The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From Apple to wineries, California companies turn to solar amid outages

As climate change threatens to make power outages more frequent, California businesses are turning to solar-powered systems to protect their operations when the lights go out

Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters are powered in large part by rooftop solar installations, shown here in 2017. (Apple)

Last week, millions of Californians lost power during a widespread outage imposed in an effort to prevent wildfires. But that didn’t happen at Stone Edge Farm in Sonoma.

That’s because the winery is connected to a solar-powered system that can run when it’s disconnected from the main grid. When the lights went out, Stone Edge could keep its cellar, restaurant and other operations running.

The winery is just one of the California businesses — including tech giants — that are betting on solar power to avert billions of dollars in potential product, service and productivity losses.

Northern California faces massive power outage as PG&E hedges wildfire risk

Tech companies in particular have spent years touting their efforts to become more environmentally friendly via solar power and other ways to offset their huge carbon footprints. Most of the companies release annual reports tallying their gains and the way they’re improving the world.

Apple, based in Cupertino, says it has converted 100 percent of its operations to renewable electricity in its most recent sustainability report. Menlo Park-based Facebook has committed to reaching the same goal by 2020, according to its report.

Google, based in Mountain View, which says in its sustainability report it has matched 100 percent of its operations electricity with renewable energy, notes its location as a factor in its efforts.

“In 2018 alone, we experienced unprecedented heat waves, wildfires, and flooding in California, along with many other extreme weather events around the world,” Google said in its report. “It’s clear that immediate action must be taken on a global scale if the impacts of climate change are to be mitigated and, ideally, reversed.”

While solar panels are a common sight across California, businesses need a storage and delivery mechanism known as a microgrid to keep things running during a power outage. That proved beneficial to some of those businesses last week during the utility-initiated power outage in Northern California in response to heightened wildfire risks.

The Bay Area outages affected 738,000 customers, and the utility behind the outages in Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric, has said such measures could be implemented more frequently as climate change increases the risk of the type of dry, windy weather that can spark fires.

Starting on Oct. 9, hundreds of thousands of California homes and businesses lost power in an unprecedented outage by Pacific Gas & Electric. (Video: Jonathan Baran, James Pace-Cornsilk, Drea Cornejo, Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Northern California blackouts may mean mobile outages

Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program, estimates that the PG&E outages had a $1.8 billion economic impact, a number that is on the higher end of the $65 million to $2.5 billion impact he calculated before the event.

Until a few days ago, he said, most businesses had not “fully faced up to the reality of what’s going to happen in California over the next 10 years,” he said. “Only now are they really thinking about their reliance on the grid.”

Some tech companies are taking notice. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk tweeted during the outages that he would be adding Powerpacks, or battery storage systems for larger commercial applications, to the electric car manufacturer’s Supercharger fueling stations. That came after the company warned car owners to charge up before the power outages started.

California’s power outage means problems for electric cars. Tesla says charge up, quick.

Apple is one of the few Bay Area tech companies with solar power and the ability to deploy it in the case of an emergency. The company powers its headquarters with renewable energy, most of it generated at its own campus. The rest of the power comes from a solar array in Monterey County. It powers its headquarters via rooftop solar panels, biogas fuel cells and systems that manage the way the power travels throughout the site.

Apple spokeswoman Keri Fulton said the system “manages our renewable energy generation and building energy and ensures uninterrupted energy reliability against local grid outages.”

Other California-based tech businesses have incorporated solar arrays into designs of their headquarters, systems that could become the backbone for backup systems in the future. Google’s Mountain View headquarters contains more than 9,000 solar panels. The company is the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy, according to its most recent sustainability report.

Meanwhile, Facebook says in its report that its Menlo Park headquarters is supported by 100 percent renewable energy, including on-site rooftop solar panels.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Apple provided its statement by email. It provided its statement by phone.