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How a Solar Microgrid Is Helping an Indigenous California Tribe Achieve Community Resiliency

The Chemehuevi microgrid will provide about 85 percent of the community center's energy usage. Photo Credit: GRID Alternatives

With this year’s major storms cutting power for millions of Americans for days—and in the case of Puerto Rico, months on end—the question of how we make our electrical grid and our communities more resilient is on a lot of people’s minds. But for people who live in remote communities where electricity has always been unreliable, or even nonexistent, resiliency is a way of life. And the solutions they are developing might just hold the key for the rest of us.

The Chemehuevi Indian Reservation comprises 30,000 acres at the edge of California's Mohave Desert, just west of the Colorado River as it flows into Lake Havasu. A branch of the Southern Paiute, the Chemehuevi have inhabited this region for thousands of years, weathering extreme heat, powerful winds, and the torrential rains of the monsoon season. Today, just around 350 people live on the reservation, in scattered ranch-style homes that dot the otherwise open landscape.

Several years ago, the tribe started looking into solar power, both as a low-cost clean energy resource and an economic opportunity for its members. Taking advantage of a state program for low-income households, the tribe partnered with nonprofit GRID Alternatives to put solar power on 80 homes on the reservation and train 20 tribal members in solar installation. The installations were a boon for residents, lowering energy costs by an average of 50 percent, but the grid-tied systems didn't solve one big problem: frequent power outages caused by weather and bird strikes.

"On occasion, power will be out for up to three days," says Chemehuevi vice-chairman Glenn Lodge, "which is concerning especially for community members with medical conditions or tribal elders."

The tribe began searching for a solution that would provide clean, affordable, uninterrupted power to their community center, a facility with a backup diesel generator that was providing critical services like meals and air conditioning to members during blackouts. Lodge and his team researched various options, ultimately leading to a grant for a solar micro-grid through the California Energy Commission and researchers from the University of California, Riverside.

The microgrid, a carport structure which completed construction in October 2017 and is in the process of being commissioned and interconnected, will do more than just replace the diesel generator. It will provide about 85 percent of the community center's energy usage, reducing monthly electricity costs, and could even help out the local utility, Southern California Edison.

How it works

A microgrid is a small, self-contained energy grid serving users in direct proximity to it (e.g., a few homes, a cluster of large buildings, or an entire community) that has, at a minimum, a source of power and an energy storage component, and is able to operate without being connected to a utility grid. With a basic solar microgrid, the battery charges when the sun is shining, storing excess power that can then be used at other times of day to reduce electricity bills or saved for an emergency. Users can control when and where the power is distributed to meet their energy needs.

When the microgrid is connected to the larger utility grid, the benefits are even greater, allowing users to reduce their peak demand level, which has a big impact on their electricity charges. It also allows them to take electricity from the grid when it's least expensive, and use locally generated power for more expensive periods. As battery technology has advanced in recent years, so have energy management programs that can respond automatically to pricing and production data and make constant adjustments to maximize backup power or bill savings, whatever the user’s goal. Researchers and students at UC Riverside have created custom algorithms to maximize benefit for the Chemehuevi, and are using the project to study impact and improve the technology.

The benefits to a remote tribe like Chemehuevi are clear, but what makes this so promising as a larger-scale solution to our community resiliency needs is the potential for integration with our broader energy system. The batteries in these systems can solve problems for the utilities, too. By connecting to customers' microgrids, utilities can take advantage of that remotely stored power to reduce demand on the grid when it gets overburdened. This can reduce the need for costly new power infrastructure upgrades in areas that experience periods of high demand, and help balance out the uneven flow of renewable energy as more and more customers put solar on their roofs.

Unfortunately, there are few market mechanisms to support this arrangement—unlike grid-dependent rooftop solar customers who get compensated for excess power under net metering rules no matter where they are located, battery customers would have to negotiate terms separately with their utility or participate in demand response programs with a limited suite of options. Some utilities in California, which has mandated the use of storage, have started experimenting with tapping into their customers' batteries, and the Chemehuevi tribe is hoping they can strike a deal with Southern California Edison, a leader in this space. Meanwhile, California, New York and Massachusetts are all working on creating open markets for distributed renewables to address this issue.

Upfront costs are also a significant barrier to using this technology more broadly, particularly in lower-income communities that are most vulnerable to storms and other adverse events. Batteries are still very expensive, and the price of solar panels could go up dramatically this year, depending on the outcome of a pending trade dispute.

If we are serious about making our communities stronger and better able to weather disaster, we need both policies and dollars behind the effort. California gets it. The state recently passed a bill encouraging utilities to invest in storage serving public sector and low-income customers, and the California Energy Commission is committed to investing $44 million in additional microgrid projects in 2018, with a focus on tribal and disadvantaged communities. Puerto Rico’s power authority is also considering integrating microgrids as it rebuilds the island's power system, and Florida's legislature is considering a bill to pilot solar and storage for critical facilities like hospitals, emergency shelters and airports.

The technology is there, and several states are moving in the right directly, but if we are going to succeed, we need to stop talking about renewable energy as a political issue and start treating it as an exciting opportunity to invest in community resilience, from the remotest corners to our inner cities. The Chemehuevi are showing us what's possible. Let's follow their lead.

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