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San Diego Leads Way In Reshaping Nation's Power Grid

Borrego Springs Solar Plant generating power in the hot desert valley on June 1, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
Borrego Springs Solar Plant generating power in the hot desert valley on June 1, 2016.
San Diego Leads Way In Reshaping Nation's Power Grid
San Diego Leads Way In Reshaping Nation's Power Grid
1/2 Borrego Springs, a small desert community about 80 miles east of San Diego, is shining a light on a future that could completely change how power is delivered to homes and businesses.
San Diego Leads Way In Reshaping Nation's Power Grid
2/2 The nation's power delivery system is widely considered to be outdated and in need of a major refresh. Improvements are likely to come in small steps. Some of those steps are being taken in Southern California. In the second part of our series on microgrids, we look at how these tiny grids work where the regular grid is already pretty robust.
San Diego Leads Way In Reshaping Nation’s Power Grid
San Diego Leads Way In Reshaping Nation's Power Grid GUESTS:Erik Anderson, reporter, KPBS News

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A small desert community in Southern California is shining a light on the future that could completely change how power is delivered to homes and businesses. An extreme environment helped forge a sustainable energy island in the center of a desert Park.KPBS reporter Eric Anderson says lessons learned here could change the nature of what we call the power grid. Reporter: This is a mostly flat desert valley around 80 miles east of San Diego. That location is both an attraction and a challenge. We are 50 miles from another community that has a big box store. We are 30 miles from the nearest gas station with dish if our power goes out. Reporter: That is Linda had a coup has lived care about 10 years. Daytime temperatures can languish above essential marks for long periods during the summer. That creates a voracious appetite for power and an appetite that has at times pushed her multi-power built over $1000. Our electric bills soar in the summertime. We live in the desert. If it is going to be 120 outside it will be 160 in your car in the ground is 180. It will not cool down that much at night. She lives in a gated for more resort community of manufactured homes. The electricity that feeds her appliances pulses through a signal high voltage power line comes from San Diego. In September 2013 a storm took out 19 SCG in a power poles . Lightning took them out. Lightning took them out. That is when our monsoon season is. Stuff happens and we were informed by this outage, that it was going to be three or four days. Reporter: And outage that long puts lives that risks here. Is till of the officials scrambled to get the power back on. Their attention quickly turned to a large solar farm on the edge of town. Rows of solar panels that are brackets several feet across the ground. This is a single access tracking solar field and so the panels are actually tracking the movement of the sun so right now there is a motor that actually is turning all the panels. Reporter: The panels can generate enough electricity to turn on the lights and 26,000 homes were crews rerouted that power in 2013 to keep local lights on in Durango Springs while the lines were prepared. That was essentially the birth of the regions micro-grid picnic what the micro-grid allows us to do is to have some resources sourced locally so that if damage occurs to that line we can use these local resources to power the community. That solar is not the only key to developing a power island like this one. San Diego gas and electric had a diesel generator to boost reliability and engineers installed a power storage facility. Reporter: Inside the short white trailers air-conditioners are always on. They keep racks of lithium ion batteries cool. The batteries have a couple jobs. What we do with the batteries is restored that renewable energy during the day when the sun is out and then we can release into the grid in the evening times. Reporter: If a cloudless over the solar farm during the day the batteries make up or the dip in energy production. That keeps the flow of energy to either the town or the grid study and predictable. So we wanted to create a project where we could see how all of those new technologies coming to the grid affect the grid and how can we can leverage those new technologies to create opportunities for our customers to be more sustainable, to be cleaner and also provide greater reliability. Reporter: Eisenman says getting all the power supplies to work together is the key to success. He can see a future where this kind of technology can be located in more crowded places -- cases where the power grid is already pretty resilient. That story from KPBS reporter Eric Anderson who joins me now .'s Welcome to the program. Reporter: Thank you Marine. Before this was thought up of in the power outage where was the energy going? It was going to places -- it was going into the grid. That particular solar farm out there was the first large utility scale solar project that went online in California. It was already funneling that energy into the grid. Okay make the determination to diver an energy source like that? Would that be utility truck I think right now that is where that responsibility lies and the way they use the micro-grid there is not as a sustaining system that runs all the time but as a resource that is available when they need it. Tell us more about the storage batteries you talked about in your story. How are they kept ready for use? Weld they are on all the time. It is an extreme days interesting part of that system. One thing you need to remember about a solar field is that it does not constantly feed the same amount of electricity to the grid like you would get from a gas fire power plant or you would get from a nuclear power plant where you can get that steady supply. Clouds move over even in the desert. They may interrupt the amount of energy that it produces and so you have -- instead of this smooth line of energy production across the grade you have more peaks and valleys -- the line goes up and down. Sometimes it produces more sometimes less what the batteries do is fill in the valleys and level out the peaks when they get into the peak areas they can store the energy when there is a Valley they can push the energy back into the grid so the steady power supply continues to work as it is intended to . So if there were another power outage in Durango Springs could they immediately switch? Yes. They have done some things. The first time when they did back in 2013 it took quite a bit of effort . they had to do a lot of the switching on the fly taking it out. There were a lot of things that had to be changed and vases have kind of stream lined that process so it is a lot easier to go to the backup power accident in part two of your report coming up tomorrow you'll be telling us how a micro-it already works in San Diego. Can you give us a preview of that truck Sure. The thing about Durango Springs is the fact that it is isolated and it is kind of self contained a very easy to set up a grid system they are. In San Diego will take you to where they have a system where they can provide nearly all the power that their campus demands on a daily basis and if they just shed some of the electrical load they can provide all of the power and we will look at how the system works in a place where the rest of the grid is already pretty robust. What of these micro-grids teaching us about how our overall power grid could possibly change in the future? Will one of the big complaints about the way the current power grid works is that it is really 1930s and 1940s technology that we really have not changed the power grid that much. It makes it vulnerable to blackouts. It makes it vulnerable to storms, accidents of nature and officials are looking for ways to upgrade the grid to make it better, make it more robust to make it more flexible but these micro-grids and what they will do it kind of changes things. It allows for -- instead of concentrated construction of power that feed the entire grid and allows for production of power within a small geographic area that feeds that area and basically becomes this little island. It also will allow the grid to become more robust so if there is a big storm moving to the area may be you only lose part of the city's power in some of these micro-grids can continue operating without a regular grid being up and running. These two small systems that are already in place in San Diego County they are sort of providing the technology know-how to move further with this idea? Absolutely. What is going on here in this particular field is engineers are putting these systems into place in their testing them out there finding out what works and how to get these disparate components to work together and that's kind of the key. It is writing that software. It is designing the computer programs that allow decisions to be made very quickly without human intervention but the right decisions with some power on in some power often recognizing there is a need to draw this resource or a need to turn off another resource, managing the system in a matter of milliseconds instead of regular second. And as they develop that technology it will get cheaper and there is a possibility that the more we learn about this it will be easier to set up his is that one needs to happen before micro-grids become viable on a larger scale? There are some other obstacles in the way as well. Utility companies and utility regulators still have a role to play in power production picked up regulation that need to be adjusted if you want to have more micrograms -- micro-grids and the cost is a big obstacle . to build a backup battery unit cost a lot of money. A solar field double theory states that wealthier -- that will feed a geographic area has to cost a lot of money.. Is have to be looked at and adjusted and the cost have to come down to make it viable. Connect I've been speaking with Eric Anderson part two of his report on micro-grids airs tomorrow on morning edition.

