Tag Archives: Cpuc

A Huge Solar Plant Caught on Fire, and That’s the Least of Its Problems

By Sarah Zhang, WIRED

Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar plant, is a glittering sea of mirrors, concentrating sunlight into three glowing towers. It is a futuristic vision rising out of the Mojave desert. But from the day the plant opened for business in 2014, critics have said the technology at Ivanpah is outdated and too finicky to maintain.

The latest problem? A fire at one of the plant’s three towers on Thursday, which left metal pipes scorched and melted. As the plant dealt with engineering hiccups, Ivanpah initially struggled to fulfill its electricity contract, and it would have had to shut down if the California Public Utilities Commission didn’t throw it a bone this past March. “Ivanpah has been such a mess,” says Adam Schultz, program manager at the UC Davis Energy Institute and former analyst for the CPUC. “If [the fire] knocks them offline, it’s going to further dig them in.” On top of the technical challenges, the plant has had to deal with PR headaches like reports of scorched birds and blinded pilots from its mirrors.

Ivanpah’s biggest problem, though, is hard economics. When the plant was just a proposal in 2007, the cost of electricity made using Ivanpah’s concentrated solar power was roughly the same as that from photovoltaic solar panels. Since then, the cost of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels has plummeted to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (compared to 15 to 20 cents for concentrated solar power) as materials have gotten cheaper. “You’re not going to see the same thing with concentrated solar power plants because it’s mostly just a big steel and glass project,” says Schultz. It can only get so much cheaper.

Read full article at WIRED

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California’s Distributed Energy Future

GTM Research has established itself as the premier source of information on solar industry trends and developments in the United States. It’s instructive that from that perspective, they chose to organize a conference focusing on a single state, California.

We who participate in the solar industry here have recognized the state as a leader, but the less patronizing among us also recognize that the magnitude of this lead is only temporary. If solar is to realize its potential as one means of reducing environmental damage while reducing future customer utility costs, then other parts of the United States need to catch up (and as GTM’s latest data for 2015 shows, they are).

Nonetheless, as GTM Research Senior Vice President Shayle Kann observed in his opening keynote at GTM’s California Distributed Energy Future conference in San Francisco, California remains the epicenter of next generation distributed energy (DE) regulation and is at the forefront of the shift toward distributed energy in the U.S. And (I would add) what happens in California doesn’t always stay in California. Hence the conference to examine California’s transition to a distributed energy future and consider what’s working and what isn’t.

The discussions at the conference covered a variety of issues confronting the state. Here is an overview of the key themes coming out of the discussions, and the insights shared by the different speakers:

The strongest and most frequently recurring theme was that of the interaction of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs, essentially distributed solar PV) and the electrical grid. This issue has numerous dimensions, and subsequent “fireside chats” helped highlight some of these.

Appropriately the first discussion was with a Senior Vice President from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), California’s largest investor-owned utility (IOU) and the utility with more connected PV capacity than any other in the United States. Issues were fairly raised: e.g., how should rates be structured to fairly compensate the value of Grid access received by the customer, how does PG&E envision an environment of growing Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) systems and how is the Grid managed for reliability. Unfortunately, the moderator for this session let the PG&E representative off with the stock, PR answers: “we have to make changes in our rate structures”, “they can work, note how long Marin (Clean Energy, 2010) and Sonoma (Clean Power, 2014) have been in service”, and “we need to build in robustness.”

Ah well, at least subsequent chats returned to DER issues in more depth. DERs can lower costs for Grid operators / managers; experiments were cited by both Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) involving combinations of storage and DERs. Time of Use (TOU) pricing is coming, and 150 studies worldwide on this issue indicate that customers like this. But there is just too little experience with California’s residential customers while the customers themselves have too little information on which to make decisions as to costs versus savings.

Questions were also raised about Grid planning, to which respondents appeared to agree that too much is moving to identify a “right” strategy, especially as there isn’t even agreement on how to weigh technical issues such as reliability against other social goals we “should” be pursuing. The underlying complexity raised by these superficially straightforward questions was well-highlighted.

Michael Picker, President of the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) noted that despite all the issues the CPUC addresses, DE issues are of significant importance. CPUC needs to consider even the framework for its decision making processes going forward. A system designed to regulate railroads in the 1890’s may not provide the responsiveness and flexibility for regulating changes to utilities in a rapidly evolving technological, economic and social environment. The “adversarial” approach used in CPUC proceedings may not be the best approach—why is the current process more dependent on legal skills than on engineering skills? The desire is to move forward not too fast, not too slow in opening the market to competition while allowing utilities to remain viable business entities. These are issues that could keep one up at night.

