PG&E’s Plan to Mitigate Blackouts This Wildfire Season: Lots More Diesel Generators

Pacific Gas & Electric is turning to a decidedly low-tech solution to keep its customers’ lights on for this year’s coming fire season: mobile diesel generators. 

The bankrupt utility is  struggling to secure its grid  from causing more deadly wildfires and has been  stymied in attempts  to set up natural-gas-backed microgrids to power substations during fire-prevention blackouts. But California regulators are adamant that PG&E must find a more permanent and less costly and polluting backup plan in the years ahead — even if it’s not clear yet what form it may take.    

On June 11, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to vote on a proposed decision that would greenlight PG&E’s plan to secure up to 450 megawatts of mobile generators to back up communities during public-safety power outage events this summer and fall. 

PG&E’s “Temporary Generation Plan” is a major expansion from its use of mobile generators last year, when forced switch-off events  caused blackouts for millions  of Northern California residents, some for days at a time. Those blackouts did, however, prevent a repeat of the catastrophic grid-sparked fires of 2017 and 2018 that killed scores of people and caused the tens of billions of dollars of damages that pushed PG&E into bankruptcy last year. 

This year’s $173 million plan, which includes $94 million in reservation fees to place a hold on hundreds of 2-megawatt diesel generators for quick deployment, “is not a long-term resiliency strategy,” CPUC administrative law judge Colin Rizzo wrote in the proposed decision. In fact, it has significant drawbacks, including the “potential health risks” for local residents exposed to generator exhaust, even when running on biodiesel PG&E plans to use to limit their greenhouse gas emissions profile. 

Even so, given the lack of alternatives for an upcoming fire season expected to be more dangerous than last year’s, and the threat that blackouts pose to medically vulnerable people and isolated communities, PG&E should be allowed to move ahead, Rizzo wrote. The approval for the diesel generators will only be for this year and will come with strict reporting guidelines. 

California's community-choice aggregators and solar and energy storage vendors want utilities to move faster on tapping the potential of distributed solar-battery systems. “PG&E’s approach to resiliency is the weakest step toward decentralized generation they could possibly take,” said Brad Heavner, policy director of the California Solar & Storage Association. 

"PG&E is working to reduce the frequency, scope, and impact of future Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events, and a key piece of this strategy for 2020 includes the reservation of temporary generators to support multiple PSPS-related workstreams," spokesman Paul Doherty said in a Thursday email. PG&E is also seeking to spend $13.5...

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