Saddleridge Fire: "It's time to take control of your energy needs"

by Anna Gretz
October 10, 2019

The Saddleridge wildfire has illuminated more than just Southern California's landscape.

The fire, and widespread power outage, have also shown customers that it's never been a better time to take your power into your own hands.

CNBC recently published an article talking about the fire, and the renewed need for the solar + storage conversation. We couldn't have said it better.

TL;DR: The time for a serious, widespread investment in solar power, energy storage, and a decentralized grid is now. This month, PG&E has shut down the electricity of millions of their customers. Those left in the dark feel frustrated, but their not as helpless as they think. Off-grid technology is here, and Californians need to reach out and grab it.

Here's some excellent journalism from CNBC's Eric Rosenbaum:

So now that, too, is happening. But being angry or feeling helpless against a giant utility won’t help anything. PG&E has gotten plenty wrong in the past and may get wrong the decision to shut down power when and where it turns out not to be needed, but the message to Californians — and everyone living in areas at risk of natural disasters — is that it’s time to take control of as much power generation as you can.

The fires will keep coming. That’s the opinion of wildfire experts from Leroy Westerling, who studies wildfires and climate at the University of California, Merced, to Sarah Lewis McDonald, principal at Envision Geo, a geospatial technology firm that has worked on studies of wildfire risk in California. When she looked back at one forecast map she helped to create before last year’s devastating wildfires, what the technology had provided as its best guess turned out to be reality.

“We looked back and said, ‘Oh my God.’ Here it was, bright on our map.′ Bright pink. Paradise. And the other ones that are bright pink on our map remain vulnerable in the future,” Lewis McDonald said in an interview with CNBC earlier this year.

The zones of high risk that she called “disproportionately dire” across northern California are not going away, and people who assume that these events are once-in-a-lifetime weather scenarios are making a big gamble.

“These events are going to be more prevalent in future across the West,” Lewis McDonald said. She said the previous wildfire season in northern California was “a perfect storm of events of extremes, but with climate change that is going to be case.”

Companies like Tesla and Sunrun which sell solar power and energy storage solutions are pushing distributed generation. Rooftop solar without storage is not enough, and the solar combined with storage market is only beginning to grow and remains expensive for many.

Meanwhile, PG&E’s sole proposal for a “resilience zone” microgrid project in the Sonoma County town of Angwin was postponed this past summer because of the need to prevent the microgrid from causing its own fire risks, according to Greentech Media.

Even efforts like that one were “pretty laughable,” according to Timothy Hade of Scale Microgrid Solutions. “They primarily relied on diesel generators, which is a terrible technology to deploy given the circumstances.”

“I don’t think the State has done nearly enough to address distributed energy resources/microgrids. ... The utility wildfire mitigation plans + a lot of the State/CPUC work to date have almost completely ignored DERs,” Hade wrote in an email, and he added that was despite all the parties knowing that power shutdown events were going to be essential.

“Ultimately, the State is going to need a mass deployment of DERs. Rooftop solar + storage systems will be the key technology, but many other technologies must play a role. Unfortunately, while some of the best distributed energy companies in the world are based in California, we have been largely excluded from the utility/CPUC wildfire mitigation planning process,” he said.

The California Public Utilities Commission has some long-term microgrid projects in the works, and also approved changes to the state’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) to direct $100 million of its budget toward disadvantaged or medically vulnerable residents of high-fire-risk areas.

But California needs to do more. Browning’s group is pushing four steps to break the utility’s lock on power when it is on and off.

First, protecting consumers from unfair utility-imposed costs and barriers to solar and storage. Second, updating CPUC rules to allow local clean energy and storage to fully participate in markets for electricity, grid services and resource adequacy, reducing the need for large fossil-fired plants and related transmission lines. Third, fully funding the CPUC’s Self Generation Incentive Program at the maximum amount allowable by law to make storage more accessible to more consumers, prioritizing low-income and vulnerable populations and those who need backup power in areas more vulnerable to power shutoffs. Finally, supporting local governments in rapidly installing thousands of solar + storage backup power systems/microgrids on critical facilities.

“Defending in place” is now a debate point in California community decisions over wildfire. It is a given that, at some point, the fire will come. Some communities that have only one road in and out, limiting evacuation options, are only being realistic in planning to defend structures like schools “in place” as the fire comes. That’s the last line of defense. The ability to invest in renewable energy today and demand that the government, regulators and utilities give citizens the means to do so at all income-levels of community, should come well before the spark of ignition, and before the next time PG&E, or any utility, shuts down the power supply.