As communities throughout the western United States sort through the rubble from a series of extreme heatwaves, wildfires and wind storms that devastated the region in August and September, knocking out power for millions of residents, recognition grows of the need for a reimagined and restructured power grid to ensure that the lights stay on.
“Grid reliability is a major problem,” Edward Fenster, chairman and co-founder of San Francisco-based solar and energy storage developer Sunrun Inc., said in a recent interview. “People don’t like living in the dark.”
As the warming climate continues to wreak havoc on conventional power systems that rely heavily on long-distance transmission lines and large-scale power plants in remote places, the reliability of the 21st century electric grid may rely upon a distributed network of smaller, localized assets — just as the internet depends on a web of decentralized resources to keep running when a big data center goes down.
Sunrun, the largest U.S. provider of home solar electric systems, has seen orders surge for lithium-ion battery backup power in California as utilities confront the state’s heightened wildfire risks with precautionary blackouts to keep their power lines from sparking fires. The company is among a growing group of stakeholders in the West, including renewable energy suppliers, major utilities, policy makers, tech giants, investors and researchers, seeking to extend the benefits of distributed energy resources to a broader spectrum of society. These alternative approaches to grid reliability include cloud-controlled hives of distributed batteries that combine with generation assets to form virtual power plants, traditional microgrids at self-contained and self-reliant campuses, and, in the future, community microgrids capable of sustaining entire neighborhoods or towns independent of the transmission system.
“We’re trying to not only help with the blueprint for renewable energy but also help with the blueprint for resiliency,” said Blake Richette, chairman and CEO of Sonnen Inc., an energy storage affiliate of Royal Dutch Shell PLC. Sonnen is working on several virtual power plants at apartment complexes in California and Utah.
Order amid chaos
Reflecting spiking demand for distributed resources, there are now more than 14,000 active projects in the California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program. These total more than 1,500 MW of capacity, mostly at residential sites. Spurred in part by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s public safety power shutoffs, which have occurred at an unprecedented scale and left millions of residents in the San Francisco Bay area without power, program demand in 2020 has already surpassed the prior three years combined.
Sourced from ratepayer contributions, the incentives are available to customers of the PG&E Corp. utility subsidiary, as well as customers of Edison International’s Southern California Edison Co., and Sempra Energy affiliates San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Gas Co.
The projects include battery storage additions at solar homes and businesses and new solar-plus-storage projects. With some 1.1 million distributed solar arrays already online, combining for 9,330 MW, California’s challenge now is to organize solar, batteries and other distributed energy resources into clusters of controllable assets that can withstand sprawling disasters like the wildfires that have devastated large swaths of the state. If California succeeds, it can be an example for neighboring states also increasingly at risk from wildfire-induced outages.
“The most critical point is to bring assets closer to customers and to make sure of prioritizing the most critical customers, coordinating supply and demand in a systematic way to maximize benefits,” said Becky Xilu Li, a senior associate at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based think tank focused on a cost-effective global transition to low-carbon, reliable energy systems.
Still falling short
On Sept. 17 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a landmark order that requires regional transmission organizations and independent system operators around the country to develop rules to enable aggregated distributed energy resources like small-scale solar arrays and battery installations.