Sunday, November 24, 2019
written 17 November 2019
published 24 November 2019
Two weeks ago, I described the cost of the recent power down, the likelihood these would continue for a decade no matter what happens to PG&E, and the inadequacies of using backup generators. For economic survival, Ukiah must become more power down resilient to "Keep The Lights On", and the idea of a single whole city array and storage battery was considered. Last week I discussed providing emergency power for the residential portion of the community through small scale distributed storage for each household. This week I will consider distributed power collection within the commercial part of our community.
The lost business income during a power outage is one of the major drivers to "Keep The Lights On" in Ukiah. Solar arrays have a guaranteed return on the investment, providing inflation proof electricity. Businesses have already budgeted for the cost of power. Shifting these expenditures from the current system to renewable arrays is like shifting from renting to owning with a fixed rate mortgage. Not only is the cost fixed, but eventually the system is paid off and subsequent power is free. The stumbling block is funding the initial investment. The City or utility could borrow money to make energy loans to subsidize array installations. Keeping the businesses of the city operational improves everyone's lives, not to mention avoiding business bankruptcies.
Roof top and parking lot canopy arrays, in joint partnership on existing commercial real estate, would eliminate the cost of land for an array, but would incur larger array mounting costs. Because these arrays would be within the boundaries of the Ukiah electric district, connecting to the local distribution system would be easy. Parking lot canopy arrays are becoming more common, and the installation costs are dropping. Canopies also help cool the land under the array, reducing the heat island effect that can worsen urban summers.
An investigation using Google Maps gives a rough estimate for at least 59 possible locations for midsize arrays within Ukiah city limits. There are 24 roof locations that do not yet have solar. Assuming collectors cover 50% of the roof area, these arrays would range from 43KW to 1MW, for a total capacity of over 12.8MW. Covering 50% of 32 parking lots with canopy arrays ranging from 250KW to 1.25MW, would give another 18.8MW. The area along the east edge of the airport could support an 11MW array. Building all these would create a capacity of 42.6MW, about 40% of the 100MW target to power the entire city during the winter. In addition to these estimates, there are many locations for small arrays.
As a society, we have gotten used to having all the power we want whenever we want it. In an emergency, we can modify our normal patterns for the duration, like conserving water in a drought. Businesses could shorten their hours of operation to fit the available power. For example, all gas stations have a canopy over their pumps, which could support an array. Combined with some onsite storage, the array could power the station while the sun shines. If every station was in operation part of the day the gas shortages and long lines we saw during the recent power down could be avoided.
Most restaurants in town use natural gas for cooking, but have to close during a power outage because the hood fans don't work, let alone the lights and credit card systems. Roof top arrays would have to be supplemented with some on site battery storage to keep coolers and freezers alive.
Grocery stores have large energy loads because of all the coolers and freezers, and represent the largest commercial challenge for power resilience. Many of the grocery stores in town have already installed generators, although they are vulnerable to failure, risking large losses.
If you would like to "Keep The Lights On" in Ukiah during a power outage, share these ideas with friends, and email your support to the City Council members below.
There is no single way to accomplish this, and we need a series of workshops to pull together ideas from every part of the community. If we show there is popular support for the basic concept, the Council will make it happen.
Sunday, November 17, 2019
written 10 November 2019
published 17 November 2019
Last week I described the impact of the recent power down in Ukiah. Two successive Red Flag weather events caused PG&E to shut down power for four days, costing over $9M in lost business and spoiled food. Last year there were 19 Red Flag events, which could have cost over $70M. From now on, we can expect the grid to power down several times every fire season, the result of 20th century grid design and decades of deferred maintenance colliding with a changing climate. If we do nothing, our local economy is at risk, along with the state tourist industry and even the California real estate market.
The citywide system I outlined last time, was just one way we could respond to this crisis. I have since discovered that I underestimated the amount of land needed for the large array and the installed cost of a large battery. The 100MW array would be about $200M and the 250MWh battery about $100M. This large expense should be considered as an upper end solution. It would power the city as usual with no further changes to the rest of the infrastructure. But in an emergency, we can survive with much less power, requiring less money, but invested in different ways.
