Mandatory Backup Power for Cell Towers in California
‘Cellphones aren’t just about checking the latest Facebook status. It’s about life or death. Cellphones are our lifeline during these power outages and during emergencies.’ State Sen. Mike McGuire
In what appears to be a first-in-the-nation rule, the Californian Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has voted to require cell towers to have 72 hours of backup power in emergency situations, directed mainly at maintaining connectivity during electricity shutoffs necessitated in fire seasons. The decision mandates a 72-hour backup power requirement for all parts of the networks including cell towers and recommends clean energy options instead of diesel generators whenever possible. The CPUC decision aims to ensure comprehensive communications resiliency plans to keep networks running during disasters and improve coordination with emergency response agencies. According to the state’s Office of Emergency Services, 88% of 911 calls come from wireless devices.
During the difficult circumstances still ensuing as the Coronavirus pandemic continues, regulators understandably aim to maximize connectivity for citizens, especially during emergencies. Mandatory backup power ensures power resilience. Nevertheless, Californian regulators are recognizant that the energy sector is in transition to clean alternatives and in the long term would prefer to see sources of backup power that are not only reliable and long-duration, but also emission-free.
Aiming to regulate the resiliency of wireless networks, the CPUC seeks to set network resiliency requirements in enumerated high fire-risk areas for facilities-based wireless carriers. According to the decision, within 12 months, carriers must ensure emergency backup power for wireless facilities for a minimum of 72 hours in Tier 2 (elevated risk) and Tier 3 (extreme risk) High Fire Threat Districts. Within six months, carriers must submit a Communications Resiliency Plan stipulating the carrier’s ability to provide minimum levels of service like 9-1-1 and basic internet browsing during a power outage, a grid outage response plan, the ability to report on system outages and plans for achieving long-term clean generation of backup power. Furthermore, carriers must submit emergency operations plans within 60 days and, from then on, on an annual basis. These plans will include emergency contact information, attestations of participation in emergency preparedness exercises and public communications plans.
The decision for mandatory backup power is ground-breaking and somewhat controversial, wherein the CPUC asserts that it has constitutional and statutory authority over public utilities, i.e. telephone corporations, which it then extends to cover facilities-based wireless carriers and adds that it may in future target wireline communications carriers. Incidentally, there is no mandatory ruling from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission requiring wireless providers to provide emergency backup power sources.
The CPUC decision is connected to Californian State Senate Bill 431 sponsored by Calif. Sen. Mike McGuire (D) and Calif. Sen. Steve Glazer (D). The bill aims to obligate companies like AT&T and Verizon to provide battery backup to their hundreds of cell towers and warnings to cell users when backup is running low or about to run out. SB431 is part of a package of bills designed to provide backup power to not only cell towers, but also to hospitals and vulnerable residents.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in the 2019 fire season more than a million people suffered power outages during planned public safety power shutoffs (PSPSs) by Pacific Gas & Electric that were carried out to prevent equipment from starting fires. During the height of the power cuts in October 2019, when fires raged in Northern and Southern California, about 3% of towers went out statewide. During a shutdown on October 28th, according to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Disaster Report, Marin County lost power to 160 cell sites, a full 57% of the county’s towers. These incidents followed similar outages during the 2017 storms and in the North Bay Fires and the unforgettable Camp Fire in 2018, during which some 80 people lost their lives.
Success Lies in the Details
The July CPUC decision for mandatory backup power, and where possible clean, is no small order in a Californian energy market still suffering the impact of Coronavirus and beset by lost business, layoffs and furloughs, stay-at-home orders impacting utility on-site workers, confusing and contradictory local rules, regulations and permit procedures, closing of offices responsible for permits, all of which are causing delays and obstacles for the installation of community and rooftop solar-and-storage. Some solar workers have even been ordered down from rooftops after neighbors called the police. All of these unfortunate circumstances are impeding PG&E’s efforts to provide backup power to residences before the upcoming fire season and do not bode well for the likelihood of putting in place backup power to support cell towers before fire season. While there are some signs that government and public bodies are trying to improve conditions to promote solar-plus-storage deployments, like the rest of the economy the solar industry has been hurting.
Under strong pressure from the solar industry, as of May, Northern Californian utility PG&E announced it would help customers that seek to connect to residential and community solar projects, efforts that will both improve power resilience during shutdowns as well as cut these customers’ energy costs. In parallel, the CPUC approved $600 million in funding of incentives for installing battery backup equipment in homes and other critical facilities in high-risk areas. The funds will go to homes in areas that are at high fire risk or whose residents are low-income, depend on electricity-powered medical devices or have lost power in previous outages. These funds will support not only improved resilience but support more jobs in the energy sector.
In efforts to prevent shutdowns, in January PG&E proposed developing microgrids and installing LNG-powered generators to back up some twenty substations during PSPS events but withdrew the proposal after facing strong opposition from microgrid vendors, environmental groups and advocates for solar. Pressured by the soon-to-arrive fire season, the CPUC then approved a 450MW “temporary generation plan” to finance the purchase of mobile generators; the generators received permits for use for one year only while efforts are made to find a long-term solution for resilient power. Regulators have been constrained to reluctantly approve the use of generators to overcome the threats of wildfire and public-safety blackouts posed to medically vulnerable people and isolated communities; however, they insist that going forward PG&E must identify an affordable, long-term and less pollutant backup plan. Hybrid solutions including solar, storage and other innovative technologies will be needed to deliver resilient, clean, long-duration and economical power.
In response to the new CPUC regulations mandating backup power for cell towers, AT&T announced on July 15th that it is carrying out a statewide effort integrated with the FirstNet Project. To support its obligations to the public safety network, the company is investing $340 million over three years to provide backup power of at least 72 hours to cell sites covering 99% of California’s population. Yet just as the utilities struggle to find a balance between investing in pollutant short-term solutions to prevent outages while identifying clean long-term power solutions, so telecom providers – aiming to prevent interruptions to the digital connectivity that is becoming ever more critical to our daily lives – are deploying mobile generators for today while seeking innovative clean backup solutions for tomorrow. Hybrid solutions that economically incorporate clean renewable resources together with dependable long-term energy storage that allow telecom providers to comply with CPUC regulations will win the jackpot.
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