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Rooftop PV installation on the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe administration building

Building a clean, affordable, resilient, equitable, and safe energy system to meet this moment

by Janina Turner and Stacey Meinzen

As we reel from the COVID-19 pandemic and think about the longer-term consequences, many of us are likely wondering how things will be in the fall. Many of us remember the Public Safety Power Shut-offs of 2019 that meant no electricity for refrigeration, heat, the internet, and in some cases, vital medical equipment. It was a scary time and many people purchased diesel backup generators for their homes in response. Though they are loud and cause air pollution, that comfort of knowing you can rely on the internet for evacuation warnings or know where your family is during a crisis like a wildfire or a pandemic is more than understandable.

This year, even with March rains, we are already in a drought– portending another record-breaking fire season. Thanks to climate change, we know that our fire seasons will be longer and more disastrous every year. This may be compounded by COVID-19 and the necessity of sheltering in place– possibly without electricity.

In response to wildfires and prior to COVID-19, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) had unveiled a plan to use dirty natural gas-powered generators (that they were calling “microgrids” in a misleading attempt to make them sound modern) throughout Northern California. This was a poor and outdated plan that would have destroyed local air quality, raised the risk of fire, and contributed even more to climate change through methane emissions. Given that COVID-19 is especially lethal for people with poor respiratory health, destroying local air quality is madness.

Luckily, PG&E recently abandoned these plans temporarily. According to Shinjini Menon, Director of Energy Policy for Southern California Edison, the microgrid plans would have cost 13 times more than alternative solutions and would not include clean energy technologies, so they have decided not to move forward with a microgrid deployment for the 2020 wildfire season. Looks like we are on our own.

Now many Californians are taking matters into their own hands and installing solar with battery storage. Many residents want the ability to use clean energy that they’ve created on their roofs to help them last in another power shut off event. Greentech Media reported that last year in the fourth quarter, solar installer Sunrun installed batteries on half of Bay Area home solar projects and 30% on all solar installations statewide. Though solar and storage have a large upfront cost, in the long run, the investment saves money over time since it will decrease energy bills year-round. Since there’s a large amount of solar and storage in the state, the best course of action would be to use this network of distributed energy resources (DERs) to power our homes during PSPS instead of relying on diesel generators and natural gas. 

There are many ideas about how to utilize the decentralized grid during power shutoffs. Sunrun recently revealed their decentralized grid concept that would create distribution islands utilizing solar and battery backup. Vote Solar also outlined why solar and storage are better for a more clean and resilient grid system. Even PG&E has approved a 1GWh Tesla battery facility along the central coast. With new technologies available, local and state governments must secure community clean energy resilience– not just leave it to people to try to save themselves. Statewide policy can help make it happen. 

Two bills supported by The Climate Center as part of our Climate-Safe California campaign are currently in the California legislature and are key to Community Energy Resilience:

SB 1314 (Introduced by Senator Bill Dodd): The Community Energy Resilience Act of 2020 requires the Strategic Growth Council to develop and implement a grant program for local governments interested in developing clean energy-based community energy resilience plans. 

SB 1240 (Introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner): The bill would require the California Energy Commission, in consultation with the California Independent System Operator, to identify and evaluate options for transforming the investor-owned distribution grid to provide open access that would allow local governments and other third parties to more easily participate in distribution grid transactions.

URGENT: Have your organization sign on here to support utility reform and clean community energy resilience. Individuals, please reach out to your state elected officials here.

Despite the challenges of this moment, there are viable technical and policy solutions to bring California into the 21st century. Experiencing these problems in the fifth largest economy in the world is absurd. A clean, affordable, resilient, equitable, and safe energy future is possible. Let’s build it. 

Climate Center and partners: New Utility Reform and Clean Energy Resilience bills

URGENT: Have your organization sign on here to support utility reform and clean community energy resilience. Individuals, please reach out to your state elected officials here.

A key priority of The Climate Center’s Climate-Safe CA effort is to advance the ability of local governments to create fossil fuel-free, safe, resilient and accessible local electricity systems.

Technology advances — including rapidly-declining costs for solar and battery storage — are making it possible to build an entirely new decentralized, integrated electricity grid.  This will require utility regulatory reform and new funding to empower local governments to be in charge of siting decisions about new energy infrastructure, rather than communities having decisions imposed upon them by distant corporate decisionmakers. Governor Newsom recently articulated some of the needed principles for this vision, echoing policy proposals that have been recommended by The Climate Center and partner organizations.

