The firestorm disaster that wiped out an entire town last year has made it clear that the paradise that once was California is in serious jeopardy. However, the horrific Camp Fire in the community of Paradise presents an opportunity to reimagine the California dream as a highly resilient and sustainable community system.

In fact, we can go beyond imagining. We have the technology now to rebuild with renewables-driven community microgrids that incorporate electric vehicles and efficient all-electric buildings.

Most state and local governments are currently operating under a reactive scenario, responding to crises of lost homes, communities, human lives and livelihoods. Moving forward, we need a coordinated plan for rebuilding with resilience in these communities, as the North Bay Community Resilience Initiative is helping to develop for Napa and Sonoma Counties in California. This should be a mandate for all communities as we look ahead to an uncertain climate future.

We can create a secure energy paradigm based on community microgrids even more cost-effectively than rebuilding existing outdated infrastructure. That’s especially true when we consider the long-term resilience and greenhouse gas reduction benefits of a modern energy system.

For some time now, microgrids have been advancing technologically, while the cost of the associated technology has been dropping dramatically. In the extreme-weather reality we now face, we all can benefit from this revolutionary technology.

The Clean Coalition has already designed a number of community microgrids and is staging others to bring resilience to disaster-prone areas. These include the Long Island community microgrid, the Montecito community microgrid, and the Goleta Load Pocket community microgrid. These systems are designed to provide indefinite renewables-driven backup power to critical facilities, and they also provide a standard methodology that can be replicated in any community.

When mobility is part of the equation, we’re looking at a real game-changer.

How EVs support the community microgrid vision

A fleet of 20 EVs carries enough energy to power 100 high-efficiency all-electric homes for an entire day. One of today’s high-range EVs can provide an efficient home with emergency power for over a week, and capacities are increasing while costs decrease.

Mitsubishi recently announced its new Dendo Drive House, a platform that combines solar-plus-storage and bidirectional EV charging with the company's Outlander plug-in hybrid. The system allows for generating, storing and sharing energy between the Outlander and the home.

Volkswagen is going further with its plans to “become a power supplier”; its vehicle-to-building energy technology allows vehicles to not just power buildings but also send energy through those buildings to the grid.

The rapid deployment of EVs by Volkswagen and others will put thousands of gigawatts of mobile energy storage on the roads globally in the near future. These mobile assets can be used to help power our cities and towns.  

Imagine a town where any type of EV can easily be ordered and shared for use at any time. Those vehicles can also be powering the town through the night. For those who choose to own a vehicle, that ownership includes owning part of the community’s energy infrastructure, or using that energy privately for their homes and businesses.

Who will own the remaining mobile energy assets to balance the system? The local utility or another load-serving entity. An LSE could lease a fleet of EVs to residents who choose not to own a vehicle, probably at about the cost of a monthly energy bill.

The LSE could use those EVs as assets for storing solar, wind and hydro energy produced locally, thereby providing power through the night, and could use those same EVs to balance energy on the local grid. Some stationary-site and community-level storage assets would also be integrated, to avoid relying entirely on the mobile assets.

Mobile energy would greatly reduce the need for traditional infrastructure costs. The ideal energy scenario is likely to be a hybrid approach, with some traditional wires-based infrastructure and both stationary and mobile energy storage.

Mobile energy assets provide four important benefits:

  1. They do not require transmission wires.
  2. The assets can be moved out of harm’s way in the event of a catastrophic event and immediately brought back afterward for arbitrage.
  3. When combined with solar, mobile energy assets reduce the need for traditional energy infrastructure development.
  4. They allow a freedom similar to that provided by mobile phones. Just as you can now take your mobile phone anywhere, soon you will also be able to take your energy anywhere to power anything: your home, your cabin in the woods or your business.

Rebuilding with resilience

Buildings are also an important part of the equation. Most building codes were not conceived with the high-fire-danger climate we are currently experiencing. Therefore, new standards need to be created.

A few simple measures can provide resilience, efficiency, safety and security to our built environments:

  1. Non-vented attics and crawl spaces. A properly located and designed air-sealed thermal and moisture barrier for attics does not require venting. Move that barrier to the outermost limits of the envelope, and you’ve dealt with the No. 1 source of house fires in wildfire situations.
  2. Air sealing and heat recovery ventilators. Air sealing can be simple and cost-effective, with costs offset by savings over the life of the (superior and longer-lasting) structure. HRVs filter the interior air, which results in vastly superior indoor air quality and greater energy efficiency.
  3. Exterior mineral-wool fiber insulation under fireproof siding. Mineral-wool fiber does not burn. It creates a fire barrier on the exterior of a building that can add hours of fire resistance, while greatly enhancing energy efficiency and lowering energy costs — thereby paying for itself quickly.
  4. Tempered glass, air-sealed windows. These measures make a structure more fire-resistant and boost energy efficiency and healthy indoor air quality, allowing people to more safely shelter in place during disasters if needed.

Many of these elements were incorporated in the first Advanced Energy Rebuild in Santa Rosa, California, after that area’s devastating 2017 Tubbs Fire — an example that illustrates how rebuilding for resilience can be surprisingly cost-effective.


John Sarter is program manager for the Clean Coalition's North Bay Community Resilience Initiative.