Powering Strong Communities

Study Details Benefits of Clean Energy Microgrids for Calif. Communities at Risk of Wildfires

Clean energy microgrids offer a better and cheaper solution for protecting California communities from wildfire-related outages, compared to conventional microgrids, an international team led by research scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has found.

These systems, which primarily rely on solar and batteries, can be built at a cost well below what households typically pay for electricity and can reduce the impact of power outages (by minimizing public safety power shutdown time) by a factor of up to 30, LBNL said.

“This is the first detailed, state-level study that’s looked at how clean energy microgrids can minimize outage impacts on vulnerable communities, and how much it would cost,” said Tianzhen Hong, a co-author and senior scientist in the Building Technology & Urban Systems Division at Berkeley Lab.

The models developed for the Applied Energy study, Hong added, can help interested parties understand where these communities are located; how clean energy microgrids could be designed; and how much it would cost to reduce outages below a desired threshold.

In certain areas of California, public safety power shutoffs could remove access to electricity for up to 7% of the year, said Dasun Perera, referring to the regional outages employed to lessen wildfire risk. Perera is a researcher at the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment at Princeton University. She said that clean energy microgrids can cut these impacts by more than half, at a cost ranging from 15 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Californians pay about 25 cents per kWh on average for residential electricity.

The study examined clean energy microgrids in seven locations with different climatic conditions across California’s Wildland Urban Interface, which spans the state.

Novel modeling tools developed for the study helped researchers select communities based on wildfire risk and renewable energy potential, and then design microgrids to meet the specific needs of households in wildfire-prone areas, where heating and cooling account for most energy use.

The microgrids – which included conventional generators, but rarely used them – enabled communities to run on at least 60% renewable energy year-round, while significantly reducing heating and cooling emissions and minimizing the burden renewables can impose on regional grids, LBNL said.

Hong noted that clean energy microgrids can promote energy equity. Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, extensive federal support has been directed towards the type of community energy installations the study describes, LBNL said.

Hong and Perera hope to work with stakeholders to help design microgrids that deliver real-world benefits while furthering their research capabilities, LBNL said.