Napa County supervisors want to adopt rules before approving another solar farm

Napa County supervisors want to create rules for large commercial solar farms in the wake of people’s fears that photovoltaic panels might someday blight wine country.

Supervisor Belia Ramos brought up the topic of commercial renewable energy rules at the Jan. 8 Board of Supervisors meeting. Her colleagues quickly agreed they should craft policies for a use presently allowed in all zoning districts with Planning Commission approval.

“I think it’s prudent we address this sooner rather than later, as it has already proven to be contentious in our community,” Ramos said.

How soon the Board of Supervisors acts remains to be seen, as the issue has yet to be scheduled. A renewable energy ordinance is now one more thing on the county’s 2019 to-do list.

Renewable Properties LLC last year proposed to build county’s first commercial solar farms, one near American Canyon along Interstate 80 and the other in the rural Coombsville area near the city of Napa. The Coombsville proposal proved controversial among neighbors and has since been withdrawn.

The American Canyon proposal went before the county Planning Commission on Oct. 17, Nov. 28 and Dec. 5. It finally passed by a 3-2 vote amid concerns that the county has no regulations for commercial solar farms, as do neighboring Sonoma and Solano counties.

“This application sets a precedent that may be impossible to challenge for the next application or the one after that,” said Eve Kahn of Get a Grip on Growth and Napa Vision 2050.

Commissioner Joelle Gallagher voted against the American Canyon project.

“I want to see the regulations and guidance in place before we start approving commercial solar,” she said.

A majority of commissioners said they thought the American Canyon site a good place for 12,000 solar panels to provide power for Marin Clean Energy, which serves Napa County. But they too wanted more guidance from the Board of Supervisors on renewable energy projects.

In the wake of Planning Commission approval, the American Canyon solar project itself looked likely to go to the Board of Supervisors. Resident Laura Tinthoff said after the meeting that critics of the project would file an appeal. They never did.

On Thursday, Tinthoff said the potential appellants are new to the county government process. They started out concerned about the now-defunct Coombsville project and then saw the issue was much bigger.

“We were very sincere in realizing this could affect all of Napa County,” Tinthoff said.

She expressed satisfaction with the Board of Supervisors’ willingness to work on an ordinance, saying that’s what her group was seeking.

Ramos said a renewable energy ordinance will give more guidance to the Planning Commission. Also, the use permit application used for the American Canyon commercial solar farm project was for wineries, something she’d like to see changed.

Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said he would have brought the renewable energy ordinance issue up if Ramos hadn’t.

“I really think we need this,” Supervisor Diane Dillon agreed.

 

Napa County supervisors want to adopt rules before approving another solar farm, by Barry Eberling, Napa Valley Register, January 15, 2019.

This East Bay Energy Startup Is Building Microgrids for California’s Fire Stations

As California leaders scramble to address the fallout from devastating wildfires that have ripped across the state in recent years, the California Public Utilities Commission is reviewing rules that allow the state’s electric utilities to cut power to communities when there is a major risk of forest fire.

The goal: pre-emptively shut off power to sections of California’s aging grid so that it doesn’t spark any more deadly blazes. These wildfires have also destroyed homes and entire towns, and this week brought the state’s largest utility to the brink of bankruptcy.

Shutting off power may well be a necessary step, but — beyond potentially leaving communities in the dark for days or longer — it also risks handcuffing first responders who need power to do their work if the fire comes from another source.

One possible answer to the dilemma: Fremont-based Gridscape Solutions, a renewable energy project developer, is working with California fire stations to build resilient microgrids.

“As soon as utility power is shut off, our controller detects the loss of…power and will automatically switch to the battery and solar power,” said Vipul Gore, the company’s president and CEO. “All the loads in this fire station are critical loads. With our system, there’s full power at the fire station, even if there is no power to anyone else, and then it will run on the solar and the battery system.”

