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Remote Grids Powering Isolated Customers

Remote Grids Powering Isolated Customers

Devastating wildfires have been a near constant in this summer’s news. The recent tragic wildfires in Maui killed over 100 people and displaced thousands, marking the most deadly U.S. wildfire since 1918. This year was also Canada’s worst wildfire season in modern history with more than 33 million acres burned as of late August 2023. The impacts of the smoke from Canada also brought some of the worst air quality in the world to Chicago, New York City, Detroit, and Washington D.C. As wildfires become more common and more severe, remote grid systems provide a new risk reduction solution and can ensure safe, reliable, and clean electricity. In June, SEPA’s Microgrids Working Group hosted a meeting with Pacific Gas & Electric, New Sun Road, Boxpower to discuss remote grids and their ability to keep remote areas powered.

What is a Remote Grid?

As the name suggests, a remote grid is a standalone grid. These systems are often used to provide power for more rural customers in areas with frequent wildfires. Remote grids use solar, batteries, and generators and function separately from the greater electric grid. Instead of overhead power lines, remote grids use a Standalone Power System (SPS) that is either hardened or installed underground. Removing a large number of the electric poles and overhead power lines reduces wildfire risk. In fact, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) estimates that remote grids reduce wildfire ignition risk by 98% compared to conventional overhead power lines.

Benefits for Utilities

Although remote grids are currently a nascent technology, they provide great promise for utilities. As Anderson Barkow, CFO of BoxPower puts it, “remote grids allow utilities to reimagine power provision, with local energy sources providing safer, more reliable and more cost-effective power than distribution lines in many rural areas.” These systems have the potential to provide improved resilience and reliability for customers, help utilities meet their clean energy targets, and improve wildfire safety.

Remote Grids in Action: PG&E

PG&E is among the first U.S. utilities to build a remote grid. The utility constructed their first remote grid in Briceburg, CA, near Yosemite National Park with BoxPower. The site serves five customer meters and has allowed PG&E to remove 1.3 miles of power lines that were damaged in a 2019 fire while ensuring that the site is online 99.9999% of the time. PG&E began operating the Briceburg Remote Grid in June of 2021. Each year it provides more than 90% renewable energy. Thus far, it has been a success with no sustained outages in over two years. During the 2022 Oak Fire, the customers receiving electricity from the remote grid had reliable electricity despite outages in surrounding areas.

Following the construction of the Briceburg Remote Grid, PG&E began planning for more remote grids. The following remote grids are now also operational:

  • Two wireless systems near Paskenta, California, in Tehama County, allowing PG&E to remove 2 miles of overhead power lines, each serving one customer meter
  • One wireless system near Mariposa, California, in Mariposa County, allowing PG&E to remove 1 mile of overhead power lines, serving two customer meters

PG&E is partnering with New Sun Road to use Stellar Microgrid OS™ as the remote monitoring and control platform for their growing fleet of remote grids. Through PG&E’s collaboration with BoxPower and New Sun Road, the program is slated to increase to 30 remote grid systems by 2026.

Adrienne Pierce, CEO of New Sun Road, explains:

“By leveraging reduced equipment costs, eliminating transmission lines, and integrating cutting-edge technologies like cloud computing and AI optimization, microgrids have the power to transform and modernize local energy landscapes while ensuring safety.”

Remote Grids in Australia

Remote microgrids are a promising solution at the global level as well. Australia often experiences severe bushfires that can leave communities without power. Even before Australia’s disastrous 2019-2020 bushfire season, the nation had plans to bring more resilient electricity to remote communities.

The Australian Government announced a budget measure called the Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund offering grant funding for remote grid feasibility studies across Australia’s six states in 2019. Beginning in 2022, the Government of the Australian state West Australia began an effort to deploy 1,000 SPS combining battery storage and solar PV. Western Power, the state-owned energy company administering the program, found that SPS could reduce outages by 90%.

In an interview with The Guardian Lance McCallum, a representative in the Queensland Legislative Assembly and a member of the Gubi Gubi First Nations community expressed his support the remote grant funding in his state:

“As a proud First Nations Queenslander I know how important energy resilience and independence for these communities can be. Micro grids will provide the ability to recover quickly or maintain energy supply during network outages caused by extreme weather events.”

The remote grid projects underway in California and Australia are just the beginning. Utilities looking to implement remote grids can learn from the success of projects that have already been deployed. PG&E announced an expansion of its remote grid program from four current systems to more than 30 systems by 2026. These systems are expected to provide the same or better levels of electric reliability while continuing to meet customer needs with significantly lower risk of fire at lower lifetime costs.

For rural areas previously dependent on fossil fuels, these projects offer more reliable power while reducing emissions. They also have the potential to save lives by greatly reducing the number of outages impacting critical facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, and fire stations. As the severity of the climate crisis increases, unprecedented weather events may become the norm. Remote grids offer a crucial two part solution by keeping the lights on while also enabling the clean energy transition at the customer level. SEPA’s Microgrids Working Group remains an important space for stakeholders to come together and discuss solutions like remote grids that can enhance system resilience. Remote grids, like microgrids, represent one tool in the toolbox for utility planners to consider when considering ways to support their system’s resilience.

Join SEPA’s Microgrids Working Group to continue the conversation on remote grids and other resilience solutions.

To learn more about New Sun Road’s work on microgrids, please contact Robin Milshtein at [email protected].

To learn more about PG&E’s work on remote grids, please visit the Remote Grid Program. For any questions, email [email protected].

To learn more about BoxPower’s work on microgrids, please contact Justin Kennedy at [email protected].