What Farmers and Wineries Can Do to Prepare for PG&E Power Shutoffs

Written By: Gary Quackenbush
Published: October 1, 2019

The fire season started on June 1, but wildfires in recent years did not become a local issue until October and November in Sonoma County – even though some blazes started earlier in other parts of Northern California as we see today.

The question being asked by farmers, vineyard owners and winery operators is what can be done at this late date to implement a last-minute power continuity plan, and will generators, installers, electricians and equipment deliveries be available before (or when) they are needed?

The short answer is that permanent generator installations are mostly off the table this year since they can take longer to obtain, install and get permits. However, rented or leased systems
can still be acquired, according to several local sources. Out of state suppliers are also aware of California’s need and could bring more units here – as they do for other major emergencies
in areas impacted by tornadoes and hurricanes.

For many weeks PG&E has been advising everyone concerning its Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) plan, including how the public will (hopefully) be notified 48 hours, 24 hours and just before power lines are de-energized. However, the estimated length of these electricity blackouts has tripled from 24 to 36 hours to five or six days or more.

“We have been educating our ag customers through as many organizations as we can, including the vintners, the Farm Bureaus, and grape growers,” said Deanna Contreras, PG&E regional representative. “We are emphasizing preparedness and the development of plans for a power outage lasting longer than 48 hours. If a PSPS is initiated, we hope to be able to restore power within 24 hours, but that depends on the weather.”

This extended average blackout duration amplifies the difference between being able to just endure an outage for a day or so and needing a backup power system to maintain ongoing operations without suffering heavy financial or product losses. More and more agriculture community members are wanting to hedge their bets against this risk.

Cows must be milked twice a day using electric milking machines. Refrigeration is needed to keep milk from spoiling. Vineyard owners need power for pumping water from wells and for irrigation systems. Wineries need power for cooling tanks, air compressors, washing grapes and crush equipment. Going without power during the wine grape harvest and crush is not an option, as well as for most dairies at any time of year.

To its credit, PG&E has been informing the public for weeks by providing six online handouts and media messages about the need to prepare facilities and businesses for survival, with lists of 22 retailers of residential and commercial back-up generators for homeowners as well as systems for small, medium and large businesses. However, only 50% of generators are available for rent
as well as sell and install.

At the end of the day, the burden is on the private sector to protect itself and property – no one is standing by ready to bail the Ag industry out or provide emergency funding.
Richard Ivaldi, plant manager at Seghesio Family Vineyards based in Healdsburg, said
Seghesio already has a leased generator set up on site.

“We want to buy one or more mobile generators someday, one for each of our locations. Power needs and equipment in use varies at each site, so what we eventually get will depend on an  assessment of power requirements at every location.”

For Harry Wetzel, with Alexander Valley Vineyards, having to endure a four-day minimum power outage is a significant problem.

“We have to be able to manage heat by having refrigeration for our fermentation tanks and also need power for our air compressor. We looked at a 600 AMP backup system to power about 15% of two vital production areas at a cost of $38,000. To rent a generator to just sit here idle is one thing. The cost is higher when it is in use.”

He said they have a solar panel system but can’t use it in a power outage becasue it does not have storage batteries. “One day we may be in a position to use our solar system for backup power, but it would still not be enough for the entire winery’s needs, so for us, the only near-term solution is to have a standby generator.”

Wetzel said to have power backup connected to their main junction box in order to energize the production area would cost an estimated $120,000 and could go as high as $140,000, including an automatic transfer switch and matrix distribution capability to deliver power to various endpoints. This does not include the cost of the generator itself.

He said availability of manpower and equipment are also a big concern. Chris Volen, now with Atlas Vineyard Management, said while he was with Calegari Vineyards, the management team talked about getting a generator because Calegari has a well and a pool and would need reliable power for its pump.“While team members felt the vineyards would be ok, the winery is another story. At the time we hadn’t thought seriously about having our own power standby system and believed at that time if an outage were to last only a couple of days that we would be all right. Now you hear outages could last a lot longer.”

Vince Sigal, president of Sigal Electric, Inc., has been working with several clients and the Farm Bureau to educate members on what they can do.

“Most farmers, vineyard owners and winery operators don’t have permanent backup systems in place today. Many people were contacting us early in the season about whether to lease or rent generators. We say it’s important to first install an automatic transfer switch on the main electrical panel in advance so rental equipment can be connected easily and quickly if needed.”

He said that this year emphasis is being placed on finding mobile generators, 500kW tier 3-4 units and higher for commercial use.

