Preparing for Fire-related Grid Shutdowns With Resilient CHP Energy Technologies

By Gene Kogan

With the annual wildfire season now extending nearly year-round in California, local governments, industries and businesses are increasingly seeking ways to keep their electrical power on during emergencies and periods of planned outages when fire hazard is high.

The largest, most destructive and deadliest wildfires in California have all occurred in the past decade with fire threats projected to grow significantly due to increased warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions and more persistent drought conditions.

California’s utilities face large financial liabilities when their transmission and distribution equipment spark wildfires and the safest way to prevent this is to deenergize the grid. The state already gives utilities the authority to shut down power distribution during times of high winds and dry conditions. The three largest utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric have enacted fire curtailment plans. 

In October 2018, PG&E implemented its first-ever public safety shutdown in parts of nine rural counties that lasted three days and affected nearly 60,000 customers. In December, the California Public Utilities Commission opened discussions to improve rules dictating power interruptions and develop better metrics for when power must be shut down.

An aging grid infrastructure and increasing natural disasters are intensifying the need to build more resilient power sources that can keep California communities safe and businesses and governments in action when outages occur.

CHP to the rescue

Among the most promising ways of operating independently from the grid is to use combined heat and power (CHP) technologies on-site to produce both electricity and thermal energy.

CHP systems produce electrical power with reciprocating engines, gas turbines, steam turbines, microturbines and fuel cells. They use a variety of fuels, typically natural gas but also bio-waste renewable gas and alternative fuels, to produce electricity. In doing so, they create excessive heat that would otherwise be wasted, but instead is used for a thermal need, such as space heating and cooling, hot water, steam and other industrial processes.

When linked with other self-generation resources, such as solar photovoltaics or fuel cells, and with battery or thermal energy storage, CHP systems can form a microgrid capable of operating isolated from the main electrical grid. Such CHP microgrids can provide electricity and thermal energy for entire neighborhoods, college campuses, industrial parks, military bases, hospitals, prisons and other groups of buildings.

Providing local resiliency

CHP systems have proven their capability to provide resiliency during and after natural disasters and extended outages by keeping businesses and critical infrastructure operational. Some examples from recent events include the Texas Medical Center that continued patient care and services during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 by using CHP. In 2012, Stony Brook University on Long Island, NY, lost power during Hurricane Sandy, but only for less than one hour thanks to a 45-megawatt CHP system. A 2012 study estimated the annual economic costs of weather-related electric grid outages in the U.S. at between $20 billion and $55 billion.

“CHP systems have proven effective during and after natural disasters, playing a vital role in ensuring that critical infrastructure is operational and that government and business services remain available,” said Gene Kogan, a CSE senior specialist and director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Combined Heat and Power Technical Advisory Partnerships (CHP TAP) in Western States. “In addition, in normal year-round operation, CHP technologies can produce improved power quality and reliability for a facility while reducing energy up to 25 percent.”

Kogan stated that all CHP projects should begin with implementing energy efficiency measures that not only reduce consumption and utility costs, but also lower power requirements so that self-generating systems can be scaled down to create even greater savings.

He further pointed out that CHP, typically powered by natural gas, is energy efficient and can use lower carbon fuels, which results in reduced smog-forming emissions and greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, the U.S. installed capacity of CHP is 82 gigawatts, or about 8 percent of the nation’s total generating capacity.

With the increasing likelihood of wildfire-related multiday grid shutdowns becoming a new normal in California, institutional, commercial and industrial customers are assessing their risks and options to generate on-site electricity and thermal energy.

The CHP TAP program helps interested agencies and businesses learn about CHP project opportunities by offering complimentary technical and economic screenings and expert engineering advice to determine if CHP is a good fit for their site.

To learn more, visit WesternCHPTAP.org or call Gene Kogan at 858-633-8561. 

How Does CHP Increase Resiliency?

  • Keeps the power on by supplying electricity
  • Provides continuous supply of thermal energy
  • Withstands long, multiday outages
  • Enhances overall grid stability

 

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