Gridscape’s microgrids allow fire stations to run islanded from the grid, and the company believes it’s a model that can be replicated across the state — especially in areas at risk of wildfire. So far Gridscape has piloted microgrids at three fire stations in Fremont, one of the largest cities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pacific Gas & Electric is under immense public scrutiny for its role in causing multiple small fires and possibly several major ones that have burned across its territory in recent months. CEO Geisha Williams stepped down from the company on Sunday, after the utility saw its credit rating downgraded to “junk” status and shares tumbled. The utility announced Monday that it will file for bankruptcy protection by the end of the month, facing billions of dollars in potential wildfire liabilities.

Regardless of what happens to PG&E, it’s clear that the state’s power grid is a risk and new solutions are needed.

A virtually connected and controlled microgrid

California regulators are examining plans to prioritize de-energizing large sections of the state’s electric grid in the wake of recent wildfires. They’ve already ordered utilities in the state to hold workshops in areas that could see preventative outages. If a utility does cut power, it is supposed to alert customers and emergency service operators a couple hours before.

Peter Asmus, associate director of utilities and energy companies for Navigant Research, said the main concern with cutting power as a preventative measure against fires is ensuring that these critical services remain operational.

“I’m not opposed to that idea,” he said, “But what about those first responders? Does that mean they’re not going to have power? Which means they’re probably going to rely on their diesel generator backups, which means that they could…burn through a lot of fuel, even when there’s not a fire. Then, if an actual fire occurs, what are they going to do?”

Gridscape’s system solves this problem by allowing the station to run on power generated by its solar system or stored in a battery. At the very least, it can extend the number of days that a fire station can run its backup generator. “It’s a factor of the battery,” Gore said. “With a larger battery…I think it can run 24/7 without any problem.”

Photo: California Energy Commission, Source: Greentech Media

In Fremont, Gridscape has deployed 40-kilowatt solar arrays on car canopies combined with 110-kilowatt-hour battery energy storage systems. These distributed energy resources are not the most innovative piece of the project, however. The most innovative aspect is on the back end.

Gridscape’s microgrids are virtually connected with cloud-based software and controlled with a smart controller that manages power flow from the distributed resources and from the grid. It is one of a few companies to market this type of system for building resiliency into an emergency management and wildfire protection.

“We can detect signals from the utility,” said Alok Singhania, a partner in Gridscape. “We can make sure that battery is full, and if we know a shutdown is coming, we can start to cut down on the consumption. [If] the utilities say, ‘Well, we think the outage is going to be four days.’ We can plan for that based on the weather conditions. That’s the power of the software.”

Beyond resiliency, the software also allows fire stations to better manage their energy use. “There’s more solar production between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and not enough later in the day,” Singhania said. “The microgrid allows you to manage the time shift, very effectively, without adding anything. That’s the point we’re trying to make. It’s cost-effective — period.”

Fremont’s fire station microgrids

Rachel DiFranco, Fremont’s sustainability manager, said that the city’s goal with the project is to support local clean technology businesses, demonstrate the benefits of renewable energy storage for the community, and prove that a microgrid system can work at its fire stations.

“We always thought of this as a really key strategy for resiliency,” DiFranco said. “And we started this before all these really significant wildfires that happened in Northern California. It’s even more important now that in the last couple years we’ve seen extreme fire events that have been exacerbated by climate change.”

DiFranco estimates that the system will save — at minimum — $250,000 in power costs over about a 10-year period. But she expects even higher savings as the battery saves on peak demand charges at the fire stations.

Additionally, the city will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80,000 pounds annually. “This was always a great idea from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, and it will add operational resiliency. But it also hit so many value-adds beyond the sustainability factor,” DiFranco said.

Photo: California Energy Commission, Source: Greentech Media

Fremont’s microgrid system was built for $2.4 million. The California Energy Commission kicked in $1.8 million, and Gridscape Solutions paid for the rest, which it will recoup through a power-purchase agreement with the city of Fremont.

