How 'Power Islands' Could Help Keep The Lights On During Shutoffs

Workers at San Jacinto High School in Riverside County install circuits to control a solar and battery microgrid to power the school's gym during outages. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

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When Southern California Edison shut off the power on hot, dry and windy days last year to keep its equipment from starting fires, people got mad.

"This is unacceptable," Susan Hardie lectured an Edison executive at a public meeting in the Acton-Agua Dulce area, to the applause of her neighbors. Residents had been without power for days on end during a time of high fire risk, without internet, cell phones and in some cases, water.

But Edison is in something of a no-win situation. If the company shuts off power to keep homes from burning, it ends up angering the very people in those homes, who are left without power.

The company has been rushing to invest millions of dollars to upgrade its equipment so it's less likely to start fires, but that's going to take years. So shutoffs — and community frustration — will continue.

That has led Edison and others to search for ways to make homes and businesses more independent from energy from the power grid.

One solution: microgrids.

POWER ISLANDS

A microgrid is an energy system that can operate independently from the overall electrical power grid. They're found in many places — factories and hospitals often have microgrids that allow them to keep operating during power outages. Honda has one that uses solar energy at its Chino plant, for example.

The tiny tourist town of Julian — famous for its apple pies — has a microgrid that runs off a big diesel gas generator when surrounding wildfire danger is high and the power grid is offline.

Now utility companies are coming up with more ways to turn self-contained areas into "power islands".


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LESS POLLUTING

To protect its plants from power outages, Southern California Gas Company recently installed microgrids in Pico Rivera and Monterey Park. They use a technology normally associated with cars — hydrogen fuel cells.

These combine natural gas with oxygen from the air, said Kris Kim of Bloom Energy, the manufacturer.

"You effectively get an electro-chemical process inside the box that makes electricity without any combustion," Kim said.

A bank of hydrogen fuel cells set up to power Southern California Gas Company's Pico Rivera equipment storage plant (Sharon McNary/LAist)

No combustion means nothing is burned — so no particulate pollution is adding to L.A.'s smog problem. The fuel cells can use natural gas or the methane gas collected from waste at landfills, dairies, or wastewater treatment plants.

Enough power is generated so if the area's power is cut off, say, in a big earthquake, SoCal Gas can continue dispatching equipment to jobs around the region.

SOLAR POWERED HIGH SCHOOL GYM

San Jacinto High School's gymnasium does double duty as an evacuation center for people affected by wildfires or power outages in the nearby communities of Hemet, Idyllwild and Beaumont.

During an emergency, the school's gym becomes a Red Cross shelter. There's room for 200 cots on the gym floor, or 2,700 people in the bleachers.

The school already had solar panels to generate power, and Tesla batteries to store the power, which could provide about 85 percent of the energy the campus uses every day. But during a power outage, it wasn't much help, because the school would draw more power than the system could provide.

Chairs lined up inside San Jacinto High School gymnasium, where a microgrid is being installed to power an emergency shelter during power outages. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

Creating a power island — a microgrid — was a potential answer. And it timed well with a new Edison initiative. The company had been looking for a place to pilot a microgrid built around solar power and battery.

"Edison approached us because of our unique position here in San Jacinto, where we're surrounded by farmlands and mountain areas, which are some high fire risk area[s]," said Korey Lawson, who manages the San Jacinto Unified School District's campus buildings.

The utility re-routed the existing circuitry so that the energy from the solar panels and Tesla batteries could directly power the gym, which meant it was isolated from the larger power grid outside the school. In an emergency, when power is off elsewhere, the gym will be able to offer some important services.

"This is going to add that capability to have power, to be able to charge your phones, to have [air conditioning], have food. A lot of other benefits on top of what a standard emergency Red Cross shelter is," Lawson said.

The upgrade cost Edison around $200,000. It's expected to be operational this fall.

Edison wanted to replicate this project in a handful of other high fire risk places in its service territory. But it couldn't find the right partners. The few proposals that came in were too expensive, between $15 and $30 million. Edison told state regulators it will revisit the idea in another year or so.

Korey Lawson of the San Jacinto Unified School District, stands before some Tesla power storage batteries on the high school campus that will be used to create a power microgrid. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

RESILIENCY ZONES

These examples are for specific sites, like a school or a gas plant. Creating microgrids for entire communities, like those vulnerable to fire, presents a lot of barriers.

Identifying an independent source of power is one thing. But if the microgrid uses a community's existing power lines, they're just as likely to cause fires as if Edison's power is running through them.

So rather than invest millions in local microgrids right now, Edison is establishing "resiliency zones" in those places that have had days-long public safety power shutdowns — like Acton, Agua Dulce and Idyllwild. There, generators will be hauled in to keep power running to pharmacies or essential stores. They will hand out snacks and water and let people charge thier phones and computers.

But these centers will do little for individual homes and small businesses.

For now, it's the responsibility of businesses and households to be energy self-sufficient. And Edison is encouraging that by offering discounts on generators and batteries. For some qualifying customers, those items could be close to free.

The bigger projects — community-scale microgrids — remain years away. So if you want a microgrid to get you through the next big power outage, you'd best build it yourself.