Viewpoints

Power shutoffs hurt Californians, economy. It’s time to evolve the electrical grid

About 965,000 customers across Northern California lost power this last weekend. During Diwali, the festival of lights, the utility was shutting off lights instead of keeping them on.

PG&E billed the move as a precautionary measure: a means of preventing the power company’s aging electrical infrastructure from sparking a catastrophic wildfire. But the cost of this blackout, known as a “Public Safety Power Shutoff,” also known as PSPS, has proven extraordinary. The best estimates suggest the price tag on California’s economy is almost $1 billion every time a widespread shutoff occurs. Some estimates are much worse.

Opinion

A solution to California’s antiquated grid is clearly needed: As of January, the state’s electrical infrastructure reportedly ignited more than 2,000 fires in the previous three and a half years alone. But shutting off the power and closing down much of the state’s economy any time weather conditions reach critically-dangerous levels is not a sustainable solution. Many people have life sustaining needs for electricity and their three-to-six-hour battery attached to their medical equipment isn’t good enough. We can and must do better.

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Timothy Hade

There has been a large focus from state and local leaders on the need to identify legacy infrastructure improvements and fix them. But a wildfire mitigation plan to try and “fix” the state’s electrical grid infrastructure, which includes 250,000 miles of overhead power lines, is going to take at minimum 10 years. It costs too much, takes too long and denies people the control that they crave over this situation.

There is, however, a means of decreasing the economic damage of shutoff events and keeping the lights on: deploying distributed energy resources. Like mobile phones, we need to bring the essential infrastructure closer to the consumer. Individual rooftop solar and storage can be islanded to provide a reliable backup when utilities shut the lights off. Expanding these systems to help entire neighborhoods will be more cost effective and can ensure that mission-critical and high-risk facilities have access to essential power during shutoff events at an affordable price.

We need state leaders, along with utilities, to abandon the 100-year-old mantra of “bigger is better,” and start incentivizing an equitable transition to distributed energy resources – which includes local control.

There has been progress made to this end in the state legislature. Senate Bill 1339 was passed in August 2018, and sought to dismantle some of the barriers to distributed energy resource deployment. But the California Public Utilities Commission implementation process has yet to produce any real-world results, and has certainly not been executed with a sense of urgency.

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Jigar Shah

Without state leadership for distributed energy resources, Californians will be left with dirty alternatives that pollute the air and threaten health. For example, it’s clear to anyone following GENERAC’s stock price that many people are buying diesel generators as a primary tool to protect against shutoffs. Diesel engines provide an affordable personal solution but is the definition of a suboptimal technology to deploy at scale across the state: Californian’s would be utilizing one of the dirtiest and most expensive forms of electricity generation available to mitigate a problem directly linked to climate change.

The mass deployment of distributed energy resources does not have precedent on the kind of scale of timeline we’re proposing. But unless the world’s fifth largest economy can thrive without electricity for what we estimate would be more than 20 days a year, there isn’t a better option. In fact, California has more trained clean energy professionals than anywhere else in the nation, so it is the perfect place to make this happen.

Over the next few years, California is either going to enact policies and incentives that leverage the state’s intellectual capital to transform it’s electric grid via the mass deployment of distributed energy resources, or there will be economic calamity. Many of the most innovative distributed energy companies in the world are based in California, and have the capabilities needed to rebuild a sustainable, reliable and affordable electric grid.

Accomplishing the mission is going to be contingent on state leadership stepping up.

Timothy Hade is a microgrid specialist at Scale Microgrid Solutions. Jigar Shah is co-founder of Generate Capital.
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