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A Nexus of Backup Power Issues

California just cannot get a break this year. A pandemic, a challenged economy, lightning-induced wildfires, and … most recently ... rolling utility power outages.

In mid-August, California experienced a profound heat wave. With more people in their homes because of the pandemic, people relied on air conditioning for relief. On the evening of August 14, public utilities could not provide all of the power needed to meet the demand in the state. With the rest of the western USA also sweltering, insufficient surplus regional power was available to import into California. Blackouts subsequently affected hundreds of thousands of customers as utilities shut down power to specific communities on a rolling basis.  When this article was written, another more severe heat wave was expected in the region.

Some commenters have pointed out that the initial situation developed about the time of day that solar electrical power sources diminish, reducing the amount of available power. Others have asserted that the situation resulted from poor reserve capacity planning by power authorities. Whatever the circumstances, the point here isn’t to analyze the causes of the outages, but rather to emphasize that they do and will occur. 

Earlier this year, ASCO Power Technologies’ White Paper entitled California Power Outages discussed a California utility’s planned outage policy, which is intended to limit on-going wildfire risks. That publication provided options for small and mid-size businesses to access backup power.  These include the availability of transfers switches and quick connect panels that make it easy to connect a temporary or transportable generator to a facility’s power distribution system. An example is shown in the following diagram.
Solutions like these make backup power accessible to organizations that might not be able to afford the cost of a permanent genset. Read more about these solutions in our Tech Brief entitled Temporary Connections for Generators and Load Banks.

Separately, our Tech Brief entitled Utility Reliability and Critical Backup Power reviewed utility outage occurrence and impacts, and stated that “outages should continue to be viewed as an expected operating condition.” California is the fifth largest economy in the world, so the nexus of challenges affecting that state’s power system merely serves as a compelling example that underscores the importance of power reliability and the availability of backup power.

One bright spot in California’s energy horizon relates to microgrids (community-based or facility-based power generation and distribution systems that can operate independent of utility grid power). These provide power from their own sources when public power is unavailable. Examples include microgrids developed at ports and agricultural facilities. California has enacted SB-1339, which directs the California Public Utilities Commission to develop microgrids standards and guidelines that meet evolving needs and remove barriers to microgrid development. If that ongoing process is successful, it could positively influence microgrid development, providing additional power resilience to end users.

In this regard, ASCO Power Technologies has recently published a white paper series surveying aspects of microgrids and their deployment. Entitled Is there a Microgrid in Your Future?, the series presents responses and insights from facility managers and backup energy professionals regarding their interest in and experience with microgrids. The survey was developed from a joint survey by ASCO Power Technologies and Building Operating Management Magazine. The results of the survey, gathered from more than 800 respondents, are presented in four parts:
  • Part 1: What is a Microgrid? – Explores microgrid awareness and definitions
  • Part 2: Growth of Microgrids – Examines why microgrid use could grow nearly seven-fold by 2028
  • Part 3: Going Green – Shows how facilities use microgrids to reduce carbon footprints and increase sustainability
  • Part 4: Economic Opportunity – Discusses microgrid financial incentives, budget-neutral options, and revenue streams
These papers present insights from engineers and facility managers that have considered, implemented, and/or operated a range of microgrid solutions. They explore real-world applications at hospitals, airports, educational institutions, and more. The documents are worthwhile reading for times such as these, where backup power has never seemed more important.
  1. Kassler, D. and Heeter, M., 2020. California Avoided Rolling Blackouts For Two Decades. What Went Wrong On The Grid?. [online] Available at:https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article244988455.html[Accessed 3 September 2020].
  2. ASCO Power Technologies, 2020. California Power Outages. [online] Florham Park, NJ, USA: ASCO Power Technologies. Available at: https://www.ascopower.com/us/en/download/document/ASC_TS_WP_116_CAL-OUTAGES/ [Accessed 3 September 2020].
  3. Ascopower.com. 2020. Utility Reliability. [online] Available at: https://www.ascopower.com/us/en/resources/technical-briefs/utility-reliability-and-critical-backup-power.jsp[Accessed 3 September 2020].
  4. Gerdes, J., 2020. California Ports Turn To Microgrids For Energy Security, Demand Flexibility. [online] Greentechmedia.com. Available at: https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/california-ports-turning-to-microgrids-for-energy-security-demand-flexibility#:~:text=demand%20at%20ports.-,In%20response%20to%20California's%20electrification%20push%2C %20the%20state's%20largest%20ports,and%20Control%20Center%20(JCCC) [Accessed 3 September 2020 [Accessed 3 September 2020].
  5. Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards & Winery. 2020. Microgrid - Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards & Winery. [online] Available at: https://www.stoneedgefarm.com/microgrid/[Accessed 3 September 2020].
  6. Kevles, J., 2020. A Pivotal Moment For Microgrid Policy – What California Is Getting Right And Where It's Heading From Here. [online] Utility Dive. Available at: https://www.utilitydive.com/news/a-pivotal-moment-for-microgrid-policy-what-california-is-getting-right-an/583426/[Accessed 3 September 2020].

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