Shifting focus: Grass Valley-based energy company brings work closer to home
Motivated by California’s worsening wildfire seasons, Grass Valley-based company BoxPower has shifted its focus in the last two years to providing energy solutions within the state, according to BoxPower co-founder and Chief Operations Officer Michele Nesbit.
From its very beginning, first initiated by Nevada City native and founder/CEO Angelo Campus, BoxPower has worked with shipping containers. The containers are a part of its identity, said Nesbit.
“We focus in remote applications, so it has to be something that’s really rugged and robust, and able to be moved from one place to another effectively,” she explained.
Other aspects of the company have evolved over time, including the company’s marketplace focus, according to Nesbit. Earlier on, she explained, BoxPower placed a heavier focus on disaster relief — for instance, developing systems to be installed in Puerto Rico following the 2017 impact of Hurricane Maria.
Given the current “advanced and accelerated wildfire season,” the need for BoxPower’s services has in recent years grown in the company’s home state, said Nesbit.
Earlier this year, BoxPower contracted with PG&E to provide a standalone power system in Briceburg. The system, said Nesbit, was intended to fully replace PG&E’s formerly operating power lines there, after the lines were destroyed in the 2019 Briceburg Fire.
This kind of standalone energy system has experienced a “big push” by California utility companies, said Nesbit, as they want both to mitigate wildfire risk, and find an alternative to costly solutions such as hardening their lines or putting them underground.
Last year, BoxPower also received a contract with Liberty Utilities to create a standalone energy system to power Sagehen Creek Field Station, a UC Berkeley-run research station near Truckee.
Liberty Utilities’ initial aim, Nesbit explained, was for the station to remain connected to the utility’s grid except during high fire season, when the station would go off-grid and automatically switch over to using BoxPower’s standalone system.
“That was their original intent, and then they saw the benefit of it and decided just to take the lines out,” said Nesbit.
Creating the right design for the station’s environmental conditions —Truckee’s “massive, massive snow loads” — came with some challenges, according to Nesbit. BoxPower’s unique solution for that location, she said, was to install the solar array on a tall pole mount, where it will be tilted at a 60-degree angle to allow snow to fall off during winter, and then tilted to 30 degrees in the summer for optimized production.
“Really, it’s about scaling this technology and this industry,” said Nesbit on BoxPower’s future. She explained that two factors playing into that process will be the continued analysis of the needs of its customers — many of which are utility companies — as well as increased standardization.
“Right now, a lot of these projects are slow to start, because it does take a lot of effort to design, engineer, and a lot of the times it’s custom,” said Nesbit.
While each project will have its own individualized issues, according to Nesbit, scaling up the reach of this kind of system will require that they be looked at less from a custom lens, and instead with a focus on standardization and “productizing.”
Nesbit, a Grass Valley native, said the company has weighed the idea of moving but ultimately decided against it, as it is very important to her and Campus to continue the company’s work in the area they grew up in.
Victoria Penate is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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