Even when the Bay Area’s electrical grid falters, three Fremont fire stations remain a sturdy lifeline to surrounding homes, schools and businesses.
The doors open in an emergency, so the fire trucks can get out and save lives. Metal gates open and close. Fremont’s 911 system, linking tens of thousands of residents to first responders, is protected.
Self-sufficient, they don’t need PG&E. It’s protection against a future of more planned outages in an ever hotter and drier California.
These stations – as well as Apple’s new campus, Kaiser-Richmond Medical Center, two wineries and an increasing number of businesses and homes — have their own independent power system: a solar-harnessed “microgrid” that collects, stores and releases energy on demand, operating even when PG&E doesn’t.
“It gives us a sense of security and resiliency. We can operate without having to worry about the grid going out,” said Rachel DiFranco, Fremont’s Sustainability Manager. “We are able to ‘island’ ourselves.”
This week’s blackouts not only incited fury but exposed the peril of relying on PGE’s antiquated power grid – and the promise, aided by the falling cost of technologies, of independent infrastructures that can better withstand disasters, both natural and man-made.
The projects are new and isolated but their implications are far-reaching, upending the traditional relationship between consumers and utilities.
PG&E’s major power arteries sprawl across 2,500 miles. A forecast of high winds and low humidity led PG&E last week to shut down nearly 100 high-voltage transmission lines, which are linked to about 25,000 miles of smaller distribution lines. That cut off power to about 730,000 customers in 34 California counties.
“Here we are in California – with digital technologies, digital economies – and PG&E is running the grid-like we’re living in a developing country,” said Peter Asmus, a microgrid expert at Navigant Research, a market research and advisory firm. “The grid is not reliable.”
“The number one technologic solution is to have microgrids,” he said.
On good days, microgrids work in tandem with PG&E’s supply. But in a crisis, they can function on their own.
When PGE cut power to the Santa Cruz mountains this week, Graham Hine’s lamps flickered. He heard a beep from his computer’s surge protector.
But then his Tesla Powerwall batteries – charged by solar panels — fired up. He stopped charging his car, instead of devoting the batteries to his refrigerator, freezer, television, computer, two water heaters, WiFi, clocks, smoke alarms and other appliances
“I turned off a few extra lights, kept watching TV for another hour, then went to bed,” he said. By morning, the batteries still held an 80 percent charge. Then the sun came out, and they refilled.
Until recently, diesel generators have been the only tool to prevent interruption of service. The machines are still useful, but they’re dirty, emitting carbon. They require fuel to keep running – and in a crisis, fuel may be in short supply.
“They’re the backup of the backup,” said Vipul Gore, President and CEO of GridScape Solutions, which owns and operates Fremont’s microgrids.
The Fremont project is one of several research efforts supported in part by a grant from the California Energy Commission, which seeks commercialization of the technology for the mass market.