In the past month, I have passed two wildfires on the side of the freeway. That’s now life during California summers.
As the pandemic rages on, limiting people’s movement, the prospect of another year of public safety power shutoffs — the utility program that preemptively shut down power to Californians last summer to avoid wildfires — is scary.
Many smart people have been working hard on this problem. Energy providers across California — from local utilities to massive investor-owned utilities (IOUs) — have been tasked with cracking the energy resilience code.
As the west begins to burn, how are those efforts going?
Local utilities launch resilience programs
Community choice aggregators (CCAs), programs that allow cities or counties to buy energy for their residents, are a bright spot for energy-resilient offerings.
Last week, three San Francisco Bay Area CCAs — East Bay Community Energy (EBCE), Peninsula Clean Energy and Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE) — announced a partnership with Sunrun to install roughly 20 megawatts of solar with a battery backup on up to 6,000 households n danger of getting their power shut off. The CCAs all have carveouts for low-income customers to ensure this program serves all communities.
The announcement comes two months after Marin Clean Energy, a CCA in Northern California, launched a program to install 15 megawatt-hours of customer-sited energy storage. San José Clean Energy and Peninsula Clean Energy issued a request for offers for similar energy-plus-storage programs to serve their customers.
The CCA advantage
While both California utilities and CCAs are tasked with finding resilience solutions, the CCAs are the first to offer solar-plus-storage programs to their customers.
According to the CCAs, this is because local utilities work in and for the community.
"SVCE is a community-based organization," Aimee Gotway Bailey, director of decarbonization and grid innovation at SVCE wrote in an email. "Our community formed us and governs us. That means we’re well-positioned to be responsive to what our community needs. The resilience program we just launched is a testament to that."
Our community formed us and governs us. That means we’re well-positioned to be responsive to what our community needs.
JP Ross, EBCE’s director of local development, electrification and innovation, echoed that sentiment in a phone conversation. "We're not responsive to shareholders; we're responsive to our community,” he said.
CCAs are also in a better position to aggregate behind-the-meter resources as part of a procurement plan for resource adequacy — in other words, they can better monetize the new energy resources when there aren’t outages to shave peak loads.
"Local utilities are leading because there aren't other organizations in as natural position to lead," Mark Dyson, principal of Rocky Mountain Institute’s electricity practice, wrote in an email. "[They] are the ones that can enable the ‘blue sky’ benefits of [distributed energy resources, or DERs], and most effectively integrate DERs' ‘black sky’ benefits with existing resilience planning activities."
How community energy aggregators and utilities work together
California’s IOU and community energy providers have different competitive advantages when providing resilient solutions, according to Wood Mackenzie microgrid analyst Isaac Maze-Rothstein.
"At the highest level, I’d say CCAs are leveraging their customer relationships and buying power to enable individual customers’ resilience while utilities are looking at the problem from a systems vantage point for the electric grid," wrote Maze-Rothstein in an email.
That is, while CCAs are poised to deploy DERs to individual customers, utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric are looking at addressing the full electrical gid.
From the technology provider’s standpoint, forging these partnerships is a new avenue to accelerate deployment of systems. The work of the CCAs to develop the new product could clear the way for utility partnerships down the line.
"We see this [Sunrun/CCA partnership] program as a good model for how we can work with all energy providers to be part of the solution for further enabling energy consumers to keep their lights on in the face of this new reality," wrote Nick Smallwood, vice president of business development and grid services at Sunrun, in an email.
Why isn’t this happening faster?
In a perfect world, California’s energy resilience strategy would be further along as we enter this year’s fire season.
But from a regulatory standpoint, developing a new clean energy product in nine months is quite fast. In the example of the CCA and Sunrun partnership, Ross pointed out that it takes time to write a solicitation, run a competitive application process (required for public procurements), select a winner and enter contract negotiations — all while working with the California Energy Commission to develop a new product it could offer to customers.
Six to nine months roll by pretty quickly as you're trying to launch something to deliver a new product and a new technology to customers.
"Six to nine months roll by pretty quickly as you're trying to launch something to deliver a new product and a new technology to customers," Ross said.
Now that this specific product is created, other energy providers likely will be able to move faster.
"I suspect with this agreement and other projects, this type of agreement will become more standardized," wrote Maze-Rothstein. "I would be surprised if other CCAs don’t follow suit over the next six to 12 months."
Once the programs are established, there’s another waiting game: New energy resources need to wait for interconnections from the utility, which can take three to six more months.
"Interconnection timelines are unduly long for solar and storage, whether it's residential or commercial or industrial," Ross said.