By Charlie Wu, VP of solution engineering at Delta Electronics (Americas)
Extreme weather events have made increasing blackout risks a reality – an especially dangerous one when emergency services such as fire stations are concerned. According to PowerOutage.US, U.S. power outages jumped 73% in 2020 amid events such as hurricanes, heatwaves, windstorms and wildfires. This means utility customers experienced 1.33 billion outage-hours. These customers, including fire stations, are woefully unprepared for disaster response amidst increasing blackout risk as it stands now.
One solution to help mitigate the effects of natural disasters comes in the form of microgrids. These small, self-contained power grids can keep a fire station up and running with reliable electricity, even in the case of extreme weather events. This is particularly true of solar microgrid systems, geared toward reliability and providing power to first responders who need it most. Solar microgrid systems with battery backups help fire stations prepare for utility blackouts as well as wildfires, hurricanes or other threatening events – a concept that has already been proven in three Fremont, California, fire stations.
But there is plenty of room for this concept to grow nationwide. There are 58,150 fire stations in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Agency. Of these thousands of stations, only five fire stations nationwide use microgrids, according to the U.S. Department of Energy: the three in Fremont, one in Portland, Oregon, and one in Charlotte, North Carolina. This leaves 58,145 fire stations that still need to install microgrids to build up their climate resilience, not to mention other first responders.
Part of this challenge is showing fire stations not only the advantages provided by solar microgrids but proving why they’re becoming a necessity heading into our current extreme weather event horizon.
When solar and storage installers approach fire stations with microgrid suggestions, it’s helpful to know and highlight the benefits from a successful use case. In the case of the three fire stations in Fremont (stations 6, 7 and 11), they specifically were equipped with Delta Electronics solar PV carports and large battery systems to increase their energy resiliency and boost their operations during power outages. According to the City of Fremont, each station has 95 kWh of energy storage and a 40-kW solar canopy. From a logistics perspective, city staff can monitor power generation and usage via cloud-based energy management software.
This was an important civic project for the City of Fremont which partnered with the Fremont-based clean technology firm Gridscape Solutions and the California Energy Commission (CEC) to enact these solar-powered retrofits. The city has outlined multiple benefits to the Fremont community stemming from the fire station microgrids. Having a separate microgrid reduces energy demand on the overall city grid through the use of storage technology, protects the fire station against power outages, saves money and reduces carbon emissions.
Fremont officials expect the project to save the city a combined $250,000 in energy costs over the next decade, while decreasing their municipal greenhouse gas footprint by 80,000 lb. of CO2 per year, or 36 metric tons of CO2 per year. This is the equivalent to eliminating carbon emissions of around eight passenger cars per year, carbon emissions of four homes’ energy usage for a year or carbon emissions from charging over 4.3 million smartphones.
These are good statistics and information to provide, but it’s important to keep in mind this is specific to the Fremont use case. Installers should show how microgrids provide energy efficiency and a secure source of power. On top of that, each potential fire station that would benefit from a microgrid is going to have specific needs and goals that should be kept in mind when making the pitch. Is a city approaching the need for a solar microgrid from a cost-saving perspective, or a pure resiliency perspective? Being able to anticipate these needs and provide solutions for them will be key. In Fremont’s case, its fire stations are among the first with microgrids, so it was as much about proving the concept and supporting local innovation and entrepreneurship as it was about ensuring that critical infrastructure would always be available in times of need while reducing carbon emissions.
This also touches on one of the key differences between fire station microgrids and traditional residential solar and storage installations. In addition to needing a larger scale than residential installations, a fire station must always be on, 24/7, unlike a residential installation that is naturally going to have down times while residents sleep or are away. Fire stations are always on call and need to have all equipment always available. Traditionally, fire stations have a diesel backup to ensure this is the case, but this is a limited-supply quantity resource and in the worst-case scenarios would run out after a few days. By comparison, solar-powered microgrids regenerate daily and are always readily available for emergency calls.
Fire stations are proving the concept of a solar-powered microgrid for critical infrastructure, but the concept is still in relatively early days. Even outside of the 58,145 fire stations yet to install a microgrid, the concept could provide needed energy in times of extreme weather events to other critical infrastructure elements including hospitals, police and emergency services and shelters. The only way to counter the unpredictability of extreme weather events is through sheer reliability and access to energy, and this is where microgrids are the clear choice for critical infrastructure.
Charlie Wu is vice president of solution engineering at Delta Electronics (Americas).