“In the old days, you could buy surplus military generators, not anymore. Some dairies on the coast have backup power, and Strauss Creamery and a few others have methane capture systems to provide power. We’ve installed temporary units at Jackson Family Wines locations obtained through United Rentals as well as standby systems for several
others. It is also possible to get more generators from beyond California.”

Sigal noted that some businesses have thought ahead while others are trying to catch up. He said there are still generators available to rent, but licensed electric contractors could soon be in short supply and factors such as the cost of installing automatic transfer switches, generator rental fees and having a distribution grid matrix to channel power to more than one area, can add up to thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars or higher.

Ongoing operating costs add another dimension to the budget including the cost, storage and delivery of fuel to power generator(s).

For example, generator fuel can run from $4.50 to $5.00 or more per gallon. Using the lower fuel price, a 400kW generator can burn 16 gallons an hour (16 x $4.50 = $72.00/
hour for fuel). Therefore, in a single 24-hour day, the cost at the low per gallon price would be $1,728.

Taking this analogy to larger systems, A 2MW generator burns 74 gallons an hour costing $333.00 per hour (74 x $4.50 = $333.00/hour) for fuel. So, in a full 24-hour day, the total would be $7,992.00. It’s not just the cost of fuel, there must be a safe place to store sufficient quantities needed for daily or continuous operations, while also having the assurance that sources will be available to refuel the on site supply should roads be closed or blocked.

For Jim Caudill, with Treasury Wine Estates, preparations to add backup power began by benchmarking existing power continuity strategies from businesses that have already implemented an energy continuity plan or have become self-sufficient during power outages.

“We have been evaluating our power needs at both key and high-risk power outage sites to ensure that we can keep vital resources running during a planned power outage. We installed transfer switches at all of our sites to seamlessly integrate a back-up generator if necessary. We have also rented several network generators so they will be on hand should power be shut off. We are continuing to work through our options as we learn more this year and plan for vintage 2020,” Caudill said.

The ag community is turning to electrical contractors for guidance and technical assistance, such as Knight Electric, Inc., of Windsor.

“We’re letting our clients know we will make sure that solutions are available to meet their needs, to give them confidence that their grape harvest will not be lost due to a lack of refrigeration or temporary energy supply,” said Art Knight. “Short-term solutions are still possible this year, but not the long-term or permanent plans some might wish to see.”

He said, “We’re all been praying that fires will not cause electricity to be shut down this year while making preparations to cope with a lack of PG&E power should cutoffs occur.”

The current trend in the wine industry involves renting or leasing backup power systems due to the limited time before wildfires could strike again, and as a second source to supplement existing energy supplies so power is available during the harvest and crush.

“We’ve installed more than half a dozen quick connect panels at our client’s locations by tapping into the main electric service buss, a less expensive short-term approach when it comes to being ready to add generators,” Knight added.

The typical lease/rental term is for an average of two months (October and November) which is the historical time frame for fires in 2017 and 2018.

While most residential backup generators cost between about $2,000 and $6,000 to keep lights and appliances running, commercial standby generators can cost from roughly $10,000 at the low end, $15,000 at the mid-range and up 10 to 20 times as much for megawatt systems.

One way to develop a strategic energy continuity plan is to shop by wattage needed (depending on all power needs or just critical locations and operations), by voltage, by brand and fuel type (solar with backup batteries, battery banks, natural gas, gasoline, propane or diesel fuel). When reviewing a list of retailers and equipment vendors, check to see that they not only sell generators but install and rent them.

Knight said 3,000 AMP backup systems, like the four his firm installed at Sutter Home, cost $90,000 each, involving a couple of hundred feet of cable to reach each site. The main circuit breaker was blocked so connectors could be added.

Care must be taken to prevent generator electricity from flowing back into PG&E’s power lines. As described earlier, the most common way to prevent this is by installing a double-pole, double-throw transfer switch in advance before connecting a standby generator.

Auto transfer system costs vary and can cost as much as $170,000. If an auto switch is installed, bussing in the switchboard must be removed, which is more labor-intensive. At Kendall Jackson, six locations had to be served from one switchboard with a quick connect for each.

Knight said rather than install one large generator, many clients have elected to have multiple units for each key location, eliminating the need for having 50 to 100 feet or more cabling from a central hub system.

At the Merry Edwards Winery, an 800 AMP system was installed with an auto transfer switch with a control cable connected to a standby generator. This system would be needed to power a well pump. Installing a permanently mounted generator requires longer lead time, both for ordering and receiving equipment also to allow time to obtain a permit mandated for systems with 50 H.P. or more— which can take up to three or four months.

Being prepared is crucial. There is still time to take advantage of the options discussed in this article, but it is important to act now by doing some homework, developing a plan and moving forward to implement it.

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