GRC Project Spotlights: Microgrids, California Schools, and the Value of Resiliency

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Credit: Center for Resource Solutions.

This article is part of a series called GRC Project Spotlights, where GRC project team members illustrate their experience on a GRC project, the skills they leveraged from their experience, and the lessons they hope to take forward.

The Center for Resource Solutions, otherwise abbreviated as CRS, is a nonprofit that focuses on policy and market solutions to advance sustainable energy. Through targeted conversations and research, CRS engages with policymakers, utilities, and non governmental organizations (NGOs) to improve the policy climate for renewable development. Most recently, CRS has engaged with the Global Research and Consulting branch at the University of California, Berkeley, to explore an exciting renewable energy prospect: microgrids.

Renewable microgrids, as the name implies, are grids of electricity separate from main power lines. Often installed in schools and communities, renewable microgrids largely seek to accomplish two objectives:

  1. Microgrids are economical, leading to energy savings and potentially even profit. Communities save money by receiving energy for lower than the market rate, and can generate funds by selling excess electricity to commercial power grids.
  2. Microgrids enhance a community’s resiliency; during natural disasters or planned power outages that affect the commercial power grid, communities with separate microgrids maintain access to stable electricity.  

The importance of the microgrid industry and its aforementioned impacts cannot be understated. For many California communities, this growing industry may become an essential component of their future. Exacerbated by effects of global warming, California wildfires, heat waves, and high winds have continued to worsen in recent years. These severe environmental conditions directly result in a concerningly high frequency of power outages; analysis of the System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI) illustrates that California consumers spent 55% more time without power in 2019 compared to 2015 benchmarks. With California wildfires reaching recent peak ferocity during 2020, many Californians have resigned themselves to a future of commonplace wildfires and power outages. Fortunately, microgrids have the incredible potential to offset these dire circumstances.

However, renewable microgrids in the status quo are not common or widespread, despite their potential. In a bid to further understand and invest in the microgrid industry, CRS asked our consulting team to fulfill two research demands. First, CRS requested a comprehensive market and feasibility analysis on potential implementation of renewable energy-based microgrids in California Bay Area public schools. Second, CRS sought further study on the “value of resiliency” -- a hard-to-measure metric that calculates how stable electricity during power outages holds financial and non-financial benefits.  

Market, Feasibility, and Implementation Analysis:

To guide our analysis in this segment, our team looked to identify an existing microgrid implementation case study. Fortunately, the Santa Rita Union School District -- one of the few districts in the Bay Area to have implemented a microgrid system -- emerged as a shining example, lending key concrete figures and analysis to the research effort. Ultimately, our final recommendations provided to the client were substantially influenced by this case study.  

To evaluate the current microgrid market in California, we first questioned whether there existed California policies surrounding microgrid implementation. Unfortunately, legislation pertaining to microgrids remains few and far between. Even more concerning, little funding is dedicated specifically toward microgrids. In fact, all research concerning microgrids in California point toward one conclusion: the microgrid industry has plenty of future potential growth, yet lacks support in the status quo.

Our next endeavors focused on analyzing the feasibility and implementation potential of microgrids in Bay Area schools, where we frequently cited the Santa Rita case study. Specifically, we engaged in numerical study of battery storage size and capabilities, associated microgrid costs, breakdown of each microgrid component, process of installation, maintenance lifetimes, and financing methods. On a high level, the main takeaways of this research is that microgrids are profitable when implemented correctly; however, significant administrative bureaucracy, lack of financial knowledge, and difficulty navigating power contracts are the largest roadblocks to widespread microgrid implementation. By improving school outreach and sharing relevant data, our team concludes that implementation of microgrids can certainly be both feasible and profitable to Bay Area schools.

Value of Resiliency Analysis:

The next task was to evaluate the “value of resiliency” of microgrid implementation. In other words, how do microgrids that continue powering schools during power outages empower communities? Listed below are the key takeaways from the “value of resiliency” analysis, evaluated over four categories:

  1. The Value for Students: Consistency

Classroom time is saved, student academic performance is boosted, and stronger interpersonal skills and emotional development are encouraged through consistent student attendance and interpersonal interaction.

2. The Value for Teachers: Student Success

Teacher-student relationships are strengthened through stable interaction, and curriculum consistency is maintained. In addition, because resiliency enables consistent learning that boosts student performance, teachers perform better on teacher evaluation metrics and receive greater compensation.

3. The Value for Parents: Avoided Costs

During a power outage, parents are often forced to pick up their children from school and spend the rest of the day juggling taking proper care of their children and attending to work demands from home. Therefore, qualitative losses in work productivity are deterred through resiliency. Quantitatively, costs from food spoilage, transportation from work to school and school to home, and lost work hours during this period are also avoided.

4. The Value for Schools: Lost Value

First, costs from cafeteria food spoilage are avoided. Second, it is helpful to picture the following potential costs to schools in terms of “lost value” -- how schools capture less “value” during a power outage compared to conditions of stable electricity. During power outages, schools lose the equivalent monetary “value” from lost faculty work hours and reduced student attendance, which decreases funding quantity in attendance-based funding mechanisms. With resiliency, schools successfully mitigate these “lost value” costs.

Team Takeaways and Project Conclusion:

Our consulting team trained many valuable skills from this project; most notably, data cleaning and analysis, professional outreach to organizations, and client deliverable presentational speaking. Naturally, the team faced challenges throughout all stages of the consulting project -- however, each team member’s passion for sustainability and social impact enabled the team to overcome these obstacles and deliver quality research to our client, CRS.

With this successful collaboration in the books, GRC-Berkeley looks forward to future collaborations and increasingly widespread implementations of microgrids in Californian communities.

More posts by Ethan Soe.
GRC Project Spotlights: Microgrids, California Schools, and the Value of Resiliency
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