“The fire station microgrids allow us to significantly save on our operational costs while at the same time introducing an aspect of resiliency by providing us with energy independence,”  Alexander Schubeck, the emergency services manager for Fremont Fire Department, said in a statement.

Gridscape won a $4.9 million grant from the Energy Commission in 2018 to build out these types of microgrids, as the startup competes with other microgrid players like Sunrun and Schneider Electric. Gore is in talks about building microgrids at fire stations in Richmond and other cities across the state. He said the next site could be in the city of Stockton, California.

“They also housed the 911 emergency dispatch center at the fire station in Stockton,” said Gore. “All [of] the county calls come there. It is as critical as it can get.”

This East Bay Energy Startup Is Building Microgrids for California’s Fire Stations, by Kevin Stark, Greentech Media, January 15, 2019.

San Francisco considering municipal utility as PG&E prepares bankruptcy filing

Dive Brief:

  • The municipal utility that provides retail power and water services to the San Francisco government is considering the purchase of PG&E’s electricity assets in the city — part of a slate of options to deal with the impending bankruptcy filing of California’s largest utility company.
  • The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission said on Twitter it is considering options to ensure reliable power service when PG&E files for Chapter 11 protections, “including possibility of acquiring or building electrical infrastructure assets,” at the request of Mayor London Breed.
  • Public ownership of all or parts of PG&E is one potential avenue identified by California utility regulators last month to address billions of dollars in liabilities PG&E faces due to wildfire damages. The bankruptcy filing could also threaten some renewable energy contracts that developers hold with the utility, which could be dissolved.

Dive Insight:

The SFPUC’s quick municipalization statement on Monday suggests one potential avenue to restructure PG&E, which could face up to $30 billion in liabilities associated with its role in igniting multiple deadly wildfires over the past two years.

San Francisco already has its Community Choice Aggregation program, which purchases clean energy from the open market but still relies on power lines owned by PG&E.

In a Monday statement, just hours after PG&E announced it would file for Chapter 11, the municipal utility said it is investigating the purchase of that power infrastructure, or building its own. The SFPUC currently provides water and sewer services to the city government, as well as hydroelectric and solar power to its municipal departments through the CleanPowerSF CCA.

Municipalization is only one potential avenue to reform PG&E. In December, California regulators laid out a variety of options to reorganize the utility in light of “serious safety problems with both its gas and electric operations,” related to the fires and a 2010 pipeline explosion in the Northern California community of San Bruno.

Those include splitting the utility’s transmission and distribution businesses, spinning off its natural gas service, divesting its power generation or reorganizing the company into regional subsidiaries.

PG&E said Monday that its bankruptcy filing will not affect reliable power and gas service, but has stayed quiet on reorganization options.

Procedurally, municipalization could be one of the more challenging reorganization options, as it would likely require extensive negotiations about which power assets would be purchased by the city, and at what cost. Debates with incumbent utility Xcel Energy about those issues have delayed municipalization efforts in Boulder, Colorado, for five years since voters approved a publicly owned utility in 2013.

Xcel, however, was not in bankruptcy protection, and faced little pressure outside of Boulder to reorganize. That could be different in California, where recent meetings of the state Public Utilities Commission have been disrupted by activists demanding public ownership of PG&E.

Whatever avenues California policymakers take to reform PG&E’s structure, energy experts say they also must ensure major changes are made to PG&E’s safety culture and practices.

As climate change fuels more powerful wildfire seasons, Stanford University’s Michael Wara argues PG&E will find itself in the same financial position in the future if major changes are not made to reduce the risk.

Major changes to safety practices could come from the courts as well as state and local regulators. Last week, a U.S. federal district court judge recommended directing PG&E to inspect its entire electric grid before the start of wildfire season in June and “remove or trim all trees that could fall on its power lines, poles or equipment in high wind situations.”

