A Eureka moment for an innovative microgrid

A northern California airport will soon welcome the arrival of a microgrid that could serve as a model for similar projects across the state.

The microgrid will support both the Arcata Eureka Airport and a nearby Coast Guard Station. The system also may help utility Pacific Gas & Electric learn how similar microgrids can be deployed across its sprawling service territory which has been scorched in recent years by massive wildfires, some of which have been ignited by PG&E equipment.

The airport microgrid signals the latest step in effort to adapt the traditional electric power grid to accept more distributed energy resources and safeguard critical load centers from disruption due to natural and human-caused disasters.

In 2018, a piece of PG&E equipment sparked a wildfire that destroyed the city of Paradise, California, killing more than 80 people and destroying thousands of structures. That disaster led to around $40 billion in potential liability for the utility and helped drive it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. At the time, some news outlets labeled PG&E’s court filing as the first climate change-caused corporate bankruptcy.

The utility now says it intends to model future community microgrid projects on the project, which is a collaboration between Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University, Humboldt County, PG&E, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, and Tesla, Inc., among others. The front-of-the-meter, multi-customer microgrid is slated for commissioning and full operation this December. The Schatz Center is the project’s prime contractor and lead technology integrator.

Major project elements include a 2.2 megawatt DC solar photovoltaic array, DC-coupled to energy storage; a 2.2 megawatt AC, 8.8 megawatthour battery energy storage system; a 320 kilowatt AC photovoltaic system that will offset airport electricity consumption; a microgrid control system with distribution control center interface; two reclosers with advanced controllers; and demand response-capable electric vehicle charging.

(Read “BESS, you is my storage now” with apologies to Gershwin.)

Earlier this week, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted to require large electric investor-owned utilities in the state to accelerate deployment of microgrids and projects to minimize the impacts of wildfire-caused power outages and so-called Public Safety Power Shut-off (PSPS) events.

The CPUC ordered utilities to streamline and speed up interconnection processes for microgrids, resiliency and other projects. It also directed them to work with local and tribal governments to “rapidly develop and deploy” projects that could keep the lights on for critical facilities and other customers during power outages. The commission said its rulemaking was fast-tracked after what it said was the “mismanagement” by utilities of PSPS events last October.

The PSPS events that regulators said were mismanaged were widespread preemptive power shutoffs that occurred in 30 counties in northern California and several areas in southern California from October 9 to November 1, 2019, by PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). The power shutoffs were an attempt to prevent wildfires from being started by electrical equipment during a period of strong and dry winds.

As conceived, the Redwood Coast Airport Renewable Energy Microgrid will provide electricity to Humboldt County and serve as a source of nearly continuous electric power in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency.

The county airport serves 50,000 flights per year, including commercial, private and emergency medical flights. The adjacent Coast Guard air station provides search and rescue services for 250 miles of coastline.

In the event of a prolonged emergency, the large PV array and storage battery will be able to supply nearly continuous power to the airport and the adjoining U.S. Coast Guard station. Given Humboldt County’s remote, isolated location the airport and Coast Guard station will provide a way to move critical supplies into and around the region.

The microgrid is being funded by a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission’s EPIC program, with $6 million in match funding from the Redwood Coast Energy Authority. The microgrid will support 20 electric accounts including the airport and Coast Guard station.

One rationale for the project is to demonstrate a business case for microgrids. Redwood Coast Energy Authority will own the two photovoltaic (PV) arrays and battery storage. The larger PV array will be DC-coupled to the battery system, and will allow RCEA to generate renewable power to sell on the California wholesale market.

The smaller solar PV array will offset utility costs for the airport, in return for land leased to the project. The battery system will allow solar energy to be discharged during the evening peak of energy use while also fulfilling a storage requirement mandated by the State of California.

This looks like an excellent project. First, it is designed to offer critical services to important regional assets that will be instrumental in helping northern California recover from a future emergency. Second, it is large enough to demonstrate a useful business case for future energy storage. And third, it advances the adoption and deployment of technologies that are capable of addressing the bulk power grid’s shortcomings and that are located at or near critical load centers.

It will be interesting to see how this innovative project works once it becomes operational late this year.

What do you think? Join the conversation! theinfrareport@gmail.com

An aerial view of the Arcata Eureka Airport. The photo comes via Schatz Energy Center.

Author: David Wagman

I live in Colorado where I write about a wide range of topics, and get outside regularly to hike, bike, garden and walk the dog!

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