California's largest utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, has a massive forest fire problem. Five of the ten most devastating fires in California since 2015 have been linked to PG&E devices, including the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the city of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Since then, PG&E has reduced the risk of sparking on equipment by turning off power in areas with high fire risk in dry, windy weather. It calls these Public Safety Power Shut-Offs, or PSPS events, and in 2019 they left nearly a million customers in the dark for seven days.
“We essentially lost that full week of service. We lost all of our food supplies, we couldn't work,” said Brennen Jensen, who owns the 100-year-old Charlotte Hotel in Groveland, California.
Keeping electricity running is a daunting task for 16 million Californians, as well as maintaining the integrity of more than 100,000 miles of power lines while keeping them away from vegetation that could turn a spark into deadly wildfire. All of this while you are accountable to California regulators and, as an investor-run utility, to shareholders.
“In the years before Napa, Sonoma and Paradise, the company's management primarily sought to keep shareholders satisfied by controlling costs,” said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University's climate and energy policy program.
Now PG&E has teamed up with Grass Valley-based startup BoxPower to try a new solution to keep power supplies safe in remote areas. It's a solar-powered microgrid housed in a shipping container that serves as a full-time power source for five customers in the mountains of Briceburg, California. Until the long-distance network was switched on in April, they lived exclusively on generator power, as a 5,000 hectare fire destroyed their high-voltage line in 2019.
PG&E partnered with BoxPower to build its first decentralized microgrid, which will provide 70-90% renewable electricity to five customers in Briceburg, California in April 2021.
“These customers don't pay for it directly. PG&E uses its budget for distribution costs. We had to rebuild that line in one way or another; we choose to rebuild it with this system, ”said Bennett Chabot, remote grid program manager for PG&E.
PG&E aims to have 20 independent remote networks operational by 2022, with plans for several hundred more. PG & E's $ 5 billion fire mitigation plan for 2021 also includes 300 new weather stations to monitor for severe conditions; LiDAR, drones, and hundreds of cameras for 90 percent visual coverage of areas of high fire risk; harden the system by doing things like laying a 23 mile line near Paradise Underground; and more aggressive clearing of trees around power lines.
“PG&E is trying everything you can think of because it knows it needs to fix its relationship with the state of California,” Wara said.
PG&E also builds larger, generator-operated backup microgrids that can be switched on in the event of PSPS failures. Groveland, where Jensen runs her hotel, should get one in October 2020. PG&E says it will now be postponed until the end of 2021.
“It will take great skill, quick responses and significant investment. And I hope PG&E is up to the challenge,” said Jensen.
Watch the video to hear from other community members and see how PG & E’s five-customer microgrid and other fire-fighting measures are being proven to improve their power and safety.