Unseasonable forecasts were expected by Prof. Fred Schwartz and fellow scientists; over thirty years ago, they tried to warn the world about torrential rains, cyclones, record-breaking heat, wildfires, and untimely freezes.
“This is exactly what we were predicting – extremes and all kinds of superstorms, but it takes extreme events for people to open their eyes,” said Schwartz, who co-led a recent annual solar energy conference at the University of California, Riverside.
Then, and now, the solution remains the same: stem the use of fossil fuels that was causing the Earth to warm.
Solar has come a long way since Schwartz first hooked up a power system in the remote First Nations Nunavut community of the Canadian Arctic. There, he worked with small hydro, wind and diesel projects, and also installed the area’s first photovoltaic panels in 1983.
As microgrid technology advances, Schwartz says that system efficiency is as important as system safety. States of emergency have become the new norm as more frequent catastrophic weather continues to cost America billions of dollars and hundreds of lives.
Microgrid creates safe zones
In 2012, the extratropical cyclone Superstorm Sandy stalled over New Jersey, leaving two million people without power. The storm also caused massive flooding, and left 37 dead in its wake.
“The reality hit that any new development around Jersey shores and New York would somehow need to protect itself,” he said. “They have large development complexes happening that are now microgrids – commercial, residential buildings where controls are on the 40th floor instead of the basement.”
Creating a safer, more efficient microgrid should be a priority for the energy industry, Schwartz says, especially considering recent grid outages from wildfires and other disasters in Northern, Central, and Southern California.
Today, several cities, including San Francisco, have called for increased diligence and designated facilities that are reinforced with microgrids, buttressed against vulnerabilities to blackouts. There are now dozens of microgrids across the state with full-time staff.
At least part of the delay for weaning off fossil fuels is that the microgrid system generating electricity is not attached to the main grid. Or, if the system is attached to a grid within certain cities, local or governmental rules and regulations get in the way. In short, implementing microgrids is a slow process.
Schwartz likens adopting microgrids into existing grids to jamming round pegs into square holes.
“The utilities are becoming friendlier because they realize that microgrids are the future,” says Schwartz
Community Solar – It’s not just for rooftops anymore
At the local level, Schwartz is optimistic about bringing the community together with stakeholders to boost solar use region-wide; he believes it’s the best way to get cities, counties, communities and even utilities across the state pulling in the same direction.
Schwartz says Community Solar can be huge for California’s Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The project will allow regular people to band together for financing, development and credit for their solar use. Schwartz says the project will open the whole supply chain of clean energy, from the wires to nuts and bolts to consultants and developers.
“Groups can come together, counties, tribes and probably the military. Each could be involved in significant solar development, and we could conceivably do it together,” he said. “If you have a Cul-de-sac multi-story, apartment building, an open lot – let’s get credit for it.”
Microgrids and other renewable projects must meet the California mandate to comply with SB100’s aggressive goal to reach total clean energy use by 2045.
Development with state and federal funding support
For the past seven years, Lisa Castilone has worked with her construction team at the remote border of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe reservation at the Havasu, California side. Temperatures there soar 100 to 110 degrees about 250 days a year, and energy is inaccessible for a few minutes up to a few hours several times a week.
At Chemehuevi, GRID Alternatives was brought in on the labor contract for solar panels, working closely with Alfredo Martinez-Morales and UC Riverside’s CE-CERT on the microgrid installation.
Castilone said that utilities are delivering power to the tribes, but they simply don’t have the capacity to bring more lines in and build more infrastructure to the tribal community.
“The tribes are saying since we can’t get it, let’s do it ourselves,” said Castilone, Community Development and Tribal Manager with GRID Alternatives.
Various local, state and federal funding has helped propel a number of clean energy tribal projects in recent years. With state and other funding, she has led the tribe’s transition through the development and installation of 102 single family solar systems, all at no cost to residents.
In another partnership, funding from the California Energy Commission, the University of California at Riverside engineers, tribe members and GRID Alternatives installed a microgrid on a 90 kW carport system on their community center.
The installation also serves as their emergency center. The community-scale solar project with electricity offsets three separate apartment buildings of exclusively low-income renters and elders.
“The microgrid conversation is really a hot topic right now with tribes,” she said. “They’re very progressive. I think it might be one of the most solarized tribes in the United States of America.”
As projects unfold, GRID provides jobs, and foundational work experience for implementation and sustainability. The nonprofit organization has worked statewide with $154 million SASH and SASH2 state grants. They’ve also tapped Cap and Trade funds.
Project Funding, Workforce Skills
Recently, the nonprofit also won a bid to work an upcoming Community Solar Project with the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Tribe. GRID won grant funding to develop the 1 MW project from Cap and Trade Dollars, which will be implemented in partnership with an in-kind lease agreement with Anza Electric Cooperative. That project will help qualified low income tribal members to access workforce training, community resiliency, and savings on their energy bills.
For tribal communities living in need of sovereignty, Castilone said that dealing with power shortages is not just an inconvenience, it is dangerous.
“It really has resonated in tribal communities. Often times, they are very isolated and at the ends of transmission lines. They have a lot of power outages,” she said.
The microgrid will help sustain them through emergencies, but she believes that the future of solar work, including home installations, and the expansion of the microgrid represents just the beginning of the growing technology.
“It’s like transitioning in the United States from horse and buggy to automobiles. There is an abundance of work,” she said.
Dianne Anderson covers education, health, and city government stories with an eye on legislative impacts to diverse communities. She has received awards from the American Cancer Society – Inland Empire, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over the years, she has reported for the Long Beach Leader and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and been a contributor to the Pasadena Weekly.