Priceless Energy Services for Neighborhood Resilience After a Pacific Northwest Earthquake: Micro-grids, Distributed Solar and Batteries
The expected high-magnitude earthquake in the Pacific Northwest will black out the regional electric grid for months. Neighborhood based micro-grids – with solar plus battery technology designed to survive and operate after an earthquake – could provide priceless energy services until the grid can be repaired.
Every Northwest neighborhood should have a resilient, electric-energy micro-grid no more than a ten minute walk away. The recovery period after an earthquake will be easier and safer if residents are able to recharge cell phones and computers and access internet-based communications. Micro-grids may also be able to power some super-efficient lighting, refrigeration for medicines, and energy for other needs.
Regional leaders should establish the conditions necessary for the rapid growth of resilient neighborhood micro-grids using solar and battery technology. These conditions should include suitable economic incentives tailored to variation in regional energy prices, standardized engineering design, and neighborhood organizing and training to enable residents to plug in and communicate.
Introduction A large magnitude earthquake off the Pacific Northwest coast will knock out regional electric grids and natural gas service for months, affecting millions of people from British Columbia to Northern California. The extended lack of energy services will severely complicate an already daunting recovery period.
Earthquake preparedness in the PNW is a top-of-mind consideration for leaders in governments, utilities, neighborhood associations and companies, and for many citizens. Among many leadership examples, Governor Brown plans to appoint Oregon’s first State Resilience Officer to “direct safety preparations across the state as focus renews on the likelihood of a catastrophic quake.”
Recent advances in solar energy and battery technology and economics have created the opportunity to build disaster-resilient local energy systems. Also known as micro-grids, these energy systems can operate in an emergency after the grid goes down.
A US DOE SunShot project in San Francisco is working to build such systems into mission critical urban infrastructure facilities. Disaster recovery can be enhanced if fire, police and city government communication centers, 911 call centers, hospitals, emergency shelters, community centers and others have resilient energy services.
In the residential sector, several companies, including SolarCity, SunRun and others, are offering solar energy systems combined with batteries and advanced inverters. In the California market these residential micro-grids are explicitly sold as energy resilience investments. However, residential systems are fairly small, private and unavailable to the general public following a major earthquake.
Commercial building owners are adopting solar energy and battery systems where they can be cost-effective. California’s relatively high energy rates and economic incentives make it possible to for business owners to profitably invest in these systems. Across the country businesses are also buying the technology. As an example, Whole Foods recently announced deals with Solar City and NRG to install solar systems on 184 of their stores, starting in the Northeast.
This post is focused not on critical facilities, nor on home-based solar investments, but on the neighborhoods where people live, where they will experience the post-earthquake disaster recovery period. Neighborhood-based commercial buildings, shops and public buildings can include disaster-resilient solar plus battery micro-grids that can provide vital energy services, close to home for many people, during an extended grid outage.
In the post-earthquake recovery period these neighborhood-based energy services can recharge cell phones, cameras and computers, enable Internet access, operate some refrigeration, power lights at night and maybe even recharge electric vehicle batteries.
Headwinds Energy rates in the PNW remain among the lowest in the nation. The region has a strong preference for “least-cost” energy supplies. Remote utility-scale solar plants produce energy more economically than distributed commercial size systems that are built into the urban fabric. This causes distributed solar to be less attractive if considered only as an energy resource.
Tailwinds Recent and upcoming energy policy advances can support this neighborhood energy resilience strategy. Last year the federal Investment Tax Credit was extended. Last month Oregon increased the Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50%, and permitted utilities to recover costs of battery installations. Washington State is considering a revenue neutral carbon tax. These policy initiatives should increase demand for solar energy.
Collaborative planning and regional thinking Also countering the headwinds is the regional preference for collaborative, multi-stakeholder problem solving. In late 2015 a meeting in Portland brought stakeholders together for an initial discussion of energy resilience and solar micro-grids. The meeting included electric utility, government, NGO, academic and private sector business representatives. “The group … (recommended a) … long term campaign to include industry stakeholders to address financial, regulatory and technical issues.”
Regional, state and local leaders and federal disaster recovery officials ought to expand this discussion. The situation is ripe for a high-level collaborative process among key stakeholders, to create the policy, technical, business and economic conditions necessary for post-earthquake neighborhood energy resilience.
Neighborhood micro-grids will only be useful after an earthquake if they are explicitly designed, operated and maintained to support the resilience function. Regional engineering standards should address seismic survivability, post-earthquake neighborhood power access, and integration with the electric grid to provide maximum non-emergency grid services, among many other issues.
Micro-grid systems on neighborhood buildings will only be built if the regulatory and economic incentives are aligned. The resilience design envisioned here is an add-on to a typical system, which increases its cost. Therefore it is important for policy makers to assure that resilience functionality is addressed with suitable incentives to enable widespread adoption.
For further discussion, contact:
 Oregonian, January 23, 2016. The legislature recently declined to confirm Governor Brown’s initial appointment.
 “SolarCity and NRG announce separate plans for solar on Whole Foods Market stores,” Tom Kenning, PVTech, March 8, 2016 http://www.pv-tech.org/news/solarcity-and-nrg-announce-separate-plans-for-solar-on-whole-foods-market-s
 Disaster-Resilient Solar PV, Solar Oregon, December 2015 http://solaroregon.org/disaster-resilient-solar-pv/