As our environment continues to warm up and climate zones shift and change, the western regions of our country become more susceptible to wildfires. In recent years, wildfires have taken out entire communities in California, Oregon, and Washington.
Wildfires are started by many means, but one cause of several large-scale fires is downed power lines. Power lines transport energy long distances through all terrains to energize communities up and down the coastline. When conditions are dry and windy, trees can topple into and sever the lines. Power lines can also be damaged from automobile accidents and other catastrophes. When lines are severed, high voltage power ignites anything flammable that it touches, and in these dry, hot conditions, everything in the environment is highly volatile.
Over the past decade, energy companies have learned their lesson and now proactively turn off the power on these major power lines when conditions are dangerous. That limits the risk of wildfire to communities but can leave residents in the dark without the ability to use air conditioning or keep food cold in extreme temperatures. It also makes it nearly impossible to coordinate evacuation efforts if needed. One solution California is banking on is the expansion of microgrids within the state.
What are microgrids?
In general, a microgrid is an energy source that is separate from the main energy grid. Typically, microgrids serve as temporary power sources when the main energy grid is unable to operate effectively. For example, a diesel-powered backup generator for a hospital is considered a microgrid. While microgrids have traditionally been fueled with conventional fossil fuels, modern microgrids collect alternative energy from multiple sources to create an island of clean energy for communities.
According to the Clean Coalition, a microgrid is a “coordinated local grid area served by one or more distribution substations and supported by high penetrations of local renewables and other distributed energy resources (DER), such as energy storage and demand response.” In other words, microgrids pool the energy created by many people using renewable resources such as solar PV panels, wind turbines, waste-to-energy, biomass, and even small-scale hydroelectric power plants.
Can a microgrid power a community?
Yes. One such microgrid is in operation in Borrego Springs near San Diego. Borrego Springs is susceptible to wildfires, and part of wildfire prevention efforts include shutting down the transmission line that transports energy into the community of 3,500 residents. In 2012, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) received federal and state funding to build a microgrid that would collect, store, and supply energy to the citizens of Borrego Springs in the event utility companies shut down main power lines.
Borrego Spring’s microgrid isn’t using only clean energy, but they have plans to do so. Currently, the microgrid uses power flow from two diesel generators, a commercial solar farm owned by Clearway Energy, 4.5 megawatt-hours’ worth of lithium-ion batteries, and collected energy from solar panels on the rooftops of the town’s residents. SDG&E’s president, Mike Schneider, said the diesel generators are currently the primary power source for the microgrid, but that “We want to move toward a carbon-free solution.”
How can microgrids help prevent wildfires?
Experts feel microgrids can do more than just fill temporary power needs. As technology advances and microgrids can store and supply more energy, relying on them for extended periods can also reduce wildfire risk. With a smaller power source localized to the region its supplying (versus transporting energy over great distances), it’s easier to maintain the lines, monitor performance, and keep any damage caused by the power supply to a minimum. Eventually, using microgrids as the primary source of power could bring an end to mile upon mile of high voltage electricity running across our countrysides and forests.
Would you like to learn more about innovative clean energy solutions?
The Rogue Valley Clean Cities Coalition’s mission is to enhance the livability of the Rogue Valley. We promote and educate on alternate fuels, seek to decrease dependency on petroleum, and promote clean air and water in the Rogue Valley via alternate fuels. Contact us today for more information!