PG&E and other parties in the court case — which relates to the 2010 pipeline explosion — have until Jan. 23 to file arguments against the inspection directive and other safety modifications in the court order. A hearing will be held Jan. 30.

 

San Francisco considering municipal utility as PG&E prepares bankruptcy filing, by Gavin Blade, Utility Dive, January 15, 2019.

EBCE Runs Demand Response Pilot Program

EBCE executed its first demand response pilot program this summer, paying out over $100,000 to customers that cut demand during peak periods.

The program was modeled on existing peak pricing demand response programs, where customers respond to notifications of “peak day events,” or hours of expected high demand with high spot market power prices and potential grid stability issues. Cutting demand at those peak times helps with grid stability and reduces costs for all customers, not just those who respond.

The existing PG&E program, which is called Peak Day Pricing (PDP), is not available to customers served by CCAs. EBCE took over service for over 50,000 commercial and industrial customers in Alameda County in June, and a number of them didn’t want to lose the PDP option.

So EBCE put together their own version of the program, at least on a pilot basis. The goal was to retain customers, see what it’s like to run the program, and make sure it works.

Taj Ait-Laoussine, Vice President for Technology and Data Analytics, says EBCE focused on two tariff classes, for large commercial and industrial customers.

“Most other customer types were either not aware they were enrolled in PDP rates, or were not changing their behavior in response to notifications,” he says. “But big customers were responsive, and we knew they could deliver bigger results.”

For the pilot, EBCE simply followed PG&E’s lead on when the events were called, which were based on weather conditions across the service territory. EBCE set up systems to notify customers of events via email and text messages.

In all, EBCE called eight events in June and July and paid out over $100,000 in incentives. “Retaining customers that could alter their load shapes in response to demand response incentives was a win for all of EBCE, since they can cut demand during peak hours,” says Ait-Laoussine. “That helps us in reducing our overall procurement costs, since we reduce our exposure during potentially volatile hours.”

load shape of event days versus non event days chart

Ait-Laoussine says EBCE is conducting more research to determine what an ongoing program might look like. “We have to make sure it is tied into our procurement strategy, based on EBCE peak load periods and needs rather than PG&E’s, and develop a more robust notification system. Plus, we need to better identify customers that could provide meaningful impact while also benefiting from it, based on their business, their load, and their flexibility.”

While the pilot was a success, EBCE could develop a different approach to demand response. “Our goal is to flatten our load shape and to reduce financial risk in peak hours,” says Ait-Laoussine. “And there are different ways to do that.”

Peak season is in summer only, so EBCE has until next May to launch their new offering.

 

EBCE Runs Demand Response Pilot Program, by East Bay Community Energy Staff, East Bay Community Energy, January 7, 2019.

San Rafael schools to get electric car charging stations

San Rafael City Schools is taking the lead among Marin public school districts to install electric car charging stations at three high schools, a middle school and five elementary schools.

The project, approved by the San Rafael district’s board of trustees last month, will be offset by a series of grants and rebates from the Transportation Authority of Marin, the state Transportation Fund for Clean Air, Marin Clean Energy and Pacific Gas & Electric, said Nicholas Nguyen, principal project manager for TAM, which is working with the school district on the project.

The district’s trustees on Dec. 17  authorized staff to send out requests for proposals to various EV charging station providers in order to identify a company to do the installations.

The transportation authority, which also backs carpooling and alternative transportation modes to reduce congestion and emissions, thinks “electric vehicles offer a clean choice when the other options are not available,” Nguyen said.

“We’re making a big push in Marin for fossil-free vehicles — specifically for school districts,” Nguyen said.  “We’re hoping districts across Marin will take note and jump on the wagon.”

Although the Kentfield School District did install an electric vehicle charging station in 2016 at its district office on College Avenue, San Rafael City Schools is the first Marin public school district to plan a series of installations at actual school buildings, Nguyen said.

