Last year alone, more than 6,500 wildfires burned more than 135,000 acres all across California, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The flames forced facilities to close, displaced thousands, and left millions without power.
Santa Barbara County continues to be no exception. In the face of disaster, the local community is looking for ways to protect itself, and it may just have found a solution.
In December the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education unanimously approved the first steps of an initiative by two local environmental firms to establish solar energy, battery storage and electric vehicle charging stations at schools throughout the district.
The firms — Clean Coalition and Sage Energy Consulting — hope to achieve the first six steps of the initiative by June. These steps include a feasibility study and hiring a developer. Once construction begins, the project to bring renewable energy to the school district is set for completion in summer 2021.
“A project like this will have a tremendous effect on the community,” said Craig Lewis, executive president of Clean Coalition. “Schools will have a level of resilience that they’ve only dreamed about, giving people a place to go to in times of need.”
The project calls for microgrids at 18 sites throughout the district. The microgrids will use solar panels to store energy that could keep schools operational during disaster.
“In an emergency, people are looking for shelter, medical provisions and food,” Mr. Lewis said. “Critical community facilities like schools are where people will get that kind of support.”
In Santa Barbara, where fires and flooding are all too familiar, these facilities are vital. Still, most power companies have focused on prevention rather than resistance. The new normal includes such measures as public safety power shutoffs, in which electricity is turned off in particularly dry or windy conditions.
Starkly aware of how unpredictable weather can be, the Clean Coalition and Sage Energy followed a different direction. An interconnected community of microgrids can separate and maintain its own power, providing a sort of island resilient to larger outages that are likely when disaster does strike.
“SBUSD is by far the largest (district) in the region,” said Mr. Lewis. “That’s 18 sites bringing resilience to the whole community. SBUSD is really stepping up.”
In their proposal, the environmental firms estimated a total project cost of around $40 million. That said, the initiative is projected to come at no extra expense for the district, which has contracted the microgrids under a power-purchase agreement that would require the district to only pay for the energy delivered by the microgrids, at a rate no higher than it pays for electricity now.
Relying on renewable energy may even be more cost effective in the long run.
“Rain or shine, solar energy is delivered at a predictable price,” said Mr. Lewis. “(Property owners) don’t have to wonder about utility rates changing. There’s a huge economic benefit to having a fixed budget.”
In districts already reliant on solar, the economic impact has spoken for itself. Since shifting to solar power in 2012, the Oxnard School District has saved millions of dollars. Santa Barbara stands to experience similar benefits.
“Turning to alternative energy saves taxpayer dollars,” said school board President Laura Capps. “I looked at our utility costs and with 21 schools, SBUSD can make dramatic cost improvements.”
This initiative is only the first step in a larger project. Within the next five to 10 years, the Clean Coalition hopes to establish the Goleta Pocket Community Microgrid, which would connect and protect power for 70 miles down the Southern California coast.
Ultimately, the Clean Coalition wants microgrid connection by more than a few critical facilities, bringing every resident, home, and business together into one resilient community.
“You can’t finish the marathon until you take the first step,” said Mr. Lewis. “To get the whole GLP Microgrid, we need to finish milestones along the way. In one fell swoop, the (SBUSD) initiative is a massive step in fulfilling our requirements and realizing our goals.”