For example, we could install a battery pack in all 6,500 homes in Ukiah. A 13KWh Tesla Powerwall battery would run Internet and phone communications, a refrigerator, and some lights for 4 days or so. A transfer switch would be required to select key circuits for backup power. Such distributed storage systems are already being considered by communities in the Bay Area, with a focus on the low income and medical needs populations.
A Powerwall and transfer switch wiring would cost about $15K per household, for a city wide cost of about $100M. This distributed storage of 85MWh will cost about the same as one large 250MWh battery, reflecting the economy of scale with the larger installation. Funding storage is the hardest part of any power resilience plan, since it has no direct economic return, but eliminates the greater costs of a power down.
Timely installation before the next fire season would require more than a bulk order with Tesla. The rewiring of each house requires a large skilled work force. Local solar installers are already busy, so a job training program with this specific focus will be needed. City inspection staff would have to be increased and the permit process streamlined.
Once every home has installed storage, a range of options are available to extend emergency power resilience indefinitely by adding some power collection or generation. A solar array as small as 1KW would suffice, costing about $3K per house, for a city wide total of about $20M. Homes without good solar exposure could work together, installing a larger array where possible, powering everyone's batteries. Alternately, a small generator running efficiently a few hours a day could keep the battery topped up. Maybe the City would have a service bringing large generator trucks around to keep batteries full.
An essential first step in any power resilience investment is increasing energy efficiency, reducing the power we need. Two simple upgrades would change all lights to LED's and replace older refrigerators with modern high efficiency models. The City has had efficiency rebate programs in the past, which could be funded at a higher level to upgrade the entire community in one year. The electricity saved rapidly repays the cost of the new equipment. By upgrading lights and refrigeration and installing distributed storage, we can make the residential portion of Ukiah more power resilient in the face of our new normal. When everyone can stay in their own homes, with fresh food, lights, medical needs powered and emergency communications intact, we are all better off.
If you like the idea of creating a "power down resilient" Ukiah, sooner rather than later, share these ideas with friends, and email your support to the City Council members below.
There is no single way to accomplish this, and we need to pull together ideas from every part of the community. If we show there is popular support for the basic vision, the Council will make it happen.
Sunday, November 10, 2019
written 3 November 2019
published 10 November 2019
Sitting in the dark last week, with none of my normal distractions available, I got to thinking. We have an aging 20th century power grid which is failing due to 21st century problems. PG&E, for all of its faults, is doing the right thing to power down the system when weather and fire conditions threaten. Peak winds in Sonoma County were over 100 mph in one spot, and over 74 mph (category 1 hurricane) in many others. It is prudent to hunker down during extreme weather events.
Based on Ukiah sales tax income, gross annual business comes to $640M, averaging $1.7M a day. This power down lasted 4 days, for a business loss of about $7M. There are 6,500 homes in Ukiah, and most lost food with no power. At $150 each, that's another $1M. Commercial food losses might be another $1M, for a grand total cost of $9M for this one event. This is probably an underestimate.
The power down of distribution lines actually started 3 days earlier for most of the area, but the transmission line feeding Ukiah from the south was kept energized. There is evidence that a failure on this line sparked the Kincade fire near Geyserville. In the future, PG&E will probably shut down all transmission lines in threatened areas. If they had done that this time, our economic loss would have been more than $14M.
This fire season has been relatively calm so far. If power downs had been in place during the 2018 fire season, there would have been 19 of them. If the grid shut down only 10 times during a fire season, each lasting 3 days, the annual business losses would be about $50M. Even if commercial and residential food losses were reduced by 50%, that would still add another $10M, for a total annual loss of $60M. This rough estimate is the cost of doing nothing different.
Modern life depends on power, and in an emergency, even a little bit makes a huge difference. If we don't like sitting cold in the dark, we must do something because this problem will bankrupt our community if not addressed, but will cost money to fix.
Burying power lines would avoid fire ignition and make power shut down unnecessary, but introduces other problems and requires massive investment from a bankrupt company, taking years, if not decades, to accomplish. PG&E has over 100,000 miles of distribution lines, of which 24% are underground, at a cost of $3M per mile. Their 18,000 miles of transmission lines are on towers, because undergrounding them costs more than $20M per mile and significantly increases radiative power losses.
