Solar power to the rescue of firefighters in Fremont

Francisco CastroApril 9, 20193210

When they’re not attending to an emergency, firefighters at Fremont Fire Station No. 6 are saving the planet by generating their own electricity through solar panels installed on the facility.

This month, the City of Fremont, California celebrated the successful deployment of its Solar Renewable Microgrid System demonstration project through an official dedication ceremony.

“Merging Fremont’s continued bold climate leadership and dedication to supporting local entrepreneurship, this project has verified that renewable energy storage systems will aid in building a clean energy future for our community,” Fremont Mayor Lily Mei said during the unveiling. “Additionally, the City of Fremont’s proactive planning in partnership with Gridscape will ensure an uninterrupted power source for our public safety responders in the case of natural disaster emergency services operations.”

What’s a microgrid?

According to the Department of Energy, a microgrid is a local energy grid with control capability, which means it can disconnect from the traditional electrical grid and operate autonomously.

The electrical grid connects homes, businesses and other buildings to central power sources, which allow us to use appliances, heating/cooling systems and electronics. But this interconnectedness means that when part of the grid needs to be repaired, everyone is affected.

This is where a microgrid can help. A microgrid generally operates while connected to the grid, but importantly, it can break off and operate on its own using local energy generation in times of crisis like storms or power outages, or for other reasons.

A microgrid can be powered by distributed generators, batteries, and/or renewable resources like solar panels. Depending on how it’s fueled and how its requirements are managed, a microgrid might run indefinitely.

Solar power and microgrids

While the installation of solar panels in your home or business represents both a more reliable and environmentally-friendly power source, the solar panels are still connected to the grid connection. That leaves them exposed. If the grid goes down, so does your solar power.

What makes a microgrid a microgrid is that it can flip a switch (or switches) and “island” itself from its parent grid in the event of a blackout. This enables it to provide those connected to it with (at least temporary) backup power.

By combining solar power with a microgrid, your power source (the sun) is really indefinite, providing you with sustainable energy as long as you need it.

This can happen, for instance, in a severe storm that topples trees over power lines, shutting off electricity from one neighborhood to the next. 

Solar microgrids connected to the electrical grid will sense the disruption coming and they can disconnect and rely exclusively on their solar panels. So even when those around them are in the dark, those under the microgrid will still have power. That is essential for a fire station that is already seen as a beacon of light in any emergency 

Financial benefits

In 2015, Fremont entered into a public-private partnership with local cleantech startup Gridscape Solutions and the California Energy Commission to deploy microgrid systems at three of its fire stations to demonstrate islanding of critical infrastructure. Pairing solar photovoltaic (PV) carports with large battery systems, the participating fire stations can effectively and sustainably generate and store their own energy.

In addition to the protection of emergency service facilities against power outages, this program will reduce City utility bills by $214,844 over the 10-year Power Purchase Agreement term (in addition to the $32,027 saved during the demonstration period). The project will also decrease municipal greenhouse gas emission by around 80,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.

“Fremont serves as an example of diversity, innovation, and self resiliency for the rest of the state!,” said David Hochschild, Chair of the California Energy Commission, during a presentation at the fire station earlier this month. 

According to Clen Technica, this is the first solar microgrid system with battery backup for a fire station in the United States. The idea behind is that if you’re able to control your electricity needs through solar panels, the fire station will be more resilient in case of wildfire, utility blackouts, hurricanes, or other disasters.

All fire stations are required to have a diesel backup generator so they can operate 24x7 in case of emergencies, but the supply of diesel on hand in Fremont would only last 72 hours without replenishment, leaving the firefighters just as exposed as the general public.

Now that the fire station has a combination of solar panels and electricity storage on hand, they are more self-sufficient and are better poised to help the community.

Other cities are thinking of equipping fire stations with similar electrical generators. Redwood City is planning something similar, and so is Montecito in Santa Barbara County, where a fire and later a debris flow killed 23 people in January 2018. 

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