Anita Huff saved eight lives last October, during Pacific Gas & Electric’s public safety power shutoffs. Huff, director of Emergency Services at Blue Lake Rancheria, a small Native American reservation in northern California, helped provide electricity to residents with critical medical needs. On that day, she wielded a powerful but unexpected life-saving tool: her town’s community microgrid.
A microgrid is a smaller, self-contained version of the larger electric grid. It can generate and deliver electricity to customers on its own. During non-emergency scenarios, a microgrid is connected to the larger grid. When power outages occur, however, a microgrid can “island” itself from the wider grid and still continue delivering electricity to households and businesses.
Microgrids can also help meet the state’s goals of 100% clean energy by 2045, by allowing the larger electrical grid to integrate more power from renewable sources. Microgrids powered by renewable energy will also eliminate the need for fossil fuel generators when the power goes out. This means fewer emissions of greenhouse gases and other harmful pollutants.
While beneficial to all Californians, microgrids offer even more life-saving benefits for poor and marginalized communities, who often suffer high levels of environmental pollution and financial stress.
For low-income communities, losing power means increased hospitalizations and exacerbation of chronic illnesses, among other negative health effects. During the wildfires this past fall, low-income communities faced a higher risk of cardiac arrest, likely due to an inability to access air filtration systems and designated resource centers with clean air. Poor families across California lost wages from not being able to work, and spent precious income on replacing spoiled food and buying supplies like flashlights or extra batteries for cell phones. Closure of schools due to PSPS events meant that many children who depend on school meals failed to receive this food for days.
If the state wants to truly protect its most vulnerable, and also meet its ambitious climate goals, the state and its and electric utilities must ensure that microgrids benefit disadvantaged communities as quickly as possible.