As California leaders scramble to address the fallout from devastating wildfires that have ripped across the state in recent years, the California Public Utilities Commission is reviewing rules that allow the state’s electric utilities to cut power to communities when there is a major risk of forest fire. 

The goal: pre-emptively shut off power to sections of California’s aging grid so that it doesn’t spark any more deadly blazes. These wildfires have also destroyed homes and entire towns, and this week brought the state's largest utility to the brink of bankruptcy.

Shutting off power may well be a necessary step, but — beyond potentially leaving communities in the dark for days or longer — it also risks handcuffing first responders who need power to do their work if the fire comes from another source.

One possible answer to the dilemma: Fremont-based Gridscape Solutions, a renewable energy project developer, is working with California fire stations to build resilient microgrids.

“As soon as utility power is shut off, our controller detects the loss of...power and will automatically switch to the battery and solar power,” said Vipul Gore, the company’s president and CEO. “All the loads in this fire station are critical loads. With our system, there's full power at the fire station, even if there is no power to anyone else, and then it will run on the solar and the battery system.”

Photo: California Energy Commission

Gridscape’s microgrids allow fire stations to run islanded from the grid, and the company believes it’s a model that can be replicated across the state — especially in areas at risk of wildfire. So far Gridscape has piloted microgrids at three fire stations in Fremont, one of the largest cities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pacific Gas & Electric is under immense public scrutiny for its role in causing multiple small fires and possibly several major ones that have burned across its territory in recent months. CEO Geisha Williams stepped down from the company on Sunday, after the utility saw its credit rating downgraded to "junk" status and shares tumbled. The utility announced Monday that it will file for bankruptcy protection by the end of the month, facing billions of dollars in potential wildfire liabilities. 

Regardless of what happens to PG&E, it’s clear that the state’s power grid is a risk and new solutions are needed. 

A virtually connected and controlled microgrid

California regulators are examining plans to prioritize de-energizing large sections of the state's electric grid in the wake of recent wildfires. They’ve already ordered utilities in the state to hold workshops in areas that could see preventative outages. If a utility does cut power, it is supposed to alert customers and emergency service operators a couple hours before.

Peter Asmus, associate director of utilities and energy companies for Navigant Research, said the main concern with cutting power as a preventative measure against fires is ensuring that these critical services remain operational.

“I'm not opposed to that idea,” he said, “But what about those first responders? Does that mean they're not going to have power? Which means they're probably going to rely on their diesel generator backups, which means that they could...burn through a lot of fuel, even when there's not a fire. Then, if an actual fire occurs, what are they going to do?”

Gridscape’s system solves this problem by allowing the station to run on power generated by its solar system or stored in a battery. At the very least, it can extend the number of days that a fire station can run its backup generator. “It's a factor of the battery,” Gore said. “With a larger battery...I think it can run 24/7 without any problem.”

Photo: California Energy Commission

In Fremont, Gridscape has deployed 40-kilowatt solar arrays on car canopies combined with 110-kilowatt-hour battery energy storage systems. These distributed energy resources are not the most innovative piece of the project, however. The most innovative aspect is on the back end. 

Gridscape’s microgrids are virtually connected with cloud-based software and controlled with a smart controller that manages power flow from the distributed resources and from the grid. It is one of a few companies to market this type of system for building resiliency into an emergency management and wildfire protection.

“We can detect signals from the utility,” said Alok Singhania, a partner in Gridscape. “We can make sure that battery is full, and if we know a shutdown is coming, we can start to cut down on the consumption. [If] the utilities say, 'Well, we think the outage is going to be four days.' We can plan for that based on the weather conditions. That's the power of the software.”

Beyond resiliency, the software also allows fire stations to better manage their energy use. “There's more solar production between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and not enough later in the day,” Singhania said. “The microgrid allows you to manage the time shift, very effectively, without adding anything. That's the point we're trying to make. It's cost-effective — period.”

Fremont's fire station microgrids

Rachel DiFranco, Fremont’s sustainability manager, said that the city’s goal with the project is to support local clean technology businesses, demonstrate the benefits of renewable energy storage for the community, and prove that a microgrid system can work at its fire stations.

“We always thought of this as a really key strategy for resiliency,” DiFranco said. “And we started this before all these really significant wildfires that happened in Northern California. It’s even more important now that in the last couple years we've seen extreme fire events that have been exacerbated by climate change.”

DiFranco estimates that the system will save — at minimum — $250,000 in power costs over about a 10-year period. But she expects even higher savings as the battery saves on peak demand charges at the fire stations.

Additionally, the city will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80,000 pounds annually. “This was always a great idea from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, and it will add operational resiliency. But it also hit so many value-adds beyond the sustainability factor,” DiFranco said.

Photo: California Energy Commission

Fremont’s microgrid system was built for $2.4 million. The California Energy Commission kicked in $1.8 million, and Gridscape Solutions paid for the rest, which it will recoup through a power-purchase agreement with the city of Fremont.

“The fire station microgrids allow us to significantly save on our operational costs while at the same time introducing an aspect of resiliency by providing us with energy independence,”  Alexander Schubeck, the emergency services manager for Fremont Fire Department, said in a statement.

Gridscape won a $4.9 million grant from the Energy Commission in 2018 to build out these types of microgrids, as the startup competes with other microgrid players like Sunrun and Schneider Electric. Gore is in talks about building microgrids at fire stations in Richmond and other cities across the state. He said the next site could be in the city of Stockton, California.

“They also housed the 911 emergency dispatch center at the fire station in Stockton,” said Gore. “All [of] the county calls come there. It is as critical as it can get.”