Pepperwood, Likely Pilot Site for Remote Grid Proposed by PG&E

Plans are that PG&E will install solar panels over the parking area next to The Bechtel House at Pepperwood (Erik Castro / For The Press Democrat)

From the article by Phil Barber in the Press Democrat: PG&E wants to decide when rural customers make shift to solar


The two key players in Sonoma County’s electrical grid agree that small banks of solar panels are often safer than electric power lines in areas of dense foliage. But they’re at odds over who should decide how and when specific customers go solar.

In July, Sonoma Clean Power — the public electricity supplier formed to deliver a greater share of power from renewable sources to PG&E customers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties — contested a bid by the utility giant to determine when it can move customers to remote grid systems.

Remote grids replace a utility line’s final distribution segments with a small array of solar panels, a battery for storage and a propane generator in case the first two fail…

PG&E and Southern California Edison both have signaled a desire to ramp up remote grids in the near future. In fact, PG&E announced four new proposed sites in August, two in Tehama County and two more in Mariposa County, and an intent to build the network to 30 remote grid locations by 2026.

That could be a drop in the bucket. Though it has yet to sort out the details, the public utilities commission has approved $200 million for a microgrid incentive program. In a December 2020 filing, PG&E told the commission that its service territory “may yield an eventual portfolio of several hundred Remote Grid line segment opportunities in total.”

It’s reasonable to assume a disproportionate number of those sites will be in the North Bay.

In 2018, the commission adopted a Fire-Threat Map showing areas of extreme or elevated wildfire danger to utility lines. The vast majority of the North Bay was represented as having some degree of risk. And few Northern California counties had more territory shaded red for “Extreme” than Sonoma County, where the Mayacamas range in the east and much of the hilly terrain north and south of the Russian River recreational area were highlighted.

“If you look at maps of fire threat, Sonoma and Mendocino counties are really in the midst of it,” Reardon said. “We’ve all experienced these PSPS (planned blackouts). Those are exactly the areas they’ll be targeting.”

The likely first local adopter has been identified. Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,200-acre ecological study area between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, has agreed to install a stand-alone grid for one of its buildings, Bechtel House.

PG&E will pay for a solar-topped carport, a shipping container for equipment and all installation. The plan is to install panels and batteries in the second quarter of 2023. The utility has been “great to work with on this project,” said Michael Gillogly, the preserve manager. But it took some negotiation.

“Originally, they wanted to install a generator as backup,” Gillogly noted. “We said we don’t really want that. Bechtel House is available for, like, visiting scholars. If it ran out of power, it’s not the end of world. We didn’t want fossil fuel backup.”

He has no idea whether the process would have gone as smoothly if PG&E had the right to unilaterally implement a remote grid.

“I guess a lot of it would be how they approach it with people,” Gillogly said.

This project is in process, and we will update you on Pepperwood’s involvement as it progresses.

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