Some homeowners and businesses have bought generators to provide a portion of their power needs. This is a short-term solution. Ukiah power is currently 70% non-carbon, so burning fossil fuel exacerbates the climate issues which contribute to the power down in the first place. The cost of generators can be significant, and will sit unused most of the time as a sunk cost. If they aren't maintained and run periodically, they may not work when needed. Generators operate most efficiently, with longer life, when operated near their rated capacity powering a constant load, and are not well suited to powering a house. Fuel storage requires care, and there is no certainty that more will be available during an extended emergency. Noise is also an issue. Finally, installing some generators doesn't address the needs of the entire Ukiah community. Any long-term solution has to recognize we are all in this together.
We are fortunate that we have our own power system, and there are possibilities available that did not exist even a few years ago: renewable energy collection combined with energy storage. A generator is a fixed cost device which requires further funding (the cost of fuel) to actually produce power, thus there is no real return on investment. In contrast, a renewable energy collector is a fixed cost device which collects ambient power for free for decades, giving a true return on the investment. It is time we invest in our energy future rather than just burning money to keep warm.
There are many forms this could take, but I will examine one possibility: a large solar array and battery storage system designed to power the entire City of Ukiah at current levels, grid tied during normal operations, but able to stand alone as a micro-grid. After Hurricane Sandy, east coast communities began investigating and installing micro-grids for power down resilience during weather emergencies. In California, micro-grid interest is growing due to the last few fire seasons.
There are many advantages to designing a city-wide power system. The power shutdowns and the numerous fires are beginning to affect the tourist industry, which is a large part of our economy. Making Ukiah fully power resilient would be a marketable asset. During the first power shutdown, which affected the surrounding area but not Ukiah, people in the outer areas were able to come to town for supplies, gasoline, a hot meal, cell phone recharge, and relaxation during a stressful time. These opportunities were missing when Ukiah went dark as well. Ukiah with power can be an evacuation haven from surrounding fires, and allow orderly evacuation of our own community if needed.
Ukiah consumes an average of 300MWhs a day. To produce that much power in the solar minimum of winter would require a 100MW array and a 250 MWh battery. An array of this size would cost $100M to install, covering about 120 acres of land. Assuming land costs of $200,000 an acre for another $24M, and including connection to the Ukiah gird, the array might cost $150M. Grid scale battery costs, falling rapidly in the last decade as manufacturing scales up, are currently $0.275/Wh. Our Ukiah grid storage battery would cost about $70M, for a total system cost of $220M.
To put this in perspective, we must consider what we are already paying for power. At a wholesale power rate of $0.035/KWh, Ukiah pays $3.85M annually, or $77M over 20 years. Just one shut down a year like the last one, an unlikely minimum, would cost $90M over a decade.
There are two fixed cost pieces here: the array and the battery. The array will generate income. An investment in a solar array buys decades of power in advance, at a fix, inflation proof rate. The 100MW array in this example is sized to give sufficient power in the solar minimum of winter, so it will produce excess power in the summer, making Ukiah a net power producer. Over 30 years it would generate $191M at current wholesale electric prices. The array cost could be financed by the utility selling bonds, or by borrowing the money as a low interest, fixed rate loan.
The second fixed coat is the $70M battery. Since there is no direct return on this investment, this is the price we pay to avoid the larger costs of doing nothing. Spread over 10 years, the annual cost would be less than the loss of a single power down. While grant funding might be available, it may require an increase in electric rates, or sales tax.
There are energy loan programs at the Federal and State level. Even PG&E is looking for ways to invest to deal with the economic costs of a power down. At every level, special funds are available for emergency preparedness. Humboldt County borrowed from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development to fund installation of a large array and storage at their airport in 2017. In 2012, Jefferson County, in Washington state, bought their entire power system from an investor owned utility with such a loan.
One large micro-grid is only one possibility. Maybe there should be 3 or 4 smaller systems, spread around the community. Perhaps small pump storage systems would be cheaper than a battery. In an emergency, we could survive consuming less power, requiring a smaller investment. Modest collection and storage systems could be installed in every house and business throughout the community. Installing such distributed systems would require training a large skilled work force. Decisions about priority of installations would be necessary. City regulations would need to be streamlined, and utility rebate programs developed and funded. All this should be investigated and decided by the community. The City Council can start by making a policy commitment to make Ukiah "power down resilient".
