Tag Archives: undergrounding

A cheaper wildfire mitigation solution: using microgrids instead of undergrounding

PG&E released its 2022 Wildfire Mitigation Plan Update (2022 WMPU) That plan calls for $6 billion of capital investment to move 3,600 miles of underground by 2026. This is just over a third of the initial proposed target of 10,000 miles. Based on PG&E’s proposed ramping up, the utility would reach its target by 2030.

One alternative that could better control costs would be to install community and individual microgrids. Microgrids are likely more cost effective and faster means of reducing wildfire risk and saving lives. I wrote about how to evaluate this choice for relative cost effectiveness based on density of load and customers per mile of line.

Microgrids can mitigate wildfire risk by the utility turning off overhead wire service for extended periods, perhaps weeks at a time, during the highest fire risk periods. The advantage of a periodically-islanded microgrid is 1) that the highest fire risk coincides with the most solar generation so providing enough energy is not a problem and 2) the microgrids also can be used during winter storms to better support the local grid and to ride out shorter outages. Customers’ reliability may degrade because they would not have the grid support, but such systems generally have been quite reliable. In fact, reliability may increase because distribution grid outages are about 15 times more likely than system or regional outages.

The important question is whether microgrids can be built much more quickly than undergrounding lines and in particular whether PG&E has the capacity to manage such a buildout at a faster rate? PG&E has the Community Microgrid Enablement Program. The utility was recently authorized to build several isolated microgrids as an alternative to rebuilding fire-damaged distribution lines to isolated communities. Turning to local governments to manage many different construction projects likely would improve this schedule, like how Caltrans delegates road construction to counties and cities.

Controlling the costs of wildfire mitigation

Based on the current cost of capital this initial undergrounding phase will add $1.6 billion to annual revenue requirements or an additional 8% above today’s level. This would be on top of PG&E request in its 2023 General Rate Case for a 48% increase in distribution rates by 2023 and 78% increase by 2026, and a 31% increase in overall bundled rates by 2023 and 43% by 2026. The 2022 WMPU would take the increase to over 50% by 2026 (and that doesn’t’ include the higher maintenance costs). That means that residential rates would increase from 28.7 cents per kilowatt-hour today (already 21% higher than December 2020) to 36.4 cents in 2026. Building out the full 10,000 miles could lead to another 15% increase on top of all of this.

Turning to the comparison of undergrounding costs to microgrids, these two charts illustrate how to evaluate the opportunities for microgrids to lower these costs. PG&E states the initial cost per mile for undergrounding is $3.75 million, dropping to $2.5 million, or an average of $2.9 million. The first figure looks at community scale microgrids, using National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates. It shows how the cost effectiveness of installing microgrids changes with density of peak loads on a circuit on the vertical axis, cost per kilowatt for a microgrid on the horizontal axis, and each line showing the division where undergrounding is less expensive (above) or microgrids are less expensive (below) based on the cost of undergrounding. As a benchmark, the dotted line shows the average load density in the PG&E system, combined rural and urban. So in average conditions, community microgrids are cheaper regardless of the costs of microgrids or undergrounding.

The second figure looks at individual residential scale microgrids, again using NREL estimates. It shows how the cost effectiveness of installing microgrids changes with customer density on a circuit on the vertical axis, cost per kilowatt for a microgrid on the horizontal axis, and each line showing the division where undergrounding is less expensive (above) or microgrids are less expensive (below). As a benchmark, the dotted line shows the average customer density in the PG&E system, combined rural and urban. Again, residential microgrids are less expensive in most situations, especially as density falls below 75 customers per mile.

A movement towards energy self-sufficiency is growing in California due to a confluence of factors. PG&E’s WMPU should reflect these new choices in manner that can reduce rates for all customers.

(Here’s my testimony on this topic filed by the California Farm Bureau in PG&E’s 2023 General Rate Case on its Wildfire Management Plan Update.)

Comparing cost-effectiveness of undergrounding vs. microgrids to mitigate wildfire risk

Pacific Gas & Electric has proposed to underground 10,000 miles of distribution lines to reduce wildfire risk, at an estimated cost of $1.5 to $2 million per mile. Meanwhile PG&E has installed fast-trip circuit breakers in certain regions to mitigate fire risks from line shorts and breaks, but it has resulted in a vast increase in customer outages. CPUC President Batjer wrote in an October 25 letter to PG&E, “[s]ince PG&E initiated the Fast Trip setting practice on 11,500 miles of lines in High Fire Threat Districts in late July, it has caused over 500 unplanned power outages impacting over 560,000 customers.” She then ordered a series of compliance reports and steps. The question is whether undergrounding is the most cost-effective solution that can be implemented in a timely manner.

