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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

PG&E Launches Program To Let All Customers Go 100% Solar

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) has officially launched its previously announced program to extend the option for 100% solar power to all customers, whether or not they are planning to install rooftop solar.

Under PG&E’s Solar Choice program, customers can purchase half or all of their electric power from solar energy locally sourced in northern and central California for what the utility calls a modest charge. PG&E says this will allow customers to reduce their carbon footprint and drive the development of new solar resources within the state.

“PG&E’s Solar Choice program is all about giving customers more choice and control over their energy and bringing the benefits of solar to our communities. Our customers already enjoy some of the cleanest power in the country. Now, they can directly contribute to bringing more renewable energy onto the electric grid – a win for our customers and for California,” says Laurie Giammona, PG&E’s senior vice president and chief customer officer.

Additionally, participating organizations could qualify for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) points for green building leadership, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership for electricity generated from renewable resources.

Read full article from Solar Industry

Related Article: New PG&E Program Lets Customers Choose Solar (CleanTechnica) – Feb. 28, 2016

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

From theory to practice: The challenges in moving to ‘Utility 2.0’

By Herman K. Trabish, Utility Dive

For all the theorizing about what the utility of the future will look like, real world examples of how to adapt current power sector business models to the new world of renewables and distributed resources can seem few and far between.

While utilities often trumpet their new smart grid technologies, microgrid projects and storage pilots, actually working out how to make those solutions scalable and profitable can be a lot harder than it looks from the outside.

But utilities across the nation can learn from each other’s experiences, with the aim that the questionable technologies of the day can become the ubiquitous tools of tomorrow.

That was the goal of the emerging technologies panel at the recently-concluded Energy Storage North America 2015 conference in San Diego. There, representatives from four major utilities—PG&E, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), Southern California Edison, and Consolidated Edison—highlighted the challenges and successes of a diverse set of DER pilots, hoping their struggles could translate into easier adoption of distributed resources and demand side resources at other companies…

Read full article from Utility Dive

San Francisco braces for the Big One with microgrids

By Laurie Guevara-Stone, RMI Outlet

In 2008 the U.S. Geological Survey reported that California has a 99 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake in the next 30 years. Just last year, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake knocked out power to more than 40,000 people in the San Francisco Bay area. This was the fourth earthquake of magnitude 6 or greater to hit the Bay Area since 1979, including the 6.9 magnitude earthquake in 1989 that knocked out power to 1.4 million people. So the city of San Francisco is not taking any chances—it’s preparing for the (next) big one with microgrids.

“The whole western side of the city is built on sand; if we have a massive earthquake, the gas infrastructure will be shot, and we could face an extended power outage,” said Cal Broomhead, energy and climate program manager for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment (SF Environment). If the gas pipeline infrastructure is destroyed, it knocks out the natural gas-fired central thermal plants and prevents the use of distributed natural gas generators, so the city wanted to find a distributed solution to provide backup emergency power, one that didn’t rely on diesel.

In 2015 the city received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Market Pathways Program to integrate solar and energy storage into San Francisco’s emergency response plans. SF Environment is leading the project with the engineering firm ARUP acting as the primary subcontractor, and several consultants providing technical support and expertise. The local utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, one of California’s three major investor-owned utilities, is part of the grant as well.

Read full article from RMI Outlet

California rancherias look to microgrids for power during natural disasters

By Edward Ortiz, The Sacramento Bee

As the deadly Butte fire ravaged the foothills of Amador and Calaveras counties last month, rooms at the Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort were transformed from guest rooms to cot-filled dormitories to accommodate hundreds of people evacuated from nearby communities. The fire scorched 71,000 acres, felling scores of power lines in its path.

Many homes and businesses went dark as firefighters battled to get the flames under control. But the lights stayed on and power kept flowing at the rancheria’s hotel and casino because of a specialized network of generators and electrical equipment that gave the rancheria temporary energy independence from the regional power grid operated by Pacific Gas and Electric.

The Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians, the tribe that runs the casino, is among a handful of California tribes experimenting with power setups known as microgrids. Essentially, these are small-scale energy distribution networks that allow owners to disconnect from the regional power grid and generate their own electricity. Microgrids have been around for years, often installed as a backup power option for military bases and universities. The concept is fairly new on tribal lands, but drawing interest because many California rancherias are in rural areas prone to fire, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Read full article in the Sacramento Bee

Inside California’s energy politics, the FERC Order 745 case, and the coming storage cost shift

By Gavin Bade, Utility Dive

[Editor’s Note: The following is part of Utility Dive’s coverage of the 2015 Energy Storage North America conference.]

For many power sector observers, California utilities are the ideal partners for forward-thinking regulators looking to adapt the utility business model to the 21st century. California’s investor-owned utilities proclaim their commitment to clean energy technologies demonstrating how they’ve surpassed mandates, accepted more rooftop solar, or integrated large amounts of storage.

Utility executives from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), provided apt examples in their keynotes at the Energy Storage North America conference. All these announcements could logically lead observers to conclude that California utilities have been proactive partners in helping set California’s ambitious clean energy goals. Not exactly, two veteran state legislators told Utility Dive at the conference.

Politics of renewable energy policy:

State Sen. Ben Hueso, chair of the Senate energy and utilities committee, ushered SB 350, the bill that set the state’s 50% RPS, through committee earlier this year. He said that the utilities have always fought hard against any mandates behind closed doors, whether it was SB 350 or earlier efforts. Former Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, echoed Hueso’s observations, but said that the power industry doesn’t behave much differently than others in this respect. “No industry likes mandates,” she said, noting that it took three legislative sessions to usher through the state’s previous 33% RPS, which was met with utility pressure behind closed doors.

California’s new RPS, by contrast, was authored and passed in one legislative session, a feat that Skinner said cannot be overstated. Not only does the bill increase the renewables portfolio standard to 50% by 2030, it also specifically calls on utilities to deploy energy storage and combines the renewables goal with an aggressive efficiency standard. So what changed to get such an aggressive bill passed so quickly?

…Clifford Rechtschaffen, a senior advisor to Brown, said the most important thing was that, in the end, “all of the utilities with the tiny exception of some northern California power agencies that had some qualms, they all supported SB 350.” Rechtschaffen said that while the utilities may have shown some resistance as the bill was working its way through the legislature, most of their concerns were operational in nature. “They weren’t quarreling with the notion that we needed to get to 50%,” he said. “They had concerns about how best to do it — some of which we agree with and others which we aren’t completely in line with, but we’re working on those. Storage is a big part of the solution.”

The role of storage in California’s renewable energy economy:

In a keynote panel discussion the California policymakers highlighted energy storage as the technology that can make 50% renewables and beyond possible for California. Once you get to that level of renewables, Rechtschaffen said, “storage is absolutely critical for grid integration. There’s no arguing about that.”

But the situation for storage, especially in the eyes of utilities, wasn’t always so rosy, Rechtschaffen said. Back in 2014, the state’s IOUs were resistant to the PUC’s mandate to deploy over 1,300 MW of storage on the grid by 2020, worried that the technology wasn’t ready and that it would “put storage in a bad light.”

In reality, the opposite happened, and SCE started off the storage procurements by buying 264 MW, when it was only compelled to purchase 50 MW at the time. For the California policymakers, it was a validation of the power of mandates to drive innovation in the power sector.

Read full article from Utility Dive

Related article: Why energy storage is key to a future with ‘no more gas turbines’ (Utility Dive) – Oct. 15, 2015