The Climate Center, in collaboration with Advanced Community Energy (ACE) initiative partners, recently advanced two bills in the California legislature to achieve these policy priorities:

  • SB 1314  (Introduced by Senator Bill Dodd). The Community Energy Resilience Act requires the Strategic Growth Council to develop and implement a grant program for local governments interested in developing clean energy-based community energy resilience plans.
    • Why the bill is needed: Climate change-driven drought and fire conditions, along with dangerously outdated electricity infrastructure, led to costly power shutoffs in 2019. In the wake of last year’s disasters and facing future shutoffs, utilities and local governments are scrambling to find solutions that keep the electricity flowing. Unfortunately, dirty fossil fuel back-up generators are being installed in towns, businesses and community facilities across the state. These short-term electricity sources are counter to state goals for greenhouse gas reductions, environmental protection, and public health and safety. Today’s cost-effective, clean and decentralized clean energy resources can provide a better solution:  when grid power is down, microgrids can disconnect from the larger grid to provide reliable clean power to key facilities such as fire stations and schools.  SB 1314 would initially prioritize funding lower-income communities in fire prone regions to plan for clean energy resilience. For additional information, see the recently released report by Vote Solar as well as the Community Energy Resilience Act Budget Request Letter submitted to legislators by The Climate Center and partners.
  • SB 1240 (Introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner). This bill would require the California Energy Commission, in consultation with the California Independent System Operator (which manages the flow of electricity into and across the state), to identify and evaluate options for transforming the electricity distribution system to becoming an open local electricity market.
    • Why the bill is needed: The basic architecture of our electricity system hasn’t changed over the past hundred years, notwithstanding substantial technological advancements.  Power no longer flows one way, from distant large power plants to cities and homes. It is now possible for power to flow back and forth locally within a distribution system.    With the implementation of the state’s renewable energy goals, the growth of smart appliances and electric vehicles, and dramatically declining prices for clean energy, a cleaner, decentralized grid is now possible – which would require substantial changes in how our electricity system is managed. This new legislation, if passed, would speed the transition to a 21st century decentralized and clean electricity system. For additional information, read this Vox article.

We are grateful to Senators Dodd and Skinner for their leadership.  To help secure passage, we need organizations across California to register their support for these two bills.   Click here to add your organization to the list of supporters.

Clean Power Alliance Executive Director Ted Bardacke talks with LA Times reporter Sammy Roth about the latest in Community Choice developments at The Climate Center's annual Business of Local Energy Symposium.

In an extraordinary day, the Center shared a vision for safe, reliable, resilient, and carbon-free power

In late June, 325 Community Choice operators and advocates, clean energy businesses, and elected officials from around the state converged on the Business of Local Energy Symposium hosted by The Climate Center (CCP) and our partners in Southern California to discuss best practices and what leadership in a dynamic environment of local clean energy means.

The Climate Center’s Executive Director Ann Hancock started the day noting that Community Choice has grown exponentially in the last few years in California. There are now 19 agencies serving cleaner more affordable energy to over 10 million customers in 160 cities around the state. She pointed out that on average the electricity of those 19 agencies is 86% greenhouse gas emissions-free, and that the California Public Utilities Commission estimates that by 2030 Community Choice agencies (CCAs) will be responsible for procuring 90% of California’s new renewables.

At the same time, many speakers noted that California’s energy system is facing serious challenges. The Governor’s Strike Force on Wildfires released a report in April pointing out that approximately 25 percent of the state’s population – 11 million people – live in an area that is classified as under very high or extreme wildfire threat. The liabilities for property damaged created by the fires in 2017 and 18 drove PG&E to file for bankruptcy protection and two other major investor-owned utilities in southern California have had their credit ratings downgraded. The state faces the challenge of managing PG&E’s bankruptcy, ensuring that wildfire victims are taken care of, and trying to make California safer in the new normal of heightened wildfire risk brought on by a combination of climate change and antiquated or poorly maintained electricity transmission infrastructure. The last several years have seen Distributed Energy Resources (DER) like solar grow, which presents challenges to a grid that frequently now has a surplus of solar in the middle of the day.

Given these realities, what is the role of Community Choice Agencies (CCAs)? Geof Syphers, the CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, was not able to attend the Symposium this year but did record a short video that addressed some of these issues. He pointed out that costs of the wildfires and PG&E’s past mistakes are now being foisted upon ratepayers – while they also must contend with the utilities de-energizing the lines to avoid future wildfires. Syphers said that when customers are paying more money for less reliable service, remaking California’s entire energy market is squarely on the table.

