Solar panels with blue sky and clouds

Grid Resiliency, Sustainability, and Redundancy

If you live in California or other parts of the western United States, you’ve likely heard terms like “energy resiliency” or “energy redundancy” tossed around. With climate change causing high temperatures, reduced hydropower generation and increased wildfire risk, the need for California and other states’ grids to be strengthened has become an increasingly common topic of governance amongst both politicians and average citizens. Earlier this year, California’s Governor Newsom proposed a $5.2 billion addition to a revised budget proposal to do just that, seeking to establish a fund that would enable a “strategic electricity reliability reserve” for the state’s grid. With an expected “8 billion over the next five years,” this proposed funding is meant to create an unused reserve of up to 5,000 MW “that the state can tap into when the grid is particularly stressed” so as to avoid major failures or necessary outages. In a bid to avoid the rolling blackouts of 2020, this “buffer of power supply [would provide] 22.5 percent above the projected peak demand,” a figure which drives home just how self-reliant and redundant California wants its electric grid to be. Following the catastrophic failure of portions of Texas’ largely unconnected grid, the need for this resiliency and redundancy  is readily apparent: grid failure doesn’t just mean an inability to turn the lights on or watch TV― for some Americans, like those with medical devices requiring electricity or the elderly― access to power can be a matter of life and death.

Despite California’s renewed dedication to power availability, the average citizen can also contribute to grid stability by considering resiliency and redundancy measures for their own properties. Distributed energy resources, or DERs, are smaller-scale technologies connected to the grid that generate electricity, typically on the consumer-side. These systems, most often combinations of solar panels and battery storage, are usually located close to where the power will be used and accessed only by the owner unless connected and sold back to the grid at will. When we talk about redundancy, we’re actually talking about “including additional resources beyond those that are required for daily operations” so as to create energy resilience that allows us to “anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions and withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from disruptions to the power sector.” DERs like solar and storage are redundancy measures on the consumer side that allow owners freedom from total grid failure; if blackouts occur for whatever reason, having a supply of stored solar power means that a building will still have access to electricity for essentials even if the utility company itself is unable to provide that electricity. Despite being a common essential and public utility, at its core power is highly personal: different people or businesses have different needs and therefore require different amounts of power and different levels of resiliency. Solar and storage options not only create redundancy that can be vital to a business or community’s continued operation, but allow for more freedom outside the constraints of the public electrical grid.

DERs can also be configured into micro or minigrids, which differ in that “microgrids are used by small residential or commercial consumers [while] minigrids are larger configurations, which can power large commercial outlets, universities, factories and even islands.” These micro and minigrids are often “capable of islanding” in order to “ensure customers have access to power during long-term power outages that impact central grid systems occurring after major events,” like an unprecedented heatwave or destructive wildfire.  This islanding is exactly what it sounds like; even if a DER solar and storage system is connected to the grid in order to sell back power during peak-load events, islanding capability means that in the event of grid unavailability owners won’t be forced to sell back or send their power elsewhere― they can simply island their system from the grid and use the power for their own needs. If they choose not to island, these minigrids can also be used by energy companies to help black-start, or “restart parts of the power system to recover from a blackout [by individually starting] isolated power stations… and gradually reconnect[ing them] to one another to form an interconnected system again.” Robust DER systems are two-fold: they’re protective redundancy and resiliency measures for both consumers and grid operators.

This increased power availability is particularly important to businesses and communities in rural areas who are often separated from the main grid along the “last mile.” Even with grid connection, rural communities throughout California, including vast swaths of tribal land, are often the first to have their power cut off when actions need to be taken to maintain grid stability. In theory, this makes sense: in order to minimize impact, energy companies try to limit the total number of people affected by outages. In practice, this means that the same communities are losing their access to power more often. Additionally, the rural nature of these communities causes a cascading effect: cutting power to a tribal community with a small hospital doesn’t just mean that the people there lose access to power for a limited time, it also means that they need to travel to the nearest energized health facility for treatment during these events, which can often be far distances due to the rurality of location. Inclusion of solar and storage DERs in these types of communities not only increases quality of life overall but also positively affects health outcomes, saves money, and has the potential to cut costs when excess energy is sold back to the grid. Resiliency and redundancy are the name of the game― equity and freedom are the desired outcomes.