Borrego Springs sprawls across a mostly flat desert valley about 80 miles east of San Diego. When the afternoon wind blows in the summer it feels like an oven door has opened nearby. The remote location is both an attraction and a challenge.

"We are 50 miles from another community that has a big box store. We are 30 miles from the nearest gas station if our power goes out," Linda Haddock said.

Borrego Springs resident Linda Haddock is pictured, June 1, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
Borrego Springs resident Linda Haddock is pictured, June 1, 2016.

She has lived here for about 10 years where daytime temperatures can languish above the century mark for long periods during the summer. That creates a voracious appetite for power, Haddock said, an appetite that has at times pushed her monthly power bill over $1,000.

"Our electric bills soar in the summertime," Haddock said. "We live in the desert. If the temperature is going to be 120 outside. It's going to be 160 in your car. The ground is 180. It's not going to cool down that much at night."

Haddock's gated resort community is a cluster of manufactured homes surrounding a green golf course. A swamp cooler, which humidifies the air in her home, keeps the trailer cool most of the time. But in the summer, she needs traditional power-hungry air conditioning to keep the heat in check.

The electricity that feeds her appliances pulses through a single high-voltage power line that comes from San Diego. That San Diego Gas & Electric line climbs over a treacherous mountain range.

In September 2013, a storm took out 19 SDG&E power poles, severing the town's electrical umbilical cord.

"Lightning took them out. It wasn't anything anyone did. Lightning just took out the poles. It is when our monsoon season is. Stuff happens," Haddock said. "We were informed by SDG&E by this outage, by this issue of trying to get to the poles and get us back up, that it was going to be three to four days."

An outage that long, put lives at risk.

Microgrid uses renewable energy

Utility officials scrambled to get the power back on. Their attention turned to a large solar farm on the edge of town. There, rows of photovoltaic panels sit on brackets several feet off the ground.

"This is a single access tracking solar field. So the panels are actually tracking the movement of the sun. Right now, there's a motor that's actually turning all the panels," SDG&E's Neal Bartek said.