If this vision of "power down resilience" interests you, I ask you to take two actions. The first is to email City Council members Steve Scalmanini and Doug Crane, members of the ad hoc energy committee, and Tami Bartolomei, Community Services Administrator (email addresses below). Tell all three of them you support making Ukiah "power down resilient", and want the council to direct staff, working with community input, to plan how to accomplish this as soon as possible.
The second action is to send a copy of this document to everyone you know. We are all in this together, even if we live outside the city. Having Ukiah functioning in a power down helps support everyone in the surrounding area. By spreading the word, building momentum, we can give the city leaders support to make "power down resilience" a reality in Ukiah.
Sunday, November 3, 2019
written 26 October 2019
published 3 November 2019
I went out onto the deck Thursday evening (Oct 24th), and could smell the smoke from the Kincade fire burning near Geyserville. Every day I check https://firemap.sdsc.edu, a site showing fires based on satellite information, using color to show where active hot spots are located (click on the icon in the upper right-hand corner, select fires, and then perimeters and satellite detection). As I write this, the fire is 10% contained, burning northeast, toward Cobb in Lake county. There are suggestions a PG&E transmission line tower started this fire, but investigation is ongoing.
Ukiah has managed to avoid losing power in the first two Public Safety Power Shutdowns, but we are due to shut down during the third one this weekend. Conservative critics are blaming the shutdowns on misguided investment in renewable energy by PG&E. No mention of corporate priority for shareholder return over infrastructure maintenance, or climate change (can't risk offending Trump's orthodoxy that climate change is a hoax).
In the real world, where the rest of us live, this week the San Francisco Chronicle ran a long article about the die off of 90% of the coastal kelp in the last half decade. This is an oceanic environmental catastrophe comparable to California losing 90% of the trees within a few years. The current ocean heat wave has killed coral and disrupted sea life around Hawaii, and the heat blob in the North Pacific has returned, possibly bringing more drought to California. Researchers recently reported finding seafloor methane, a potent greenhouse gas, bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean, raising local atmospheric concentrations by a factor of 9. In response, President Trump has announced that the next G7 meeting of foreign leaders will not have any discussion of climate change.
In legal matter, it was a difficult week for the president. Investigations normally start with secret testimony, including grand juries, to get information on record without publicity or compromising witnesses. Relevant facts are then made public during the trial phase, where the accused can respond. Since the Justice Department under Trump's Attorney General refused to look into reported misdeeds by the president, the House of Representatives has to do it as their Constitutional responsibility, beginning with closed door hearings in front of bi-partisan committees.
Testimony on Tuesday by Bill Taylor, recent US ambassador to Ukraine, was reportedly extensive, well documented, and convincing. The president, with help from White House cabinet members, did illegally withhold aid to our ally Ukraine to pressure them to support his campaign.
This process under the rule of law was too much for the cult of Trump. In response to their worsening political situation, and the tsunami of evidence against their leader, 30 minor Republican members of the House stormed the hearings the next day, demanding "transparency", delaying hearings for several hours before losing interest and departing.
In other legal action this week, an appeals court heard arguments why Trump's tax returns should not be examined. The tax records are of interest in a number of cases, involving fraud, money laundering, and accepting foreign bribes or contributions. His attorney argued that as president, he is immune from not only indictment, but investigation, or even apprehension if caught in the middle of a crime, specifically even murder. This god like immunity would extend to anyone related to, or working for, the president. Of course, this is entirely contrary to the Constitution, which was written after a war to get rid of the divine right of a king.
Several cases suggest that Russian money, perhaps even mob money, has flowed to Trump and other Republican politicians. Trump has advocated for Russian positions before being elected, and as president has defended Russia and Putin against American intelligence conclusions, and made unilateral, ill-considered foreign policy decisions which have strengthened Russia's position in Ukraine and the Middle East. Perhaps Trump has been acting as an agent for Russian for so long that he thinks he has diplomatic immunity.
While it is clear why Trump and his hand-picked cabinet believes this insanity, since they all face jail time if it is overturned, the real question is how many Republican leaders will violate their oath of office to defend the Constitution.
What an interesting time to be alive!