To address some of these issues, Syphers said that the state has considered municipalizing PG&E, which is an idea with some merit, but he suggested that Community Choice Agencies provide much of the benefit of this approach and are a more politically feasible and less costly approach. He said the state legislature and the California Public Utility Commission need to stop trying to undermine CCA’s authority through pursuing centralized procurement and reducing their flexibility in other ways. He pointed out that CCA’s are laboratories for new climate and clean energy programs having developed 60 programs in the last five years. These programs will help us get to the state’s climate goals and should be encouraged. He also suggested that the state set up a multi-million dollar bridge loan fund that could help disadvantaged communities – like those in the Central Valley and inland areas of Southern California – launch a CCA as a way to move our energy system in the right direction.

The Keynote panel that included Clifford Rechtschaffen, Commissioner, California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Angelina Galiteva, on the board of California Independent System Operator, Shalini Swaroop, General Counsel for MCE, Kendall Helm, Vice President Energy Services for San Diego Gas and Electric and was moderated by Rick Brown, the President of TerraVerde Energy. They addressed the questions of how do we reach California’s clean energy and climate goals while providing reliability, safety, and resilience to our communities, what role do the utilities play, how do they need to change, and what reform is needed at the CPUC?

The Keynote speaker former Senator Fran Pavely, author of the groundbreaking Global Solutions Act and other significant climate and environmental legislation, reminded the audience what it took to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation. One thing she emphasized was building the broadest coalitions possible. She joked that if you are trying to get something through the legislature “then you want CCP’s Ann Hancock on your side.” Pavley said that transportation, which represents 37% of total emissions by source, remains California’s big challenge in reducing carbon emissions. She recognized that CCAs are helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions in transportation and encouraged them to do more. Pavley said CCAs can show leadership on things like helping to electrify everything, creating markets for energy storage, and creating safer, fire-resilient communities through energy storage, microgrids, and land use planning.

In sessions throughout the day examples of the innovative programs that Syphers referred to were presented by some of the Symposium’s 67 speakers. Both Kathy Wells of Lancaster Choice Energy and Richard Schorske, a consultant with ZNE Alliance, spoke about an ambitious and exciting project Lancaster is working on under a California Energy Commission grant with a host of technical partners called Advance Energy Community (ACE). They plan to build two zero net energy residential developments with renewable microgrids, create a network of three school-based microgrids as Community Resiliency Centers, establish a Lancaster Virtual Power Plant, and develop large-scale customer-sited energy storage. Rafael Reyes of Peninsula Clean Energy spoke about their collaboration with Silicon Valley Clean Energy to assist over 30 municipal governments in their service territories in developing reach codes that would go beyond current state codes for energy efficiency and reducing the need for natural gas in new homes. Matthew Marshall ,the CEO of Redwood Coast Energy Authority described a microgrid project that they are developing in partnership with Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University and PG&E on a 7-acre site with a 2.25 MW solar array and battery energy storage system that will keep their airport and local Coast Guard station up and running in times of emergency.

Plenary speaker Lorenzo Kristov, who is a consultant working on the transition to an energy system with high levels local distributed energy resources and was a principal at California Independent System Operator for 16 years, tackled the issues of utility reform and community resilience head-on in his afternoon presentation. Kristov, talked about the need to achieve two major goals in the face of climate disruption. First, stop making things worse by ending the use of fossil fuels by adopting sustainable energy practices, and decarbonizing the electricity system and the economy. Second, prepare for impacts of damage done from the greenhouse gases we have already loaded into the atmosphere. He said that we do this by making communities more resilient.

He argued that both of these require engaging local communities. We decarbonize society through local planning and initiatives, by aligning local land use and other planning with energy system planning and state climate goals. We enhance resilience through local electricity systems like solar plus storage and microgrids that can continue service at critical community facilities when the grid is down in times of disruption.  To be effective, this approach needs to be coupled with the reform of the investor-owned utility business model. They need to be incentivized through performance-based regulations to focus them on distribution system operation and working as partners with local governments.  This model would be an “Open Access Distribution System” that encourages distributed energy resource non-wires generation or demand-side management. He called this whole package “Advanced Community Energy” (ACE) and quoted Buckminster Fuller, “In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.”

I ended the day by inviting the CCAs to join us and our partners in implementing Kristov’s vision of Advanced Community Energy.

In the coming year, the Center will be working to build a coalition of local governments, nonprofits and Community Choice agencies to push Advanced Community Energy legislation in Sacramento. Advanced Community Energy supports an energy system that fosters innovation and that will provide customers safe, reliable, resilient, and carbon-free power.