As California policymakers strengthen the state’s climate and clean energy targets, billions of dollars are being invested to transition to zero-emission cargo-handling equipment at major ports.

Swapping diesel-powered trucks for electric models and equipping ships to plug into the grid while at berth offers lifesaving public health benefits. But it can also substantially increase electricity demand at ports.

In response to California's electrification push, the state's largest ports, including San Diego, Los Angeles and Long Beach, are turning to microgrids for energy security and demand flexibility.

The Port of Long Beach is starting with its most critical facility, the Joint Command and Control Center (JCCC). The building is home to the harbor patrol and other first responders as well as the computers and servers that support 600 security cameras installed across the port’s 8,000 acres.

The microgrid will encompass a nearby building that is home to Jacobsen Pilot Services, the company that drives all the ships into the Port of Long Beach. Adding that building to the microgrid required sending electrons over the fence line, which runs afoul of Southern California Edison’s Rule 18, so the port and SCE, its electricity provider, had to secure a variance from the California Public Utilities Commission.

When completed next year, the $7.1 million microgrid project (PDF) will include a 300-kilowatt carport solar photovoltaic array, 330 kilowatts of stationary battery storage, and a first-of-its-kind 250-kilowatt mobile battery energy storage system. The project received a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC), a ratepayer-funded energy innovation research and development program.

“Demonstrating microgrids is very important to the Port of Long Beach because as we go to zero emissions, we know that we’re going to have to have microgrids constructed in all our new marine terminals, and probably most of the existing ones,” Christine Houston, manager of sustainable practices at the Port of Long Beach, told Greentech Media.

The port could break ground on the JCCC microgrid project by October, with commissioning scheduled for August 2021.

A challenging setting for microgrids

Even under ideal conditions, microgrids are complex projects. In response, California policymakers are working to streamline microgrid development; the California Energy Commission’s EPIC program has already funded 20 demonstration projects with the goal of commercializing microgrids.

Building a microgrid at one of the world’s busiest ports is even more challenging. The Port of Long Beach handles $200 billion of cargo each year. Real estate on the port is valuable, and space to install distributed energy resources such as solar PV panels and batteries is scarce.

The Port of Long Beach must balance its tenants’ needs against California’s carbon-reduction goals as well as its obligation to ease the burden of environmental harm on nearby disadvantaged communities. The balancing act involves getting billion-dollar, multi-decade bets right.

The Port of Long Beach will invest up to $15 billion to transition zero-emission cargo-handling equipment by 2030, Houston said. “When you’re developing a marine terminal, you’re really trying to think about what it is you’re going to need for the next 30 years."

The tenant of the port’s newest marine terminal signed an even longer 40-year lease.

“If we thought that all the cargo-handling equipment was going to be battery-electric, then we could design for that now,” Houston said. But, she added, it’s hard to know what technology, or mix of technologies, will be prevalent in 20 years.

At the same time, shippers expect product to flow through the port without delay.

“Convincing your tenants, whose mission is to move cargo as quickly as possible, who need to get their stuff to their store right away, to make bets on an emerging technology is asking a lot,” said Houston.

She added, “We do a lot of advocating to try to move the market toward zero emissions for our operations because we’re very sensitive to the fact that our community has very adverse impacts compared to the benefit of trade in the United States.”

California leads the way with port microgrids

Policy is the primary driver of clean energy and microgrid adoption at California’s ports, said Isaac Maze-Rothstein, microgrid analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

Former Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order in July 2015 directing state agencies to develop a sustainable freight action plan. Brown later signed SB 100, which requires 100 percent carbon-free electricity in California by 2045.

Long Beach’s microgrid follows projects launched by its neighbor, the Port of Los Angeles, as well as the Port of San Diego.

“They have provided shore power to boats in the dock, so they won’t have to run their auxiliary diesel generators. This and electrifying their on-land infrastructure often dramatically increase energy needs and can benefit from having assets to help manage the variability in load,” Maze-Rothstein said in an email.

Officials at the Port of Hueneme, which is located between Malibu and Santa Barbara and has a large Navy presence, recently told the California Energy Commission the port is eager to add distributed energy resources to support the rollout of medium- and heavy-duty battery electric vehicles. The port has already invested $14 million to provide shore power to docking ships.

“The port’s most significant hurdle is the quantity of available electrical power it can receive from its utility provider, Southern California Edison. DERs would play a pivotal role in helping manage demand, both current and future, and enable more efficient management of electrical loads and charging optimization,” port officials wrote.

The port has lost power and been reliant on backup generators several times in recent years, the officials said.

“There are real grid constraints to electrifying many ports’ infrastructure, and they are interested in increasing resiliency while making these upgrades. They also don’t have the budget to execute these types of projects alone,” observed WoodMac’s Maze-Rothstein.

“What will make this market grow beyond pilots is the development of entities that can offer third-party financing, development and operational support for microgrids at these ports,” he added.

Long Beach’s unique mobile battery

The most innovative component of the Port of Long Beach’s microgrid is the mobile battery. Christine Houston wanted the ability to extend the reach of the JCCC microgrid throughout the port during emergencies.

The mobile battery, which is being designed and built by Schneider Electric, is envisioned as a flatbed truck outfitted with a bank of lithium-ion batteries and a mix of receptacles enabling buildings or equipment to plug in and draw power from the batteries.

Most of the time, the mobile battery will be parked at the JCCC, ready to be called upon in demand response events. But in a pinch, the system can be deployed to restore power to other critical facilities.

“I asked my prime contractor, Schneider Electric, if they could build something that had receptacles on it instead of plugs, making it even more interesting and multifaceted,” said Houston. “They kept saying ‘yes’ to all my ideas, and now I think we have a pretty unique system that would be great for use at a community center.”

Consolidated Edison and NRG Energy recently partnered on a demonstration project in which a 1-megawatt/4-megawatt-hour mobile battery storage system mounted on two tractor-trailer trucks will alternate between a home base at NRG’s Astoria Gas Turbines Station and deployments across New York City.

Last month at an energy resiliency forum hosted by California Energy Commission in Long Beach, Houston described potential uses for the port’s mobile battery.

“Let’s say a refrigerated container suddenly doesn’t work and the truck is stranded on the side of the road; you potentially could have half a million dollars’ worth of perishable goods or commodities inside. We could mobilize [the mobile battery] and plug that in,” she said during a panel session at the forum.

If other critical buildings at the port were to lose power, Houston said officials would prioritize the loads to be repowered. For instance, if the building housing the stormwater pump station were to be knocked offline, the mobile battery system would not by itself be able to turn on the pumps.

“If we pull the mobile BESS [battery energy storage system] up to that building,” she told GTM, “we could energize that building. They’d have lights. They’d have electricity in the building so they can plug all their stuff in. The toilets would work.”