A Tidal Wave of Local Clean Energy in California

Menlo Spark is an independent nonprofit working to help Menlo Park, California, become climate neutral by 2025. It is working with Peninsula Clean Energy to provide clean energy to San Mateo County. RMI worked as a strategic advisor to Menlo Spark in the early stages of its effort.

A clean energy revolution is quietly washing over California right now with cities choosing cleaner, cheaper power and keeping those investments local. At the epicenter of this transformation is the San Francisco Bay Area, where almost all the cities and counties have either already started or joined, or are planning on creating community choice energy programs (CCEs). CCEs allow the community to choose its energy supplier, often offering electricity with significantly more renewables at a competitive price. It started with Marin Clean Energy in 2010, spread to Sonoma Clean Power in 2014, to Lancaster Choice Energy in 2015, to San Francisco (Clean Power SF) and San Mateo County in 2016, to Silicon Valley Clean Energy in 2017, and then on to Apple Valley and Redwood Coast. East Bay and San Jose CCEs are anticipated to come online soon, completing the circle of clean energy around the Bay. Seven other CCEs are also anticipated so that most of the eligible population in California will soon be served by locally controlled community choice energy (see this map).

Although California’s latest push to go 100 percent renewable statewide through legislation (Senate Bill 100) is delayed, the promise to advance renewable energy and local climate action plan programs is sprinting forward through CCEs. Consider, for example, Peninsula Clean Energy (PCE), which completed its San Mateo County launch on Earth Day of this year. PCE’s base portfolio is 50 percent renewable and 80 percent carbon free. It began with a few wistful workshops in January 2015, and thanks to the leadership of two county supervisors, David Pine and Carole Groom, took off in true Silicon Valley start-up mode. It was clear that the County meant business as it hired expert consultants and pieced together an advisory committee of dozens of stakeholders from each city and interest groups including labor, schools, and environmental organizations. The County quickly brought everyone up to speed on what kind of power qualifies as renewable, what unbundled renewable energy credits (RECs) are and why they wouldn’t be used, and all the mechanics of smoothly transitioning power purchasing away from investor-owned utilities to local control.

One year in, PCE has 98 percent customer participation, the clean energy has reduced carbon emissions by 56 million pounds, and one of the biggest power users—Facebook—has opted for 100 percent renewable energy. So far, “PCE has contracted for over 300 megawatts of clean, renewable energy from new facilities that are being built specifically to serve our customers in San Mateo County,” said Jan Pepper, CEO of PCE. The process that PCE went through to form and deliver cleaner, cheaper power, with support from all 20 cities in the County, can serve as a blueprint for any other region looking for a similar power shift. And we’re watching it happen all around the Bay Area like dominos.

CCEs won’t just help get to grid-stable 100 percent renewable energy; they can also support communities going carbon zero, provide local jobs, and increase resiliency. How? Here are a few examples.

  • Marin Clean Energy’s microgrid program helped Marin College partner with Tesla to couple solar with 1 MW of battery storage. Energy storage helps smooth out intermittent renewable energy supply, shaves peak demand, and improves community resiliency.
  • Sonoma Clean Power actively promotes electric vehicles (EVs) through Drive EverGreen, which offers deep discounts for EVs, with the largest rebates to low-income households, and free smart charging units that can help balance loads on the grid.
  • Lancaster Choice Energy (LCE) helped Antelope Valley Transit transition to a 100 percent electric bus fleet with wireless charging stations. LCE is also aggressively pursuing 100 percent renewable power for all customers to help the City of Lancaster become net-zero carbon.
  • Marin Clean Energy took a local Chevron brownfield site in Richmond and added 10 MW of solar, creating local jobs and a beneficial reuse of a contaminated industrial site.
  • SF Clean Power, which promotes business leadership on clean energy, recently signed Salesforce up for the SuperGreen (100 percent renewable) option, reducing the equivalent carbon emissions of 4 million miles of driving in a typical car. “Salesforce believes that working toward 100 percent renewable energy across global operations is one of the most important things we can do to address the effects of climate change,” said Suzanne DiBianca, Salesforce executive vice president, corporate relations and chief philanthropy officer.

Local government can work closely with CCEs, businesses, and all customers to help transition from fossil fuels to 100 percent carbon-free electricity with ample local energy storage and demand management programs for a resilient grid. The clean energy revolution already started, and it’s coming to a town near you.

A Tidal Wave of Local Clean Energy in California, by Diane Bailey, Rocky Mountain Institute, October 17, 2017.

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