Tag Archives: Utilities

Solar is Generation of Choice in California

By Robert Mullin, RTO Insider

California’s second-largest publicly owned utility is “not buying anything other than solar right now,” said Arlen Orchard, CEO of Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). Orchard’s comment reflected prevailing opinion at the Infocast California Energy Summit last week: Solar is the generation of choice now in California — and its role will only grow.

For SMUD, the decision to go with solar is a financial one. Despite historically low natural gas prices, California’s environmental mandates — such as emissions caps and a ban on once-through cooling — make investment in even the most efficient new gas-fired generation less attractive than solar, even in the resource-constrained Los Angeles basin. “It sounds like for a lot of reasons, building more gas-fired generation in L.A. is not going to happen,” said Charles Adamson, principal manager with Southern California Edison, also pointing out the political unpopularity of building new gas generation in the state.

In Northern California, the alternatives to solar are other — more expensive — renewable resources. “Solar was once the most expensive — now it’s the lowest cost,” said Jan Smutny-Jones, CEO of the Independent Energy Producers Association, whose membership includes gas-fired and renewable merchant generators.

Declining solar costs are attracting the interest of more than just traditional utilities, according to Mark Fillinger, director of project development for First Solar. California’s investor-owned utilities have effectively met the state’s 33% by 2020 renewable portfolio standard. Fillinger said his company is now seeing a “huge shift” in demand from those customers to large “direct access” commercial and industrial clients who choose to purchase power from an independent electricity supplier rather than a regulated utility.

Read full article from RTO Insider

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

Smug About Your Solar Roof? Not So Fast

By Severin Borenstein (Professor, UC Berkeley), The Los Angeles Times

If you’ve installed solar panels on your roof and feel aglow with environmental virtue, you may be in for a rude awakening. There’s a good chance someone else has purchased your halo and is wearing it right now.

In most states (including California), rooftop solar panels earn Renewable Energy Certificates, which quantify how much clean electricity they produce. But if panels are leased or installed under a power purchase agreement, it’s the “third-party owner” — not the homeowner — who gets those certificates. Most then turn around and sell the RECs, a process that magically turns brown electrons green.

Here’s how it works: Joe’s Solar puts panels on your roof that produce 7,500 kilowatt-hours a year, and Joe sells you the electricity under a power purchase agreement. Because Joe still owns the panels, he gets credit — in the form of RECs — for that renewable electricity. Meanwhile, Bob’s all-fossil utility wants to “green up” so it buys RECs from Joe. That allows Bob to relabel 7,500 kilowatt-hours of his coal- or gas-fired power generation as “renewable energy.”

It may sound strange, but a market to sell or trade RECs can be extremely useful. California, for instance, has a mandate for its utilities to generate 33% renewable power by 2020, but some parts of the state have little sun or wind resources. Still, utilities in sunny or windy spots can produce more than their requirement and then sell the extra RECs to areas where it would be much more costly, or impossible, to hit the target. Thus, the RECs market allows a utility in one region to finance additional green energy production in another where it is cheaper, supporting more carbon reduction at a lower cost to consumers.

That seems sensible enough. But something’s wrong if the buying and selling utility companies both claim that green power as their own. And that’s essentially what’s been going on with solar rooftops.

Read full op-ed in the Los Angeles Times

 

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.

Why Rooftop Solar Advocates Are Upset About California’s Clean-Energy Law

By Ivan Penn, The Los Angeles Times

California’s aggressive push to increase renewable energy production comes with a catch for people with solar panels on the roof: You don’t count.

If a home or business has a rooftop solar system, most of the wattage isn’t included in the ambitious requirement to generate half of the state’s electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2030, part of legislation signed in October by Gov. Jerry Brown.

That means rooftop solar owners are missing out on a potentially lucrative subsidy that is paid to utilities and developers of big power projects. It also means that utility ratepayers could end up overpaying for clean electricity to meet the state’s benchmark because lawmakers, by excluding rooftop solar, left out the source of more than a third of the state’s solar power.

Owners of rooftop solar systems and their advocates aren’t happy about the policy…The rooftop solar industry and consumer advocates say opposition to including rooftop solar in California’s renewable energy mandate came from large developers that feared competition for subsidies as well as unions that were upset because rooftop solar installers typically aren’t members.

Read full article in the Los Angeles Times

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

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

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