Advanced Community Energy: Building a Clean and Resilient Electricity Grid

I am pleased to have joined the Center for Climate Protection to work on the new Advanced Community Energy (ACE) initiative.  

Advanced Community Energy (ACE) is an initiative to establish, through legislation, a program to provide funding, technical expertise, best practices and local capacity building for all cities and counties to plan and implement local ACE systems, starting with Community Microgrids. Under the proposed state program, ACE planning will involve collaboration between local government agencies, local residents and stakeholders, especially vulnerable households and disadvantaged neighborhoods, electric distribution utilities, and clean energy developers and technology companies. 

ACE is based on grid architecture developed by Dr. Lorenzo Kristov, taking advantage of dramatic recent developments in Distributed Energy Resources (DER).  

Decarbonization is the overarching policy priority given the climate crisis, although resilience is currently at the forefront of policymaker concerns in the current era of “Public Safety Power Shutoffs.”  Like other PG&E ratepayers, I received a letter advising me to be prepared for the power at my home in fire-prone Marin County to be shutoff for up to 96 hours.  That would be an inconvenience for my family. It could be life-threatening for people who rely on electricity for medical needs. My mother’s skilled nursing facility is required to have on-site back-up generation available for 6 hours. What happens if the power outage is longer than 6 hours?  

In response to power shutoffs, homeowners, businesses and managers of critical facilities are buying back-up power generation.  The town where I live recently decided to purchase a $30K back-up generator. The Association of California Water Agencies recently held a meeting to help water managers plan for how to maintain service during power shutoffs.  The quickest solution? Fossil fuel generators. 

There is a better way: every community should start by identifying its critical facilities and deciding where to install new local renewables and storage. It makes sense to use optimal spaces in a community to generate and store energy, rather than what’s happening now: everyone thinking only about their own facilities.  Some California local governments have already started developing community microgrid projects in order to enhance resiliency, including Oakland, Eureka, and Santa Barbara. These efforts need to expand to other communities.  A statewide program is needed to ensure that all cities and counties in the state have the financial and technical resources and guidance to conduct collaborative, participatory planning processes. In addition to funding support, a statewide ACE program would provide technical expertise and best practices, such as designs for critical-facility microgrids, building efficiency and decarbonization retrofit strategies, carbon-free local mobility services, a clearinghouse for best practices in local government energy planning and a library of case studies.

We also need transformation of our regulatory policies and institutions, revising market rules so that thousands of small-scale distributed energy resources can be compensated for providing local energy services.  We need to direct the CPUC to develop regulatory rules for its jurisdictional electric distribution utilities to collaborate with cities and counties in their service areas. It is essential that local ACE systems address decarbonization, equity and resilience be designed so as to improve the reliable operation of California’s electric grid while minimizing operational impacts and needs for new grid infrastructure investment. IOU distribution utilities must be fully engaged collaborators and provide the information needed for effective ACE planning. This would be a new role for the IOUs, however, so the ACE legislation would direct the CPUC to develop the regulatory framework governing this role and its associated responsibilities and incentives. An eventual transition to a “Distribution System Operator” model would allow local energy resources to reduce costs caused by local peaks and also defer some infrastructure investments.  When the grid experiences outages, local resources could be separated operationally from the central grid at and below the substation. The distribution system operator would implement smart switching and grid segmentation to enable different sub-sections of the distribution grid to maintain operations as needed. This would ensure that during any outage, critical services as established by each community would continue to receive electricity. 

California Fire Threat Map. Source: CPUC

We also need sufficient market signals to enable this transformation.  This would start by increasing state funding to support critical-facility microgrid projects, starting with high fire risk areas and eventually covering all of California. Eventually all California communities may be subject to severe climate-related disruptions, so a statewide “resilient communities” goal would focus on identifying critical facilities in all cities and counties — such as water supply, wastewater treatment, first responders and community care centers for displaced persons — and equipping them with carbon-free energy resources and energy storage to maintain electric service when disruptions occur.   This will build upon existing CPUC proceedings.   Last week the CPUC issued a Decision to use Self Generation Incentive Program funding for additional energy storage project incentives for vulnerable households and critical facilities in high fire threat districts. The CPUC also recently initiated a microgrid rulemaking pursuant to SB1339, which will also be pivotal for development of the future DER-based grid.  

ACE is the logical next step in California’s remarkable history of energy policy innovation.  Back in 2006, I worked at the California Public Utilities Commission on the implementation rulemaking for the $3B California Solar Initiative.  At the very beginning there was a clear vision for the end goal, 3000 MW of new solar in California, and lots of details to be worked out. That’s where we are now with ACE: a compelling vision for how to build a better electricity grid and lots of work ahead to make that vision become reality.   

If’ you would like to learn more about ACE, please sign up to receive our future newsletter or contact me at kurt@climateprotection.org.   I look forward to working together to build a clean and resilient California electricity grid.  

 

 

 

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