Michael Picker (CPUC, left) and Shayle Kann (GTM, right) during their “Fireside Chat”

GTM California's Distributed Energy Future Conference

The second, albeit lesser, recurring theme I heard at the conference was that of CCA developments. Until this year, there have been only three of these organized in California: Marin (with subsequent geographic extensions) and Sonoma were cited above, and Lancaster Choice Energy was launched in 2015. San Francisco’s Clean Power SF, Silicon Valley Clean Energy and Peninsula Clean Energy (San Mateo County) are in the process of launching this year.

As Mark Ferron, CAISO Board of Governors, cited, in 5 years 60% of the state’s eligible population could potentially be served by CCA’s if all programs now in discussion came to completion in that time. He provided a link in later discussion which I repeat here for those who want to follow up on the tally he reported: climateprotection.tumblr.com/tagged/Community-Choice

CCA’s make solar available to those in multi-family dwellings or who own a home not situated with a solar-favorable orientation or location. Expansion of solar power to these customers is required if solar-based power is to expand. Yet as Michael Picker observed, CCA “forced collectivization is a coup against the traditional utility model, challenging utilities and eroding the role of the PUC.” We don’t know yet where this takes existing suppliers and industry participants.

The challenges of the new, evolving energy infrastructure are actively being addressed by the states of California and New York. Conferences such as this provide an excellent opportunity to reflect on the issues and the difficulty this transition poses for firms competing in the market, regulators and the state legislatures who will eventually need to rewrite the rules for structuring state energy markets.

Utilities look to reverse net metering decision

By Rob Nikolewski, The San Diego Union-Tribune

San Diego Gas and Electric and two other major California utilities Monday filed applications urging the California Public Utilities Commission to hold a rehearing to vacate or make “modifications” to its decision keeping retail rate net metering in place until 2019.

“We feel it’s in the best interest of our customers to re-look at this issue and consumer advocates actually agree, as they have taken similar action,” said SDG&E representative Amber Albrecht.

In January, in a tense 3-2 vote, the CPUC sided with solar backers over utilities that insist they are not trying to blunt the growth of solar power in California. Instead, utilities say the net metering system that pays rooftop solar customers for the excess electricity their systems send back to the grid is unfair to consumers who don’t have solar energy systems. Solar companies and their customers say the power their systems generate helps lower strain on the electrical grid and reduces the need to buy power during times of high demand.

The commission — in a ruling that ran more than 150 pages — agreed to keep tying credits to retail rates, rather than near wholesale rates that other states use. The CPUC said it will continue to re-evaluate the rules but the decision was widely viewed as a big win for solar, as other states such as Nevada have rolled back some solar incentives.

SDG&E filed its application for rehearing jointly with Southern California Edison, calling on the CPUC to make changes to its decision. Pacific Gas and Electric also filed paperwork Monday, the deadline for applications for a rehearing, looking to get the commission to vacate its ruling. The CPUC has 120 days to respond to the requests for a rehearing.

Read full article in the San Diego Union-Tribune

A Trifecta for Solar Energy and Distributed Generation

We all have good weeks and bad weeks. For proponents of Solar Energy (and all other inhabitants of our planet) this has been an historic week, with major achievements at the International, National and California-state levels. Setbacks will be inevitable, but the events of this week will have memorable and lasting impact.

The first and International achievement was the December 12 Agreement of 188 countries at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris to take measureable actions with the eventual goal of keeping global temperature rise to less than 2ᵒ Celsius (3.6ᵒ Fahrenheit) by 2050 compared with pre-industrial levels. As we have repeatedly been informed, this is the level estimated by numerous scientists to avoid the worst affects of atmospheric warming and ocean rise.

Though yet to be ratified (a process that starts in April 2016), the agreement commits those countries that do ratify the agreement to establish national emission targets and report on progress every 5 years. While the agreement calls for zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century, lowering the target would (according to some scientists) move this goal forward to the 2030 – 2050 timeframe. Either way, implementation of this agreement puts pressure on countries to support low- and non-carbon energy sources, solar very much included, accelerating their deployment and continued improvements.

