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Berkeley, CA Strengthens Power Outage Resilience with Clean Energy Microgrid Project

Berkeley, CA, USA
The Atlas Community Team

Cost

Initial:
1.5 Million USD

Project Status

Operational since 2018

At a Glance

The City of Berkeley researched building a clean energy microgrid community to provide power to critical facilities during power outages. After finding obstacles preventing the widespread adoption of microgrids, the city developed a more cost-effective solution to enhance the resilience of the city’s facilities.

Problem Addressed

The City of Berkeley, CA received a $1.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) to research whether it was possible to create a sustainable, resilient, clean energy microgrid that would maintain power in the event of an outage.

The project, titled The Berkeley Energy Assurance Transformation (BEAT) project, studied how to design a clean energy microgrid community (CEMC) that would provide solar power to key municipal buildings and improve community resilience by providing clean backup power to essential services during a long-term power outage.

A CEMC functions by connecting multiple buildings and, using clean energy like solar, shares energy across facilities during normal operations. Because the CEMC uses solar and battery storage to share energy, it can operate independently from the grid in the event of a power outage. Its other benefits include stabilizing and optimizing power grid operations, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by reducing dependency on conventional energy during normal operations and reducing dependency on diesel generators during outages.

EPIC’s choice to research the feasibility of integrating this technology into Berkeley, with existing infrastructure and buildings, was unprecedented as the majority of microgrid projects are located on private campuses or are located in remote areas.

Because this implementation was unprecedented, the regulatory, technical, and financial environment was unclear. One of the main objectives of this project was to make the knowledge gained from this research accessible to the public and key decision-makers to advance the development of CEMCs.

The City of Berkeley used/is using solar energy capture and storage technology to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

The project found that, while a viable pursuit, there are a number of significant obstacles preventing CEMC technology from being widely implemented.

Some of the impacts of the technology that were seen and performed as expected were the reduced energy consumption present during normal operations which, with the aid of on-site solar generation, measured between 36-43 percent. During outages, reliance on diesel generators was reduced by a comparable rate of 40 percent.

However, the cost associated with installing, operating, and maintaining the energy distribution infrastructure is the most significant of obstacles preventing CEMC from achieving widespread use among cities and towns. Other challenges faced in implementing a project of this type included regulations put in place by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and utility policies and practices.

Financial and policy obstacles prevented the usage of existing utility lines to connect various buildings together in a CEMC. The utility, The Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), had no interest in adding automatic shut-off switches to cut power to non-microgrid customers and had no legal shutoff agreements in place with non-microgrid customers.

On the other hand, the option of adding new distribution lines quickly proved to be prohibitively expensive, with construction per mile estimated to be $1 million, including capital costs, installation costs, utility charges for operation and maintenance of the distribution lines, and the transfer tax of deeding assets to the utility.

Although advancing community resilience through CEMC’s isn’t financially viable right now, the basis of the CEMC model, the solar + storage method, could be. The system is made up of solar panels and energy storage that would provide Berkeley’s critical facilities with clean, reliable backup power in the event of a disaster and isolate the facility from the grid. Through this method, buildings are unable to share power, but the approach provides similar resiliency benefits to CEMC as well as a positive financial return. Because solar+storage requires facility upgrades, those same facilities will be ready to support CEMC interconnection when regulations are altered to no longer hamper implementation.

Given the difficulties inherent in further pursuing CEMC’s at this time based on the BEAT project’s research, the City of Berkeley will instead identify which municipal buildings in the city are best suited for solar + storage systems and pursue funding for those projects.

The tipping point for widespread CEMC project execution will come as a result of utilities renegotiating fees and politics to enhance CEMC financial viability, state agencies changing existing rules, and local jurisdictions working together to improve project feasibility.

Outcomes

  1. The City of Berkeley found that the development of CEMC microgrids is severely restricted by the California Public Utility Commission code and utility policies.
  2. Solar panel and energy storage systems were identified as a less restrictive way to provide CEMC-level resiliency benefits to individual buildings.
  3. Based on the BEAT project's recommendations, The City of Berkeley will fund several solar + storage projects at municipal buildings in the city.
  4. Key regulations and policies were identified that, if changed, will reduce the financial burden of assembling the infrastructure necessary for a CEMC system.
  5. In research models, CEMC and solar + storage designs reduced day-to-day energy consumption 36 to 43 percent and reduced diesel generator use during an outage by up to 40%.

Lessons Learned

  1. Entities interested in establishing CEMC's need to work closely with the local utility to determine regulatory restrictions and whether existing distribution line infrastructure can be used.
  2. A Utility determines whether separate buildings within a microgrid are allowed to have a single meter and whether power aggregation during blue sky operations is allowed.
  3. A project’s optimal energy storage choice for solar energy storage may vary based on available space for batteries, budget, and plans for charging and discharging of batteries.
  4. The cost of installing, operating, and maintaining distribution infrastructure is the greatest single cost of the CEMC and prevents it from having a positive financial ROI.

Who Should Consider?

Cities looking for renewable ways to maintain power to critical facilities during power outages.

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