The district is using the same financing model of leveraging seed and grant money to cover costs as was used last year when Marin County installed 47 electric vehicle charging heads at the Marin County Civic Center and at county fleet operations, he added.

“The county only spent about $7,400 (of county funds), for an almost $200,000 project,” Nguyen said. “It was an amazing use of leveraging grants and seed money. This is the model that San Rafael City Schools will be using.”

The schools identified for EV stations include: Terra Linda High School; San Rafael High School; Madrone Continuation High School; Davidson Middle School; and Glenwood, Bahia Vista, Coleman, Sun Valley and San Pedro elementary schools.

“We’re thrilled that our community partners are making EV charging stations possible on so many campuses,” said school district Superintendent Michael Watenpaugh. “Our board, staff, students and community members have advocated for these stations and community funding and rebates will make them possible.”

Dan Zaich, the district’s senior director of capital improvements, said the actual EV station construction is expected to cause minimal disruption because most of the new EV stations will be installed at school campuses that are already under construction for other school facilities under the Measure A and Measure B voter-approved bond programs.

“Our intentions with these preliminary plans include a four-hour time limit at each station with posted signage outlining guidelines,” Zaich said. “The district plans ‘pass through charges’ where the vehicle owner pays only for the electricity used via a punch key and credit card system, similar to those systems seen at shopping malls.”

The full cost of the installations won’t be available until a contractor is selected and designs are drawn for each school. The number of stations and of charging heads is also not yet available, given the variations among the various proposals that will come in.

According to Zaich, each design must be reviewed by the Division of the State Architect before the district can proceed with construction.

“Charging stations will be a mix of dual and single head stations, following accessibility requirements,” Zaich said.

So far, the following grants and rebates are secured:

— $60,000 from a state Transportation Fund for Clean Air grant (obtained through the Transportation Authority of Marin).

— $65,772 from a Marin Clean Energy rebate.

— $575 per charging port from a PG&E rebate

— up to $3,000 per charging head from a Measure B alternative fuel program from Transportation Authority of Marin (up to 75 percent of remaining costs after other grants have been applied).

“Installing electric vehicle charging stations is an important, forward-thinking move by the San Rafael school board,” Nguyen said. “TAM is glad to be a guiding resource and funding partner in this effort by the district to combat climate change and accelerate the transition to fossil-free transportation.”

 

San Rafael schools to get electric car charging stations, by Keri Brenner, Marin Independent Journal, January 7, 2019.

After the fires, solar power advocates seek greater role in California electric grid

Over the summer, Côme Lague received a notice from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that made him rethink the energy needs at a vineyard and winery he owns in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The letter informed Lague that PG&E could decide to intentionally turn off power lines when extreme weather conditions elevate the risk of utility equipment sparking dangerous wildfires. PG&E had never done a planned power outage but has recently embraced them as a defense measure of last resort, particularly during periods of intense winds and very low humidity levels.

But Lague was concerned about the potential impact to his business, La Mesa Vineyards in Amador County. What would he do if a shutoff happened during the fall harvest, when electricity is critical for keeping his business running?

“The grapes are ready when they’re ready, and then you bring them in,” Lague said. “If you’re in the middle of crushing them, and the power is shut off for days — you’re not exactly gonna be manually processing all that fruit.”

Lague, a San Francisco resident, already had a solar system on the property and didn’t want to rely on a generator. He decided to expand the solar system so it can adequately satisfy his business needs if PG&E does shut off the power to prevent a fire.

It’s one example of several ways advocates of solar power say the technology can play a bigger role in the state’s electric grid — an opportunity they say has become much more necessary as climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather with the potential to fuel devastating wildfires.

By boosting the usage of solar panels and batteries that store the power they generate, California could theoretically mimic across the state what Lague is doing for his winery, allowing homes and businesses to keep the lights on without turning to a fossil-fuel-powered generator.

That would entail an embrace of what’s known as distributed energy, where power is generated across decentralized sources as opposed to a traditional power plant, hydroelectric dam or large-scale solar farm.

