First of two stories. Read the second part here.
San Diego is at the opposite end of the country from the megacities that were walloped by Superstorm Sandy. But this surf town is becoming known as the leading laboratory for grid technologies that harden communities against blackouts and big weather.
At its largest research university, in a lonely desert town and among three Navy bases, an unparalleled set of ventures is blazing new trails on microgrids.
In just the past few months, the energy world has become enthusiastic about the nerdy patchwork of hardware and software that collectively makes up microgrids. They are mini-electrical networks that could let a campus or neighborhood use the electricity it generates, saving money and "islanding" from the power grid in an emergency.
"I would say San Diego is the hot spot for microgrids today," said Peter Asmus, an analyst for Navigant Research, which projected last year that the worldwide market for microgrids would grow from less than $10 billion to more than $40 billion by 2020.
He ventured one theory as to why this city at the corner of the country is so interested in the microgrid vision of energy independence. San Diego "is in an energy cul-de-sac," he noted. "It's got Mexico to the south, the ocean to the west, and to the east, it's got desert."
With use of renewables on the rise and fossil fuels in retreat, California may need any flexibility that microgrids can provide, especially as this year's drought reduces power output from dams and raises the likelihood of wildfires that could cause blackouts.
The most celebrated and sophisticated of the region's microgrids operates at the University of California, San Diego. The 1,200-acre campus generates 92 percent of its power each year, mainly on the back of two 13.5-megawatt natural gas turbines that produce both electricity and usable heat.
But it has also become a testing ground for clean energy, including 3 megawatts of rooftop solar, a giant 2.8-megawatt fuel cell and pilot programs to use retired electric-car batteries for electricity storage. The microgrid saves the campus between $800,000 and $850,000 a month, depending on the price of natural gas, according to Byron Washom, UC San Diego's director of strategic energy initiatives.
'Cool zones' in a stormy desert
A different sort of microgrid operates 56 miles northeast in Borrego Springs, a desert oasis and vacation town.
Last Sept. 6, an exceptionally strong thunderstorm swept through, damaging 11 local distribution lines and nine transmission poles, including one that was shattered by a lightning bolt. This was the second time in 2013 that a storm caused a blackout -- a not-uncommon occurrence in a community served by a single 40-mile transmission line.
The difference is that this time, power returned to a few key buildings within hours, including gas stations, supermarkets and the library. These spots were designated as priority "cool zones" in a town where summer temperatures can top 110 degrees.
The power came from a microgrid at the San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) substation 3 ½ miles out of town. Electricity churned from two 1.8-megawatt diesel generators, as well as a bank of lithium-ion batteries that store 1,500 kilowatt-hours of power. Other energy sources, including a fuel cell and on-site solar panels, may follow.
"It takes two hours to drive out there," Vic Romero, SDG&E's director of smart grid projects, said of Borrego Springs, noting that the air-conditioned islands helped residents cope during the 25 hours it took to complete repairs.
This may have been the first occasion when a microgrid was used for one of its most-touted benefits: restoring power to essential parts of a blacked-out community. On a regular day, the microgrid does "peak shaving" -- supplying extra power when it's hot and everyone's air conditioner is running -- and helps manage the town's 700 kilowatts of rooftop solar panels.
Breaking new ground on microgrids didn't come cheap.
SDG&E started building the microgrid in 2012 with $7.2 million from the Department of Energy and $2.8 million from the California Energy Commission, according to DOE. The entire project was budgeted at $12 million. Romero declined to say how much SDG&E spent.
The utility deems the Borrego Springs project a success. "We are looking at other microgrids in our service territory," Romero said.
Yet another sort of microgrid, one unlike any other, is undergoing testing among the Navy's dense complex of submarines and warships on the San Diego waterfront, the home base of the Pacific fleet.
One of the defining features of a microgrid is that it serves a specific geographic area. This $3.2 million Navy-funded experiment, however, will instead knit single electrical circuits at three installations into a "regional microgrid," according to Bernie Lindsey, the energy manager for the Navy's Southwest installations.
Operating across "multiple fencelines" might help him make real-time decisions about electricity use in individual buildings and inform choices about where to locate new power supplies, Lindsey said.
The pilot project's three parts include a data center and a 2.3-megawatt natural gas cogeneration plant at Naval Base Coronado, a circuit at Naval Base Point Loma that gets power from a 58-kilowatt solar carport, and the hospital at Naval Base San Diego.
Does it make sense to have a microgrid cover a mega-area? That's what the project aims to find out. "We're very interested in, is there an ROI (return on investment) for something like a microgrid? That's a key question for any entity that's pursuing one," he said.
Circumstances in California are fortunate for the development of microgrids, which are seen as a way to make the best use of renewable power. The state is on track to meet its target of getting 33 percent of its power from utility-scale renewables by 2020. Meanwhile, San Diego has the highest penetration of rooftop solar per capita in the country.
Furthermore, the state passed rules in 2010 that forced the closure of many older, gas-fired power plants along the coast. In San Diego, the retirement last year of the San Onofre nuclear power plant removed 2.2 gigawatts of power from the grid.
Those interviewed for this story cited one overriding reason why San Diego is in the lead: It has a combination of clean-tech fervor and military, engineering and telecommunications expertise that is especially well-suited to the creation of mini electrical networks. UC San Diego has been a leader among universities, and SDG&E among utilities, in pioneering their use.
French solar-panel maker Soitec has a manufacturing plant in San Diego, and it is the home of rooftop-solar financing company OneRoof Energy. The wireless technology giant Qualcomm, one of San Diego's largest employers, gets 80 percent of its energy from its own microgrid, through three 4.5-megawatt natural gas generators, according to sustainability manager Gail Welch.
New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are in the process of building microgrids in response to the havoc created by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, but these efforts are neither as large nor as mature as those in San Diego.
"There's credibility, there's knowledge, there's infrastructure that's difficult to replicate somewhere else," said Kevin Meagher, president of Power Analytics, a San Diego software company that specializes in microgrids.