Craig Wooster was awakened just before 5:30 a.m. more than six months ago when his cellphone rang with news of the fires that had begun racing through California’s Wine Country, and that would eventually kill more than 40 people, destroy more than 8,500 buildings and leave thousands without power.
The general contractor of a small, freestanding grid or microgrid that serves the vineyards and winery at Stone Edge Farm in Sonoma County, he gave instructions that it be untethered from the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. so that it could continue to produce power to pump water from wells for the irrigation system if the utility went out.
For the next 10 days, while the farm was evacuated, it became a showcase of resiliency as the staff operated the microgrid remotely.
“The microgrid did exactly what it was designed to do,” Wooster said. “It operated even without us doing anything to make it work.”
Now Wooster and Stone Edge Farm's owners, Mac and Leslie McQuown, are taking lessons learned from the fires to improve the microgrid and to encourage a different kind of rebuilding in the nearby Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, which was devastated. Following the fires, the earthquake in Napa Valley four years ago and Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year that destroyed much of Puerto Rico and flooded Houston and southern Florida, Wooster predicted new interest in energy sources that can withstand natural disasters.
“The fire taught us some things that I do not think we would have designed into our testing scheme because we never thought about them,” Wooster said. “That gave us a real world scenario and in a lot of ways made us think more outside the box.”
Mac McQuown is a former banker who led a team at Wells Fargo in San Francisco that created the first stock index fund, Leslie McQuown is a designer, and together they co-founded the 16-acre Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards and Winery in 1995. The farm produces Bordeaux-style wines, heirloom vegetables, grapes and olive oil, among other products.
From the start they were determined to conserve water and reduce their carbon footprint, installing arrays of solar panels, and they are now exploring how far below zero carbon emissions they can go.
The farm's microgrid was designed almost five years ago as a laboratory, Wooster said. It is meant to be a prototype, an experiment, overbuilt to test different components and identify trade-offs, purposely retrofitted and mostly buried underground. It is open source with no restrictions on the use of its discoveries. It buys equipment from start-ups and has employed dozens of interns. Wooster wouldn't say how much they've spent.
The staff is working with institutions across the world, including the California College of the Arts to install microgrids.
Its goal? "The ability to provide the energy to be carbon neutral essentially," said the college's president, Stephen Beal.
The college is focused on fine arts, design and architecture and impresses upon its 2,000 students the importance of sustainability, he said. It is expanding its campus in San Francisco.
"Creating a microgrid became the process or the pathway through which we could attempt to meet the goal of carbon neutrality," he said.
Amory Lovins, a cofounder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which is dedicated to sustainability research, noted that the microgrid was able to run from a variety of sources.
"The microgrid artfully combines a very broad range of technologies to demonstrate the many diverse technical options and how they play together," he said.
The microgrid itself is made up of, among other parts, batteries, a microturbine, inverters that connect or isolate the microgrid to the utility grid, and an electrolyzer and a hydrogen storage and fueling station.
When its seven utility meters are disconnected from the utility grid, they are connected together on a microgrid trunk line and operate in what is called island mode. One unique feature: It is capable of exporting energy to the utility grid even if it is otherwise in island mode.
Last fall, despite the fire’s ash and smoke the microgrid produced half of the energy it normally would produce — but because there was no one at the farm using the power it was enough to threaten to overwhelm the batteries, Wooster said. Normally when the batteries are fully charged, the farm turns on its hydrogen electrolyzer, makes gaseous hydrogen, stores it and uses it to power the cars on the farm, he said. But because he did not want to introduce a flammable agent during the fire, he ordered the electrolyzer not be used.
Over the last six months, the staff has working to try to develop more control over the individual parts, much the way one can control the volume of a radio. They believe they have a solution that they will be testing over the next few months.
“This is really a fundamental building block of microgrids if we can get this to work,” Wooster said. “It’s not a trivial matter, it’s very sophisticated.”
“That is a light year leap for microgrid development,” he said.
Among the batteries used in the microgrid are lithium ferrous phosphate ones produced by an Ojai, California-based company, SimpliPhi Power.
"What we’re able to prove out and indeed this is happening all over the world that renewables coupled with batteries in a distributed local architecture are more cost effective, create more resilience and more security than top down centralized infrastructure," said Catherine Von Burg.
Another lesson from the fires, according to Wooster: The country must move rapidly to install microgrids in hospitals, fire stations, stations and other critical infrastructure so that they operate independently of the utility grid.
Lovins would add to that all gasoline and diesel filling stations, all of which should be equipped with solar panels and batteries to provide dedicated power to pump fuel during power failures.
A committee has been formed to find a way to rebuild the Coffey Park neighborhood that in Wooster’s words is more focused on 2030 than 1972, a project that is moving forward. The utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., is participating but residents must still organize, he said.
For the future, components of microgrids must be built and ready to ship when a natural disaster occurs, Wooster said.
“One of the bigger world discussions at the moment is how to focus on the next disaster and be ready to move,” he said.