California has taken great strides to expand the use of solar power, with new laws that require panels on most new homes and promote the installation of energy storage systems. But the state could still do much more, according to the California Solar & Storage Association.

“We have long thought that distributed solar was a critical component to preventing some of the worst impacts of climate change but, obviously, the wildfires and the grid’s role puts a whole new urgency to the deployment of distributed energy,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, the industry group’s executive director. “There’s multiple solutions that need to be deployed — there’s no one single silver bullet.”

Lawmakers could take steps to speed up and simplify how customers connect new solar projects to the grid, according to Brad Heavner, the association’s policy director.

They should also consider creating a mechanism to compensate customers for using batteries to share power with the electric grid, and they can take a look at providing some kind of financial support for emergency centers that need help installing solar panel and storage systems, Heavner said.

Yet utilities have often been reluctant to embrace distributed energy, Del Chiaro said.

“Their track record is one of obstructing self-generation by customers of all types, and it’s been policymakers that have stepped in and said you have to accept this,” she said. “You don’t have to be rocket scientists to understand that the way they are structured, in terms of profit motive, does not leave a lot of room for their customers self-generating.”

PG&E spokesman James Noonan said in a statement that the utility is “committed to solar power” and helping the state fulfill its goals of using more clean energy. The company would need to review any new legislative proposals before taking a position on them, he said in an email.

“We support our customers’ choice and control when it comes to their energy,” Noonan said in the email. “A customer’s private rooftop solar equipment is connected to the PG&E energy grid. For customers with rooftop solar, PG&E provides power when their system isn’t generating such as the nighttime.”

PG&E has connected more than 360,000 solar customers to the energy grid, which Noonan said represents “about 25 percent of private rooftop solar in the country.” The utility connects about 5,000 new solar customers to the grid each month, and it’s poised to soon expand its own use of solar power, Noonan said.

PG&E has six solar projects scheduled to come online this year: four in Kern County, one in Santa Barbara County and one in Monterey County. They will generate a total of about 325 megawatts of power, according to Noonan.

Utility projects such as those are key to helping the state fulfill its climate goals, including regulators’ target of seeing 9 gigawatts of new solar power projects installed by 2030, according to Sean Gallagher, vice president for state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“Solar at smaller and larger scales offers different kinds of values — both offer values to the grid and to the society,” Gallagher said. “We think that both have roles to play, and the state’s energy regulators have agreed.”

But utilities have slowed in their efforts to launch brand-new solar projects amid uncertainty about whether customers in the state would continue shifting toward community choice aggregation, where localities buy energy on behalf of residents and businesses that opt in instead of relying on one investor-owned utility.

Gallagher said the state’s lawmakers should find a way to “get the procurement on track” for new solar projects. He thinks the state should also develop a more “workable” community solar program, in which customers who can’t have their own solar systems can subscribe to a piece of a developer’s project and get a credit on their utility bill for the power produced by their portion of it.

“California has a community solar program, but it’s been designed in a very complicated way that basically has resulted in no uptake, no developers that are using it,” Gallagher said.

Sunrun, one of the nation’s dominant residential solar companies, isn’t waiting. The San Francisco company worked with Puerto Rico to help restore power after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and has since been working on expanding the territory’s use of solar power in other ways, according to Anne Hoskins, the company’s chief policy officer.

Sunrun sees a similar kind of opening in California because of the wildfires. The company is keeping a close eye on state regulators’ efforts to craft new rules about planned power outages and plans to be involved in those proceedings going forward, Hoskins said.

Sunrun also wants to work with utilities more directly to help craft their wildfire mitigation plans required by the state, she said.

“We really believe that we have resources and capacity, that we can help them as they make their plans,” Hoskins said. “Together, we can meet these really critical needs, but we’ve got to be at the table and we’ve got to be part of those plans.”