The second and national achievement has not been enacted as this is written, but is the tentative agreement by Republican and Democratic House party leaders incorporated into the Appropriations bill that would extend tax credits for solar and wind projects from the current end-2016 expiration date through 2021. The agreement was the result of a compromise where-in Democratic Representatives would support eliminating the ban on US oil exports in exchange for Republican support for the Tax Credit extension.

While the vote can still go awry, a senior analyst at GTM Research (who closely follows the Solar market and industry) commented “the extension to the federal ITC is without question a game-changer for U.S. solar’s growth trajectory. Between now and 2020, the U.S. solar market is poised to see a number of new geographies open up with a 30% ITC, within both distributed and utility-scale solar.”

Finally, the third and California state achievement was the December 15 proposed ruling by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to leave in place most of the charges and fees now in place between the state’s major investor-owned utilities (Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric) and customers who have installed residential and commercial PV systems. Though yet to be finalized (in January 2016), the proposed ruling leaves in place most of the terms that allow customers with PV systems to recoup their investments in a timely manner thereby increasing the desirability of these systems.

Challenges to PV-favorable net metering terms and (lack of) other fees have been raised in many states, and regulator decisions have been mixed. The proposed CPUC ruling is perhaps the strongest pushback by any state regulator to utility claims of the high costs distributed PV systems impose on other (non-PV owning) rate payers. While new costs are proposed, and some uncertainty is introduced by requiring PV-system owners to be placed on Time-of-Use rates (with unknown impact on their bills), the proposed ruling is seen as leaving the business environment favorable for continued expansion of distributed generation.

For now the sun shines on distributed generation and the growth of solar-sourced clean energy. Let us hope that all three events help realize solar’s potential contribution to our future energy mix for the sake of maintaining our habitable planet.

PG&E wants Marin Clean Energy customers to pay more for exit ticket

By Richard Halstead, Marin Independent Journal

The California Public Utilities Commission will rule this month on requests from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that some say if granted could hinder the effort to boost renewable energy use in the state. PG&E is seeking permission to nearly double the monthly fee it levies on customers of Marin Clean Energy and other community choice electricity suppliers. The investor-owned utility is also proposing a change in net metering policy that would substantially reduce the financial incentive for installing residential solar power systems.

When a PG&E customer opts to buy electricity from another energy supplier, such as Marin Clean Energy or Sonoma Clean Power, the company is permitted to charge that customer an exit fee to compensate it for the power contracts it previously entered into to supply that customer’s electricity. The average Marin Clean Energy customer pays an exit fee of $6.70 per month. PG&E is requesting permission to nearly double the exit fee to about $13 for an average Marin Clean Energy customer. The increase would mean that, for the first time in several years, Marin Clean Energy customers would be paying more for their electricity than PG&E customers.

When PG&E loses a customer to another energy supplier, it sells the excess electricity that it purchased for that customer. The company might earn or lose money, depending on market conditions. So far, PG&E has stockpiled more than $1 billion from transactions in which it earned money. In conjunction with its request for a hike in the exit fee, PG&E initially asked the CPUC’s permission to absorb this money. Marin Clean Energy objected. The CPUC rejected Marin Clean Energy’s request that the money be used to offset the need for additional exit fee revenue and directed PG&E to submit an alternative proposal outlining its plans for the $1 billion next year.

Read full article in the Marin Independent Journal

PG&E Presents Innovative Energy Storage Agreements

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) this week expanded its commitment to clean energy by presenting its first 75MW of energy storage contracts to the California Public Utilities Commission for review and approval. California’s Energy Storage Decision requires investor-owned utilities to procure 1,325MW of storage by 2020. PG&E’s share is 580MW.

Storage is expected to play an increasingly important role for California utilities as they work to achieve the states ambitious clean energy goals. By the end of 2015, PG&E forecasts that about 30 percent of its retail electric deliveries will come from renewable sources. Energy storage will help integrate many of those resources, such as wind and solar, which are intermittent or provide peak output during times of low demand.

Energy storage has been a part of PG&E’s power mix for decades, starting with the Helm’s Hydroelectric Facility and continuing with pilot projects such as the 2MW Battery Storage Pilot at the Vacaville Substation and the 4MW Yerba Buena Battery Energy Storage System located on the property of Silicon Valley storage technology company HGST.

