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California Fires Add Fuel to the Push for More Solar Energy

Concerns about heightened fire danger and unstable supply from traditional sources have some state residents and businesses looking to energy alternatives.

(TNS) ― Over the summer, Côme Laguë received a notice from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that made him rethink the energy needs at a vineyard and winery he owns in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The letter informed Laguë that PG&E could decide to intentionally turn off power lines when extreme weather conditions elevate the risk of utility equipment sparking dangerous wildfires. PG&E had never done a planned power outage but has recently embraced them as a defense measure of last resort, particularly during periods of intense winds and very low humidity levels.

But Laguë was concerned about the potential impact to his business, La Mesa Vineyards in Amador County. What would he do if a shutoff happened during the fall harvest, when electricity is critical for keeping his business running?

“The grapes are ready when they’re ready, and then you bring them in,” Laguë said. “If you’re in the middle of crushing them, and the power is shut off for days — you’re not exactly gonna be manually processing all that fruit.”

Laguë, a San Francisco resident, already had a solar system on the property and didn’t want to rely on a generator. He decided to expand the solar system so it can adequately satisfy his business needs if PG&E does shut off the power to prevent a fire.

It’s one example of several ways advocates of solar power say the technology can play a bigger role in the state’s electric grid — an opportunity they say has become much more necessary as climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather with the potential to fuel devastating wildfires.

By boosting the usage of solar panels and batteries that store the power they generate, California could theoretically mimic across the state what Laguë is doing for his winery, allowing homes and businesses to keep the lights on without turning to a fossil-fuel-powered generator.

That would entail an embrace of what’s known as distributed energy, where power is generated across decentralized sources as opposed to a traditional power plant, hydroelectric dam or large-scale solar farm.

California has taken great strides to expand the use of solar power, with new laws that require panels on most new homes and promote the installation of energy storage systems. But the state could still do much more, according to the California Solar & Storage Association.

“We have long thought that distributed solar was a critical component to preventing some of the worst impacts of climate change but, obviously, the wildfires and the grid’s role puts a whole new urgency to the deployment of distributed energy,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, the industry group’s executive director. “There’s multiple solutions that need to be deployed — there’s no one single silver bullet.”

Lawmakers could take steps to speed up and simplify how customers connect new solar projects to the grid, according to Brad Heavner, the association’s policy director.

They should also consider creating a mechanism to compensate customers for using batteries to share power with the electric grid, and they can take a look at providing some kind of financial support for emergency centers that need help installing solar panel and storage systems, Heavner said.

Yet utilities have often been reluctant to embrace distributed energy, Del Chiaro said.

“Their track record is one of obstructing self-generation by customers of all types, and it’s been policymakers that have stepped in and said you have to accept this,” she said. “You don’t have to be rocket scientists to understand that the way they are structured, in terms of profit motive, does not leave a lot of room for their customers self-generating.”

PG&E spokesman James Noonan said in a statement that the utility is “committed to solar power” and helping the state fulfill its goals of using more clean energy. The company would need to review any new legislative proposals before taking a position on them, he said in an email.

“We support our customers’ choice and control when it comes to their energy,” Noonan said in the email. “A customer’s private rooftop solar equipment is connected to the PG&E energy grid. For customers with rooftop solar, PG&E provides power when their system isn’t generating such as the nighttime.”

PG&E has connected more than 360,000 solar customers to the energy grid, which Noonan said represents “about 25 percent of private rooftop solar in the country.” The utility connects about 5,000 new solar customers to the grid each month, and it’s poised to soon expand its own use of solar power, Noonan said.

PG&E has six solar projects scheduled to come online this year: four in Kern County, one in Santa Barbara County and one in Monterey County. They will generate a total of about 325 megawatts of power, according to Noonan.

Utility projects such as those are key to helping the state fulfill its climate goals, including regulators’ target of seeing 9 gigawatts of new solar power projects installed by 2030, according to Sean Gallagher, vice president for state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“Solar at smaller and larger scales offers different kinds of values — both offer values to the grid and to the society,” Gallagher said. “We think that both have roles to play, and the state’s energy regulators have agreed.”

But utilities have slowed in their efforts to launch brand-new solar projects amid uncertainty about whether customers in the state would continue shifting toward community choice aggregation, where localities buy energy on behalf of residents and businesses that opt in instead of relying on one investor-owned utility.

Gallagher said the state’s lawmakers should find a way to “get the procurement on track” for new solar projects. He thinks the state should also develop a more “workable” community solar program, in which customers who can’t have their own solar systems can subscribe to a piece of a developer’s project and get a credit on their utility bill for the power produced by their portion of it.

“California has a community solar program, but it’s been designed in a very complicated way that basically has resulted in no uptake, no developers that are using it,” Gallagher said.

Sunrun, one of the nation’s dominant residential solar companies, isn’t waiting. The San Francisco company worked with Puerto Rico to help restore power after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and has since been working on expanding the territory’s use of solar power in other ways, according to Anne Hoskins, the company’s chief policy officer.

Sunrun sees a similar kind of opening in California because of the wildfires. The company is keeping a close eye on state regulators’ efforts to craft new rules about planned power outages and plans to be involved in those proceedings going forward, Hoskins said.

Sunrun also wants to work with utilities more directly to help craft their wildfire mitigation plans required by the state, she said.

“We really believe that we have resources and capacity, that we can help them as they make their plans,” Hoskins said. “Together, we can meet these really critical needs, but we’ve got to be at the table and we’ve got to be part of those plans.”

Laguë, the Sierra Nevada winery owner, decided to oversee all aspects of his solar expansion himself. Now he wants to help others follow his footsteps.

Laguë is a solar aficionado of sorts: He owns one of San Francisco’s famous Painted Ladies, where he has installed rooftop solar panels that help offset the electric costs at the home. He has a Tesla Powerwall to store power in the Victorian’s garage.

So he didn’t want to rely on fossil fuel-powered generators to sustain his winery in the event of a planned power outage.

His vineyard already had an 8-kilowatt solar panel system that generated enough energy to essentially break even on his electricity bill because of the way it shares power with the rest of the grid. But it wouldn’t be enough to power his whole property if PG&E’s lines were shut off, Laguë said.

That’s why he decided to expand the system, adding another 39 solar panels and 15 additional kilowatts. The larger solar system will be able to power 75 percent of what the vineyard and winery would use at the “worst time” for its electricity needs, Laguë said.

And he’s now turned the experience into a new company he’s calling Sun Safe Power, through which he plans to help others replicate the model he put in place at his winery.

“It was not an easy process. These are all different technologies that are difficult to integrate together, and then there’s the complexities of how you install it,” Laguë said. “No one vendor could really do it all, so we sort of added to this and figured it out ourselves.”

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.