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Developers of the communication-less microgrid method observe the NREL Flatirons Campus' battery energy storage systems. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Clean Power

How Microgrids Can Help Communities Adapt To Wildfires

Microgrids are a cost-effective way to provide electricity to local communities during emergencies such as wildfires.

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Since electricity first replaced gas lamps, the model for selling it has been to create a large generating station somewhere, and then distribute the electricity it makes using a network of poles, wires, and substations to individual homes and business customers. That was fine when no one had the ability to generate electricity on their own and storage batteries were just a dream. Yet today, solar panels and batteries make it possible to create microgrids where electricity is created and consumed locally.

According to a report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, wildfires in California have caused many regional power shutoffs that have cost billions of dollars and been responsible for many deaths. Berkeley Lab says 46 million Americans are living next to forests at what scientists call the “wildland-urban interface.” That’s where the risks of wildfire can be especially acute.

Microgrids For Communities

By using small-scale local energy sources, communities can create microgrids that allow them to disconnect from regional electrical grids during emergencies. By doing so, they can continue to deliver essential services to keep homes and communities safe. Some communities use diesel generators to power their microgrid, but that is too costly to be economically viable. In addition, it  creates too much carbon dioxide to be environmentally responsible.

The research by Berkeley Lab, in collaboration with several international organizations, found that clean energy microgrids offer a better and cheaper solution for protecting California communities from wildfire-related outages, compared to microgrids powered by those diesel generators. Consisting primarily of solar panels and storage batteries, they can be built at a cost well below what households typically pay for electricity, and can dramatically reduce the economic impact of power outages by minimizing public safety power shutdown time.

“This is the first detailed, state level study that’s looked at how clean energy microgrids can minimize outage impacts on vulnerable communities, and how much it would cost,” said Tianzhen Hong, a co-author and senior scientist in the Building Technology & Urban Systems Division at Berkeley Lab.

The models developed for the study can help interested parties understand where these communities are located, how clean energy microgrids could be designed, and how much it would cost to reduce outages below a desired threshold. “We’re really talking about equity here. The technology can be really good, but at the end of the day, if people can’t afford it then nothing happens,” he said.

“In certain areas of California, public safety power shutoffs could remove access to electricity for up to 7% of the year,” said Dasun Perera, referring to the regional outages employed to lessen wildfire risk. Perera is a former Berkeley Lab postdoctoral researcher who is now at the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment at Princeton University. He said clean energy microgrids can cut these impacts by more than half, at a cost ranging from 15 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour. Californians pay about 25 cents per kWh on average for residential electricity.

The Wildland-Urban Interface

The study evaluated clean energy microgrids in seven California locations with different climatic conditions that are within the wildland urban interface, which spans the entire state. Novel modeling tools developed for the study helped researchers select communities based on wildfire risk and renewable energy potential.

Using those tools, the researchers designed microgrids to meet the specific needs of households in wildfire-prone areas. Electricity is used primarily for heating and cooling homes and businesses in those areas. Diesel generators were included in the design of those microgrids, but only as emergency backup. The research suggested they would be used only rarely.

The microgrids made it possible for communities to operate on renewable energy about 60% of the year, while significantly reducing heating and cooling emissions and minimizing the burden that renewables can impose on regional grids.

That last part is important. Although electrons don’t especially care what direction they travel, the grid is designed to move them from the center outward, not the other way around. Attempting to make the grid a two-way highway requires extensive and expensive alterations to the grid. Microgrids eliminate the need for those alterations.

Hong said the most important benefit of clean energy microgrids is that they can promote energy equity through equal access to clean technologies and their associated benefits. Most communities in the wildland-urban interface are not wealthy and can be disadvantaged by issues relating to access, mobility, and public health.

 Energy Equity

“We’re really talking about equity here,” Hong said. “The technology can be really good, but at the end of the day, if people can’t afford it then nothing happens.” Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, extensive federal support has been directed towards the type of community energy installations and microgrids the research focused on.

Going forward, Hong and Perera hope to work with city governments, utilities, and other stakeholders to design actual microgrids that deliver real world benefits while furthering their research capabilities. All data from the study is available to the public and can be used to support public planning efforts.

The pair will continue to investigate how a warming climate might affect future wildfires and other extreme events, and what types of clean energy infrastructure can bolster community resilience in a way that is economically feasible at scale.

The study was truly an international effort. It involved researchers from TU Wien, the HKUST Shenzhen-Hong Kong Collaborative Innovation Research Institute, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Microgrids Explained

This might be a good place to explain what a microgrid is. For that, we can turn to the CleanTechnica knowledge base.

“Microgrids are local energy networks for electricity, heating, and cooling that can supply buildings, campuses, or communities with energy. They can supply their energy needs independently (at least partly) from renewable energy, or other forms of energy, such as hydrogen or biomass, heat pumps, wind turbines, or combined heat and power. Smart microgrids have their own control system and can be operated to achieve multiple goals such as increased resiliency or reduced costs.

“Effective planning and operation of microgrids minimizes perceived financial risks of investing in renewable energy solutions, increases system efficiency, reduces losses, and improves the integration of intermittent generation resources such as solar PV. If needed, they can be decoupled from the wider utility grid and can operate also during grid outages or natural disasters.”

The important lesson from the Berkeley Lab research is that microgrids can be cost-effective — that is, the electricity they supply need not cost any more than the electricity that comes from the local grid, and in some cases it can cost less.

The idea of locally produced electricity that people share among themselves is anathema to investor-owned utilities. Their position is that they were granted a monopoly on electricity generation and distribution 100 years ago, and if it was good enough then, it is good enough now. The democratization of electrical energy is a concept that is foreign to their thinking. It may take a while for the concept of microgrids to catch on, not because the technology is unavailable or the cost is too high, but because the industry is working hard in the background to delay this new concept for as long as it can.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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