only consider temporarily turning off power in the interest of safety and as a last resort during extreme weather conditions to reduce the risk of wildfire," PG&E spokesperson Andrea Menniti told Utility Dive via email.
Regulators identified the areas where utilities will focus de-energization efforts as extreme high fire threat areas in the state.
"I think what we heard in the session today is that cutting off electricity is probably the safest approach," to wildfire mitigation, Anne Hoskins, chief of policy for Sunrun, told Utility Dive. "This has been used successfully down in southern California, but when you take that approach of directing utilities to turn off electricity when you have high winds and dry conditions, it raises a lot of other serious issues about people who are really dependent on electricity."
Shutting off centralized power can impact customers powering their refrigerators and medical equipment, as well as interrupt the communications capabilities with emergency responders. This is where microgrids come in, Hoskins said. Sunrun helped establish microgrids to maintain communications for fire houses in case of emergencies in Puerto Rico as part of the rebuilding effort for the island's grid after Hurricane Maria.
"Partnering with communities to develop and integrate microgrids to help support community facility resilience in the event of major natural disasters is part of PG&E's electric system hardening efforts over the long term," Menniti said.
"I want to be honest that I don't think we're going to have 'the' one solution," CPUC Chairman Michael Picker said during the regulators' open meeting on Thursday, referring to the use of multiple tools to address the effects of de-energization.
Beyond the use of microgrids, regulators also mentioned efforts such as more sophisticated ways to track the weather and actions to digitize and check what's going on in the transmission and distribution network.
"What we really need to be able to do is to make sure that residents and schools and fire stations and these communities that are in high fire risk areas have another source of energy that can be cut off from the larger grid when there's a problem on the grid," Hoskins said.
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