On October 10, the BriarPatch community came together in a positive way during a PG&E Power Outage that put hundreds of thousands of people in the dark for days across Northern California.
“Our goal is to not waste food. Food is precious,” said General Manager Chris Maher.
BriarPatch teamed up with the Food Bank of Nevada County to offer fresh, delicious, healthy and ready-to eat-foods to people facing food insecurity. The Co-op donated several thousand pounds of food at the Nevada County Emergency Food Distribution Center that consisted of hundreds of pre-made meals like sandwiches, dinners and salads; fresh produce like organic avocados, bags of gourmet specialty cheeses, pro-biotic and fermented foods, baked goods and fresh juices.
“One woman broke down in tears and told me that she lost all of her food for the week and wouldn’t be able to buy groceries again until her next payday. The food that she left with would need to sustain her until then,” said Nicole McNeely, Executive Director of Food Bank of Nevada County.
Food Bank and Food Link brought four` trucks full of 3,300 pounds of fresh produce and milk, 900 pounds of meat and eggs and 10,000 pounds of dry food. Nutritional support was given to 225 families and over 650 individuals. Many of those were seniors and children.
“Clients expressed immense gratitude,” said Sustainability Coordinator Lauren Scott.
Several hundred pounds of food that had reached unsafe temperatures for human consumption was donated to local farmers to feed their pigs.
Thanks to some advanced planning and lots of hard work, BriarPatch managed to save a lot of products by using 1800 pounds of dry ice, a refrigeration truck and a freezer truck until the outage was over.
“It was a huge team effort. I give the whole store huge kudos for working together,” said Grocery Manager Shawn Bailey.
Despite all the efforts to save perishables, goods valued at tens of thousands of dollars were lost with food like dairy and meat hit the hardest.
A New Normal
In the week after the PG&E power outage, BriarPatch staff and board are giving considerable thought to public concern that arose from the Black Out and the idea that electric grid shutdowns could become the new normal in the face of changing climate and increased risks from wildfire.
“We heard the community loud and clear and we’re exploring every idea that’s on the table,” said General Manager Chris Maher.
BriarPatch has 680 high performance solar panels that also serve as an impressive shade structure in the store’s parking lot. Members of the community have asked the question – Why did BriarPatch shut its doors during the power outage if it uses solar power?
While the panels reduce dependency on the public electrical grid by $3 million over 25 years and offset upwards of 51 percent of the store’s electrical needs, they do not provide an off-grid power source to the store during a black out.
“Like 95 percent of the solar systems in our area, the BriarPatch solar carport was designed solely as a power supply, focusing on delivering green energy at a cheaper price, and was not designed as a back-up power source, which would require large and very expensive batteries” or generator, said Martin Webb, Commercial Sales Manager for California Solar Electric Company, the Grass Valley business that installed the system in 2016.
The Solar Array on the Briar Patch is a “grid-tied” solar system – or a system that uses the PG&E power grid as a battery – storing power all summer for use in the Winter.
Solar systems without a battery bank that are connected to the utility grid must fully shut down in the event of a utility blackout, as a safety feature required by the National Electrical Code. Otherwise, the solar power could shoot up the dead electrical lines and create dangerous conditions that can shock linemen or create a fire.
“Though batteries have come a long way, BriarPatch would need to do an extensive cost benefit analysis to justify such a system for situations like this, as these systems would cost a multiplier of the existing solar array and would require room for the equipment in an already crowded store,” said Lars Ortegren General Manager of Cal Solar.
When the system was designed two to three years ago, the concept of a multi-day intentional regionwide blackout was not even a remote possibility. The original goal of installing a solar electric system was to reduce the store’s environmental impacts while saving co-op owners money over the lifetime of the panels. It is part of BriarPatch’s long-term sustainability vision that also includes: a LEED certified green building, an Electric Vehicle Charging Station, supporting a local food system, and reducing food waste.
BriarPatch is exploring all options of grid-free electricity as PG&E power outages become more common place. Another black out could hit later this week.
“It’s an enormous undertaking to get the store to be working independently of the grid,” said Chris Maher. “The community has made BriarPatch a primary gathering hub and resource. We’re working toward the best vision of preserving that reality that we can.” Learn more: https://www.briarpatch.coop/