The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued a proposal Wednesday that would require utilities to speed up the deployment of microgrids and other projects that could help customers during wildfire-related safety power shut-offs.
The proposed decision also would give Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) the green light to deploy temporary generators at certain areas during the 2020 wildfire season, and upgrade substations so they can be quickly energized with local power during a shut-off.
California's upcoming wildfire season is likely to bring more power shut-offs during the fall, CPUC Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma said in a statement. "Microgrids using independent energy supply can provide essential backup and resiliency for communities affected," she added. The proposal is scheduled for a vote on June 11.
Last year, California utilities rolled out public safety power shut-offs that cut off service to millions of customers during times of high fire risk, when weather conditions could damage their power lines. PG&E — which has previously said that its 70,000-square mile service territory is particularly prone to fires — turned off the power to 975,000 customer accounts in late October.
The CPUC's new proposal would require the IOUs to "prioritize, streamline, and expedite microgrids and resiliency projects" that can be set up by Sept. 1, with the intention of keeping critical facilities and other customers powered during the shut-offs, the commission said in a press release.
If it's approved, the utilities will need to standardize project application processes, expedite the process to sign off on installed projects, speed up interconnections and tweak tariffs to account for resiliency value. In addition, the utilities will have to improve their coordination and collaboration with local and tribal governments.
The CPUC is pursuing every available means to make communities resilient to safety shut-offs, agency President Marybel Batjer said in a press release.
"Part of that approach is driving utilities to improve their wildfire mitigation work, another part is encompassed in today's proposal, which helps ensure utilities expedite deployment of much-needed backup power for their customers in advance of the 2020 wildfire season," she added.
PG&E proposed to the commission its own plan for addressing the outages, which includes three components: a make-ready program, which would engineer and upgrade substations so they can operate in "islanded mode" when transmission lines are de-energized; a community microgrid enablement program, which would support community-requested microgrids with technical and financial support; and a temporary generation program, under which the utility plans to lease as much as 300 MW of mobile generators to power certain areas during safety shut-offs in the 2020 wildfire season.
The utility employed a similar strategy in 2019, deploying 23 MW of temporary diesel generation in four Northern California towns, powering critical facilities like fire stations and medical centers. Some environmental advocates have pushed back against the plan due to its reliance on fossil fuels — but diesel is widely available and has the functional capability to power microgrids for days, according to PG&E.
The new proposed decision would approve the utility's plan for temporary generators for "interim, short-term use only," and require PG&E to track the program's costs in a memorandum account that will be reviewed at a later date.
While the CPUC acknowledged the potential health risks of large diesel generators, it concluded that they are necessary to prepare and protect the public for the wildfire season and potential outages, since they would allow some ratepayers to be served even while transmission lines are de-energized.
"We believe this temporary resiliency measure will support those who are disproportionately affected by disasters, such as individuals with access and functional needs and hard-to-reach customers," the proposal states.
Grid-connected microgrids can play a role in enhancing the resilience of critical facilities and portions of the distribution grid during shut-offs, PG&E spokesperson Paul Doherty said in an emailed statement.
"We are pleased that the proposed decision would conditionally approve PG&E's proposals to use temporary generation, to make certain substations ready to accept sources of generation at or near the substation in PSPS events, and to create a program to support and facilitate community-level microgrids proposed by local communities," he said.
PG&E will continue coordinating and consulting with California Gov. Gavin Newsom's office, the CPUC, local management agencies and other stakeholders on future shut-offs, he added.