The seven projects selected include four Lithium Ion Battery projects, two Zinc/Air Battery storage facilities and one Flywheel project, a first for PG&E. Flywheel technology uses kinetic energy to store energy and later supply that energy to the grid. The first projects are due to come online in May of 2017.

Read full press release from PG&E

Not just California: Solar Battles Raging Across U.S.

By Sammy Roth, The Desert Sun

California has more rooftop solar installations than any other state, and it isn’t particularly close. But the Golden State is far from the only place where the solar industry and utility companies are clashing over how much money solar customers should be allowed to save.

Officials in 24 states have recently changed or are debating changes to rate structures for solar customers, according to a report released by the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center earlier this month. Many of those battles mirror the one taking place in California, where utilities like Southern California Edison say homes and businesses with solar panels need to pay more.

There’s a reason all these battles are happening now: As rooftop solar prices fall, the industry is growing more quickly than ever. That growth has reduced planet-warming carbon emissions, but it’s also thrown the utility industry into a panic about its long-term ability to make money, clean energy advocates say.

Read full article in the Desert Sun

California’s Chief Utility Regulator: The Future Grid Is All About ‘Distributed Decision-Making’

By Jeff St. John, Greentech Media

Michael Picker has spent part of his 11 months as president of the California Public Utilities Commission managing the aftermath of the alleged misdeeds of his predecessor. But as he oversees some of the biggest changes to California energy policy in over a decade, he’s also spent a good deal of time explaining his vision for greening the state with distributed energy, along with the distributed decision-making to make it work for the grid.

Since he was appointed in December, Picker has been stressing certain key policy philosophies for how the CPUC can help the state reach its carbon reduction and green energy goals. These include a preference for market-based solutions over technology mandates, a heavy emphasis on electric vehicles as part of the mix, and an enthusiasm for technologies that can manage lots and lots of distributed energy resources (DERs) in concert with the grid as a whole.

In a series of talks this month, Picker declined to discuss details of big proceedings under review, such as the CPUC’s net-metering reform, which has pitted the solar industry against the state’s big three investor-owned utilities. But he did sketch out a plan for managing the inevitable growth of intermittent renewable energy, whether from millions of rooftops or ever-cheaper utility-scale solar and wind projects.

Read full article from Greentech Media

Big Energy’s Solar Grab Protested in California

Despite California Gov. Jerry Brown’s ceaseless tour of publicizing climate change and renewable-energy reforms, regulators are mulling expansive changes to the state’s solar-energy policy that critics claim could decimate a booming solar industry.

Ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline, the California Public Utilities Commission is considering proposals from the state’s largest utilities that would drastically alter how solar users pay for access to electricity grids. The utilities’ proposals could eliminate or weaken a popular state program that reimburses homeowners for their extra solar energy while increasing fees for accessing the grid.

At a rally Thursday at the state capital, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association Bernadette Del Chiaro told a crowd that the utilities are attempting to stifle residential solar systems in California and their proposals are aimed at increasing profits.

“The utilities are threatened by consumers generating their own electricity; it threatens their bottom lines,” Del Chiaro said, with dozens of solar-industry representatives clad in teal blue shirts behind her. “They make money off building big expensive infrastructure projects.”

At stake is a tariff program known as net metering, which allows homeowners with solar panels to send back excess energy to the electricity grid in exchange for compensation from the utility. Advocates credit net metering with making California the largest solar power producer in the nation and contributing more than 54,000 solar industry jobs statewide.

Read full article from Courthouse News Service

Should homeowners with solar panels pay to help maintain the electrical grid?

By Aaron Orlowski, The Orange County Register

Homeowners face a simple calculus when deciding whether to install solar panels on their roof: Will the panels pay for themselves with savings on their electric bill?

But buried in that bill are complex variables defined by what’s known as the state’s net metering rules – the very essence of which are under debate at the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco. Those rules must be changed or renewed by the end of the year. As the deadline nears, the clash over whether solar panel users should be forced to pay to support a grid from which they seek to disconnect is getting fiercer. Utilities want to slap fees on solar users, while the solar industry wants them left largely untouched.

Since 1996, California’s net metering rules have allowed homeowners with solar panels to effectively spin their electric meters backwards when their panels are generating more power than their homes are using. That helped pave the way for the state to lead the nation by installing 11,500 megawatts of solar capacity and building an industry that employs 54,700 people. Whether the new rules will bolster that industry even more or prick its balloon will likely be decided in the next two months.

Read full article in the O.C. Register