The panels can generate enough electricity to turn on the power in 26,000 homes. Work crews rerouted that power in 2013 to keep electricity flowing to Borrego Springs while the power lines were repaired. That was essentially the birth of the region's microgrid.

"What the microgrid allows us to do is to have some resources locally here so that if damage occurs to that line, we can use local resources to power that community," Bartek said.

But solar isn't the only key to developing a power island, like this one. SDG&E added diesel generators to bolster reliability and engineers installed a power storage facility.

Inside several short white trailers, air conditioners are always on. The cool air keeps racks of lithium ion batteries cool.

SDG&E's Hanan Eisenman said the batteries have a couple of jobs.

"So what we do with batteries is we store that renewable energy in the middle of the day when the sun's out and then we can release it into the grid in the evening times," Eisenman said.

If a cloud moves over the solar farm during the day, the batteries make up for the dip in energy production. That keeps the flow of energy to either the town or the grid, steady and predictable. It also demonstrates the microgrid concept is viable.

"We wanted to create a project where we could see how all those new technologies coming onto the grid, affect the grid and how we can leverage those new technologies to create opportunities for our customers to be more sustainable, to be cleaner and also to provide more reliability," Eisenman said.

Getting all the power supplies to work together is the key to success.

Eisenman said this project works because the region is isolated and there's a need to deal with a fragile delivery system, but microgrids don't have to be isolated. In fact, there's one already working in urban San Diego.

Microgrids work in cities too

San Diego Leads Way In Reshaping Nation’s Power Grid, Part 2

UC San Diego uses a number of renewable power sources to satisfy the thirst for electricity on the school's sprawling campus.

"What we have here is a 2.8 megawatt fuel cell. Right here, are the stacks of the fuel cell, they produce 1.4 megawatts each," said John Dilliott, UCSD's facilities engineer.

The university has invested heavily in power that's generated on the campus where it is used. The fuel cell, solar panels and a cogeneration plant meet more than 90 percent of the campus' power demand, Dilliott said. That was just one piece of the school's microgrid puzzle.

"You need to be like a self-contained organization like us that has centralized our utilities," Dilliott said.

In some ways the campus microgrid is the result of money saving decisions. The school was looking at opportunities to cut its power bill. Through grants and technology improvements, university officials ended up accumulating generating capacity.

At a certain point, school officials saw that they could power the campus without the grid.

That's a pretty big jump from just saving several million dollars a year.

Another factor comes into play. Dilliott said steady reliable power is a crucial resource at a major research university and he said it is hard to reconcile critical research materials. In one set of freezers the school stores ice core samples from the Arctic that are hundreds of years old. Those are irreplaceable assets.

"There are a whole bunch of freezers around campus that store samples of all kinds of stuff at really low temperatures. Negative 80 Celsius. Without power they can hold their refrigeration for a little bit but not very long," Dilliott said.

A lot of critical research work was put into jeopardy when a power outage in Southwestern United States persisted for hours in September 2011. Operator error destabilized the grid and caused cascading shutdowns in California, Arizona and Baja California, Mexico.

UC San Diego went dark, but the outage was different on campus.

"Even though we lost power during the power outage. We were able to restart our power generation. They call that ‘black starting.’ We did have the ability to do that. Even though the utility was out for 8 to 12 hours, we were only out for about 4 hours," Dilliott said.

Blackouts have touched other parts of the country. The Northeast in 2003. The East Coast during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the nation's mid-Atlantic states during another storm that same year. The power grid's age and fragility has a lot of researchers and engineers trying to figure out ways to update the system.

Chance for more microgrids in the future

Jeremy Del Real of the Center for Sustainable Energy is pictured in this undated photo.
Kris Arciaga
Jeremy Del Real of the Center for Sustainable Energy is pictured in this undated photo.

Jeremy Del Real works at the Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego and he thinks microgrids could be a bridge technology that helps ease the outdated grid into the modern age.

"The microgrid can actually work with this antiquated system and actually alleviate that pressure and some of the stress that these renewables and these technologies alone would kind of put on the grid. So it helps to better integrate these technologies with an aging infrastructure," Del Real said.

The idea of sustainable electrical power systems that generate their own electricity has a big future, Del Real said. He also quickly acknowledged that it is easier to talk about the idea than it is to put the idea into practice because there are plenty of hurdles in place.

"It will become more prevalent in certain locations," Del Real said. "I think you'll see, at the community level, microgrids starting to develop as they kind of work through those barriers, you know, on the regulatory side and some of the economic barriers that kind of exist now."

Del Real said utilities are another key hurdle as power companies adjust to a shifting landscape. Utilities will have to get used to a world where power generation and control of power resources is in different hands.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration launched an initiative this year that actively invests in new grid technologies. The administration is banking on the idea that a host of new technologies will help modernized and upgrade the grid. One byproduct could be the creation of even more self-sustaining microgrids.

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