A viable alternative is microgrids, installed at either individual customers or community scale. The microgrids could be operated to island customers or communities during high risk periods or to provide backup when circuit breakers cut power. Customers could continue to be served outside of either those periods of risk or weather-caused outages.

Because microgrids would be installed solely for the purpose of displacing undergrounding, the relative costs should be compared without considering any other services such as energy delivered outside of periods of fire risk or outages or increased green power.

I previously analyzed this question, but this updated assessment uses new data and presents a threshold at which either undergrounding or microgrids is preferred depending on the range of relative costs.

We start with the estimates of undergrounding costs. Along with PG&E’s stated estimate, PG&E’s 2020 General Rate Case includes a settlement agreement with a cost of $4.8 million per mile. That leads to an estimate of $15 to $48 million. Adding in maintenance costs of about $400 million annually, this revenue requirement translates to a rate increase of 3.2 to 9.3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

For microgrid costs, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory published estimated ranges for both (1) commercial or community scale projects of 1 megawatt with 2.4 megawatt-hours of storage and (2) residential scale of 7 kilowatts with 20 kilowatt-hours of storage. For larger projects, NREL shows ranges of $2.07 to $2.13 million; we include an upper end estimate double of NREL’s top range. For residential; the range is $36,000 to $38,000.

Using this information, we can make comparisons based on the density of customers or energy use per mile of targeted distribution lines. In other words, we can determine if its more cost-effective to underground distribution lines or install microgrids based on how many customers or how much load is being served on a line.

As a benchmark, PG&E’s average system density per mile of distribution line is 50.6 customers and 166 kW (or 0.166 MW).

The table below shows the relative cost effectiveness for undergrounding compared to community/commercial microgrids. If the load density falls below the value shown, microgrids are more cost effective. Note that the average density across the PG&E service area is 0.166 MW which is below any of the thresholds. That indicates that such microgrids should be cost-effective in most rural areas.

The next table shows the relative cost effectiveness for individual residential microgrids, and again if the customer density falls below the threshold shown, then microgrids save more costs. The average density for service area is 51 customers per line-mile which reflects the concentration of population in the Bay Area. At the highest undergrounding costs, microgrids are almost universally favored. In rural areas where density falls below 30 customers per line-mile, microgrids are less costly at the lower undergrounding costs.

PG&E has installed two community-scale microgrids in remote locations so far, and reportedly considering 20 such projects. However, PG&E fell behind on those projects, prompting the CPUC to reopen its procurement process in its Emergency Reliability rulemaking. In addition, PG&E has relied heavily on natural gas generation for these.

PG&E simply may not have the capacity to construct either microgrids or install undergrounded lines in a timely manner solely through its organization. PG&E already is struggling to meet its targets for converting privately-owned mobilehome park utility systems to utility ownership. A likely better choice is to rely on local governments working in partnership with PG&E to identify the most vulnerable lines to construct and manage these microgrids. The residential microgrids would be operated remotely. The community microgrids could be run under several different models including either PG&E or municipal ownership.

Vegetation maintenance the new “CFL” for wildfire management

PG&E has been aggressively cutting down trees as part of its attempt to mitigate wildfire risk, but those efforts may be creating their own risks. Previously, PG&E has been accused of just focusing numeric targets over effective vegetation management. This situation is reminiscent of how the utilities pursued energy efficiency prior to 2013 with a seemingly single-minded focus on compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). And that focus did not end well, including leading to both environmental degradation and unearned incentives for utilities.

CFLs represented about 20% of the residential energy efficiency program spending in 2009. CFLs were easy for the utilities–they just delivered steeply discounted, or even free, CFLs to stores and they got to count each bulb as an “energy savings.” By 2013, the CPUC ordered the utilities to ramp down spending on CFLs as a new cost-effective technology emerged (LEDs) and the problem of disposing of mercury in the ballasts of CFLs became apparent. But more importantly, it turned out that CFLs were just sitting in closets, creating much fewer savings than estimated. (It didn’t help that CFLs turned out to have a much shorter life than initially estimated as well.) Even so, the utilities were able claim incentives from the California Public Utilities Commission. Ultimately, it became apparent that CFLs were largely a mistake in the state’s energy efficiency portfolio.

Vegetation management seems to be the same “easy number counting” solution that the utilities, particularly PG&E, have adopted. The adverse consequences will be significant and it won’t solve the problem in the long. Its one advantage is that it allows the utilities to maintain their status quo position at the center of the utility network.

Other alternatives include system hardening such as undergrounding or building microgrids in rural communities to allow utilities to deenergize the grid while maintaining local power. The latter option appears to be the most cost effective solution, but it is also the most threatening to the current position of the incumbent utility by giving customers more independence.