Amid rolling blackouts in California, a microgrid proves its resilience

Monday, November 18, 2019 11:19 am EST

By:

Jana Ganion, Sustainability and Government Affairs Director, Blue Lake Rancheria

Maintaining power has always been essential to support vital tribal government services and economic enterprises at the Blue Lake Rancheria in Northern California. In 2015, when the federally recognized tribal government decided to build its own microgrid, the investment made sense to ensure service and business continuation across nuisance outages that were typical in the region, lasting for an hour or two. At the same time, the tribe witnessed how climate change was rapidly amplifying local impacts, such as wildfire and volatile weather, and in turn began developing a strategy to bolster its lifeline sectors: energy, water, food, transportation, and communications/IT. We started with energy, because energy supports all the other lifelines.

When we constructed and commissioned the microgrid, we were not thinking of extended power outages to prevent the grid from causing or contributing to wildfires. Today these public-safety power shutoffs are happening, and they are projected to occur frequently—any time weather conditions are likely to spawn wildfires—with a duration of two to five days or longer. This situation may be the norm for the next decade.

Because the tribe acted when it did to heed climate science and build on-site clean power, the microgrid was in place during the first cluster of these wildfire-prevention outages in October 2019. Those outages impacted approximately 30 counties at once across Northern California.

Blue Lake Rancheria was one of a handful of places with extensive back-up power due to the microgrid, where residents and emergency response agencies were able to access services and supplies including fuel, ice, internet connection, electronic-device charging, ATMs, and other needs. As just one example of the importance of our emergency power, we were able to provide hotel rooms for people with critical medical conditions requiring powered equipment. The County Department of Health and Human Services credited the tribe with saving multiple lives in the event. Other microgrid-enabled functions included refrigeration for medicines and the opportunity to support the region’s use of electric vehicles via the tribe’s four EV charging stations.

The microgrid can seamlessly disconnect from and reconnect to the regional electric grid by choice or necessity or run independently in “island mode,” generating and using its own power for as long as necessary. It incorporates a solar array (420kW AC) combined with lithium-ion battery storage (2000kWh), and legacy diesel generators.

We use a Siemens microgrid management system (MGMS) to automate a significant portion of the microgrid’s functions, rendering traditional 24/7 monitoring unnecessary, and allowing us to efficiently shed loads and incorporate changing electricity rates with immediate economic optimization. Exerting more control over what types of energy we use, ideally zero carbon, and when we use them is part of how the microgrid saves the tribe over $200,000 in annual energy costs and cuts about 200 tons of greenhouse gases per year, while also delivering improved resilience.

The tribe and our technology partners envision the future of energy—and the increasing overlap of energy and transportation sectors with EVs—to include a microgrid portfolio. Microgrids will help transition energy and transportation sectors to climate-smart resilience.

Instead of a one-way flow of electricity from centralized power plants to users, on-site power systems will support power flows that are distributed, cleaner, and much nimbler than a centralized system, with economic and resilience benefits that accrue to local residents. Distributed systems with clean power will provide communities with backup generation in emergencies, improve health and climate outcomes by reducing air and water pollution, and improve economics. All of this fosters more jobs, local expertise and direct participation in power markets to spur build-out of even more clean energy.

On any given day, the tribal government offices and economic enterprises (hotel, restaurants, event center, casino, fuel station, convenience store) all run off the microgrid. EV charging stations, water and wastewater systems, IT and communications, and other critical infrastructure— including an American Red Cross Shelter when needed—also rely on microgrid power.

The proven performance of this system is due to our collaborators, including Schatz Energy Research Center, Humboldt State University, Idaho National Laboratory, Siemens, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company, among many others.

The microgrids are funded by the tribal government and the California Energy Commission Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) research and development initiative, with key matching contributions from our partners.

For its performance in climate response and resilience, the microgrid has been recognized with a 2019 “Green Power Leadership Award (Direct Project Engagement)” from the U.S. EPA, the 2019 “Microgrids for Greater Good Award (Grid-Connected)” from Microgrid Knowledge, the 2018 “Project of the Year for DER Integration” from POWERGRID International and DistribuTECH, and a 2017 “Whole Community Preparedness Award” from FEMA. These accolades are deeply appreciated and are a testament to the project partnership that created such a climate-resilient success.

Click here and here to learn more about the project.

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