Camp Pendleton Microgrid Project Puts Webcor at Front of Energy Resiliency Pack

Microgrids represent one of the markets that could have a huge impact on Webcor's profitability in the years ahead.

July 10, 2020

Project Updates

As Webcor continues to pursue a diversification strategy, microgrids represent one of the markets that could have a huge impact on the company's profitability in the years ahead. We are developing an expertise in the field well ahead of the competition that is likely to serve us well in the future.

What’s a microgrid?

A microgrid is a localized group of electricity sources that typically operate as part of the bigger macrogrid (like PG&E or Southern California Edison). When a macrogrid goes dark, though, the microgrid can disconnect from it and operate autonomously, keeping the local lights on.

"The best way to think of it is to think of your solar-powered house as a microgrid," says Los Angeles-based Preconstruction Director Bill Reifsteck. "You collect power during the day to power your house and feed the excess power back into the grid. At night, when the sun isn't shining, you pull power from the grid. But if you have a battery to store electricity, you become more resilient. You're not dependent on the grid."

Building Expertise in Energy Resiliency

Webcor is developing its microgrid expertise in Southern California with the Camp Pendleton Microgrid Project. "We're building energy generation and storage facilities, what's known as a microgrid," says Project Director Mike Firenze. Mike explains that the project includes 48 distributed nanogrids covering 200 square miles. "It provides layers of backups that will become an anchor for energy resiliency in the region."

The project specifications are extensive, as Mike explains. "There's a 50-megawatt natural gas-fired peaker plant, a 33-megawatt-plus solar farm, a 200-megawatt-plus energy storage system, and 15 megawatts in the constellation of 48 nanogrids, which are essentially small microgrids." What it amounts to is power for the Marine Corps and Navy base even if San Diego Gas & Electric has a power interruption.

A First for Webcor

While the project at Camp Pendleton, valued at three-quarters of a billion dollars, is a first for Webcor, it’s actually not the company's first microgrid. In August 2016, Webcor -- working with technology company CleanSpark and solar provider Sungevity – completed the first phase of a commercial microgrid at the Ram's Hill Golf Course in Borrego Springs. It was this project that ultimately brought Mike Firenze to Webcor after previously co-founding and running CleanSpark.

"I remember meeting with Jes (Pedersen) in Los Angeles. He thought the project sounded cool, so Webcor threw its hat in the ring." Mike led a couple more projects after that, then sold the company and moved on to the Bethel-Webcor JV, the joint venture building a communications facility at Camp Pendleton. "With Webcor making a bigger move into the federal space, it was natural for me to slide over and lead this resiliency project."

The Camp Pendleton resiliency project could lead to much bigger things. "The market for energy resiliency is $30 billion in Southern California alone," Mike says, adding that "for at least the next 50 years, people aren't going to stop using electricity."

All this investment in energy resiliency may sound like paranoia at work, but Northern Californians understand the challenges ever since PG&E began initiating power blackouts to prevent fires when strong winds kick up. "In the 1970s and 80s, there were a couple of major failures that made everyone appreciate the need for backup plans," says Webcor Vice President John Wilson. John recalls reading an article about three power substations in Indiana which, if they shut down, could take out the entire East and Midwest grids. "When 9/11 happened, the Army seized those substations in order to protect them."

Microgrids are very similar to the internet in that a bad actor wanting to interrupt power would be hard-pressed to take out the entire grid. "They'd have to take out 90 or 100 separate connection points," Bill says.

New Client Opportunities  

Expertise in microgrids could connect Webcor with a broad range of clients who will be looking to build microgrids. "The clients are very large energy consumers," Mike explains, from the military to big industrial plants to wineries (which suffer when winds lead to power-downs). "The parent companies of utilities will be clients, too, like Edison International and Excelon." Recognizing the burgeoning market makes developing the expertise a solid strategy.

College campuses will also be big developers of energy resiliency. "Victor Valley Community College District put in a 1-gigawatt solar facility," says Bill, noting that it "makes all the sense in the world for remote places like UC Merced."

The first phase of the Camp Pendleton project is due to wrap up in 2023. "Over time, we should be able to complete these projects a lot quicker, but this is the first one, so it's taking a bit longer," he says.

A lot of developers are in the early stages of similar projects, Mike says. "They're not at the stage yet where they're sourcing builders, but they will be soon. We'll be ready for the next wave of this market."  

The Right Guy

Mike Firenze is the right guy to lead the Camp Pendleton project. He began working as a military contractor since he graduated from San Diego State University in 2005. He shifted to energy after a Southern California power outage about a decade ago that left San Diego without power for days. When he asked about using renewable energy to power the base, he was told that he didn't know what he was talking about but should put his money where his mouth was and figure it out. "I took that as a challenge," he said. That led to a series of endeavors, culminating with the launch of CleanSpark.  

Now, as project director for the Camp Pendleton project, Mike is busy helping educate everyone he meets on the importance and value of microgrid construction. "We're focusing on this project with the Navy and Indian Energy, the project owner," he explains. "We're going to leverage our relationship with Indian Energy and build an in-house team. We're looking for great people with the right attitude and skillsets."

There are few people with experience in microgrids, which is why Webcor is building its own team.  "We need help," Mike says. "If any Webcor employees are interested in being part of this, let's start talking."