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California Energy Markets / Bottom Lines

[November 3, 2017 / No. 1461]

Sonoma Vineyard Evacuated in Recent Wildfires Highlights Microgrid Benefits

Craig Wooster, project manager and general contractor at Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma, did not even realize a number of wildfires were raging just a few miles from his home when his phone rang at about 5:15 on the morning of Oct. 9.

The caller was a farm staffer, who told Wooster he could not get to work due to the fires. Sparked late in the evening Oct. 8, the fires ultimately tore through 245,000 acres of Northern California wine country, killing 43 people and scorching thousands of homes and businesses.

'From Wednesday to Wednesday, there was no one in attendance
to push a button or fix something' if it went wrong.

When Wooster, whose home is about three miles from the farm, reached for the light and realized there was no power, he thought that if he was in the dark, Stone Edge could be in the dark. He called two other farm staff members, one of whom was his son and both of whom lived about 100 feet from the farm, and said, "We're going into island mode," he recalled.

"We entered microgrid mode and remained in microgrid mode for 10 days," he said. Wooster had to evacuate that first day; the sheriff had to evacuate his son from the farm two days later.

It was something of a test for the farm's microgrid, which has grown over the past four and half years to include eight different types and sizes of batteries, fuel cells, a microturbine, solar panels, an electrolyzer to producer hydrogen, and a hydrogen storage and fueling station, along with associated switches, inverters and other equipment.

"We have islanded many times, but we've always been in attendance," Wooster said. "From Wednesday to Wednesday, there was no one in attendance to push a button or fix something" if it went wrong.

While Wooster and farm staff were under mandatory evacuation, the microgrid operated the campus, and, importantly, kept well pumps and irrigation pumps working on the property.

The Stone Edge microgrid highlights how such systems can be used in disasters. The farm owners are also taking an advocacy role as California energy agencies develop a microgrid road map, by participating in road-map development meetings. They would like to see hydrogen, which the Stone Edge farm is producing through its microgrid, play a larger role in state road-map policy.

The farm, which grows wine grapes, olives, and seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs, is owned by investor and entrepreneur John "Mac" McQuown and his wife Leslie. Wooster worked on the installation of a fuel cell at the farm starting in 2009 and then did a solar project for Mac. When the couple wanted to install an outdoor kitchen, one of the proposals involved making an 800-foot trench across the property and installing another electric meter; the property, which was put together from four separate parcels, already had seven Pacific Gas & Electric meters.

Wooster recommended an energy-management system or a microgrid. Mac, who did not know all that much about microgrids at the time, quickly learned, and they started installing the first components.

A SimpliPhi Power Smart-Tech lithium ferro phosphate battery
A SimpliPhi Power Smart-Tech lithium ferro phosphate battery, one of eight different battery systems in use at the Stone Edge microgrid.
Photo: Stone Edge Farm

Today, the Stone Edge microgrid has connected all seven of the service meters. A second microgrid, which the farm calls the critical grid, is powered by solar batteries and operates servers, fiber-optic switches, Ethernet switches, alarm systems and some lighting. The second grid was created to keep critical systems running smoothly, as when equipment is being tested on the main microgrid, it could create harmonics that could affect the other systems, Wooster said.

The farm generally uses energy from the grid unless it is testing something. The microgrid can operate in different modes, from island mode, when no grid power at all is used, to parallel mode, a static mode in which the microgrid is neither taking energy from the grid nor putting energy into it. The grid can also operate in export mode, although Wooster said PG&E denied the farm a Rule 21 interconnection.

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The lack of an interconnection agreement was not a problem for the farm, Wooster said, because it began to manufacture hydrogen. Produced on-site using solar panels, hydrogen powers three fuel-cell cars used by the farm, including two Nissan Mirais and a Honda Clarity. The farm earns low-carbon fuel credits from the hydrogen production, which it can then turn around and sell to fossil-fuel producers.

Wooster declined to discuss how much Stone Edge has invested in the microgrid project, which he calls a demonstration project.

"We're very cautious to explain to people that we've spent more money than anyone ever will again," he said. "We're an open IP project—everything we learn is available to everyone."

One of the things the farm is trying to prove is whether a set of microgrids can be aggregated into a single electrical unit that can also be used as a system to generate revenue.

Stone Edge will have its opportunity to do just that, as it builds a microgrid at the McQuowns' 165-acre Silver Cloud property, about 14 miles from Stone Edge. That property will have a far larger solar system, and will be capable of producing four to five times as much hydrogen as is currently produced at Stone Edge.

It will be "the first time that two microgrids, separated by 15 miles, operated as one entity and in both cases they would be producing electricity," Wooster said. "But that electricity would be used to manufacture hydrogen," which would then be sold into the retail hydrogen market.

With the accompanying low-carbon fuel credits, "we'd be proving the business model," Wooster said. Work has been underway for about five months at the second property, and Wooster expects it could be complete within a year. Let's hope the regulators are watching. -Mavis Scanlon


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