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North Bay Community Builds Its Own 'Micro-Grids' In Case Of PG&E Wildfire Blackout

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) -- The firestorms in the North Bay have added a lot of insecurity to California's power grid and that's leading many to build their own tiny power systems to keep from being left in the dark.

Santa Rosa Junior College has asked the question: What would happen if PG&E makes good on its promise to shut down the power grid during wildfire conditions? And that's why the school is creating something called a "micro-grid." David Liebman has been tasked to build an energy system that can power the college even during an emergency blackout.

"This right here is about 1 megawatt," he said as he opened the gate to a double rack of huge Tesla batteries. The batteries store and transmit energy collected from solar arrays and everything is managed by a smart control system that not only makes normal energy use more efficient, but will keep the college operating for days after PG&E shuts down the grid.

"We're finding that if one bad thing happens to a centralized figure, the system comes crashing down," Liebman said. "So we need to have, not a de-centralized model where we're all separate, but one that's very interconnected and works in tandem."

These smaller systems are still connected to the main grid but can operate independent of it as well. It is a major change in thinking. Maintaining massive utilities like PG&E used to be considered a more stable way to ensure reliable energy, but Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, says that's not true anymore.

"Basically, everything flipped about two years ago when we had our firestorm and so PG&E's grid isn't safe anymore…that's really the bottom line," he said.

Sonoma Clean Power is now providing energy for the majority of homes and businesses in the area and it has taken the lead in designing micro-grid systems for essential service providers like the Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital.

"We're not sitting around and waiting for PG&E blackouts to happen," Syphers said. "We're actually working with customers. They're coming to us to say we need your help designing some way to keep the lights on. And that change is really the big difference."

Advocates of renewable energy say there are other important benefits to micro-grids. Because the systems are more carefully controlled, they use a lot less energy and create less greenhouse gas emissions. They may be more reliable as well. It seems the days of putting faith in a big utility company to keep people safe and warm may be behind us.

The new reality is, when it comes to energy security, smaller may be better.

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