Lague, the Sierra Nevada winery owner, decided to oversee all aspects of his solar expansion himself. Now he wants to help others follow his footsteps.

Lague is a solar aficionado of sorts: He owns one of San Francisco’s famous Painted Ladies, where he has installed rooftop solar panels that help offset the electric costs at the home. He has a Tesla Powerwall to store power in the Victorian’s garage.

So he didn’t want to rely on fossil fuel-powered generators to sustain his winery in the event of a planned power outage.

His vineyard already had an 8-kilowatt solar panel system that generated enough energy to essentially break even on his electricity bill because of the way it shares power with the rest of the grid. But it wouldn’t be enough to power his whole property if PG&E’s lines were shut off, Lague said.

That’s why he decided to expand the system, adding another 39 solar panels and 15 additional kilowatts. The larger solar system will be able to power 75 percent of what the vineyard and winery would use at the “worst time” for its electricity needs, Lague said.

And he’s now turned the experience into a new company he’s calling Sun Safe Power, through which he plans to help others replicate the model he put in place at his winery.

“It was not an easy process. These are all different technologies that are difficult to integrate together, and then there’s the complexities of how you install it,” Lague said. “No one vendor could really do it all, so we sort of added to this and figured it out ourselves.”

J.D. Morris is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jd.morris@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @thejdmorris

After the fires, solar power advocates seek greater role in California electric grid, by J.D. Morris, San Francisco Chronicle, January 3, 2019.

Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Utilities Powered by the People

What would California’s increasingly devastating wildfires look like if PG&E were beholden to the people instead of to its shareholders?

That’s the crux of a proposal by state regulators that could prove trouble for the utility headquartered in San Francisco — despite the California Legislature’s repeated bailouts amid lawsuits and criminal investigations. In December, the California Public Utilities Commission announced that, in the name of public safety, PG&E could soon have its board replaced or be broken up into regional subsidiaries.

But the most striking option is for it to be designated as a public utility run by the government, not merely a regulated monopoly. This presents an opening for San Francisco to join dozens of other cities that either have long-established municipal utilities or are considering it.

The concept has proven itself beyond major metropolitan cities like San Francisco. Winter Park, Fla., Gosnold, Ma., and Bowie, Texas, are among smaller jurisdictions in 49 states that manage power for their residents.

Public utilities nationwide power one in seven electricity customers, who pay almost 15 percent less than they would to a private company, according to the American Public Power Association. They also face power outages for an average of only 59 minutes a year, compared to 133 minutes from private utilities.

Boulder, Colo., began its path toward establishing its own utility in 2011, when it conducted a feasibility study. In December 2018, its city council voted to proceed while the agreement to take over functions of private utility Xcel is being considered by Colorado regulators, the Boulder Daily Camera reported.

Public utilities do come with a caveat. The political backlash of raising rates can lead to less funding, meaning fewer resources to meet regulations, warned a 2015 American Journal of Political Science paper titled “When Governments Regulate Governments.”

Still, San Francisco’s tolerance for the privatization model has waned as leaders push to break from a change-resistant PG&E.

CleanPowerSF brings renewable energy to more than 100,000 residents, but with PG&E owning the grid infrastructure, it’s delegated to a city program that faces the whims of state regulators. In December, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission voted to absorb $25 million in exit fees — approved by the same CPUC proposing to shake up the private utility — rather than raise rates for customers switching from PG&E.

But voters provided a big push to bringing that closer to reality in June with the passage of Proposition A, which allows the city to issue revenue bonds to fund clean power facilities. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, no stranger to battles with PG&E, proposed using $50 million of the unexpected $181 million windfall to front costs for establishing a municipal utility. (Mayor London Breed and other supervisors have their own ideas and how the money will be spent is far from settled.)

What is clear is that anger against PG&E over wildfires and public safety is at a fever pitch and regulators are facing pressure. Regulators may ultimately decide not to opt for an era of public-run power in California but San Francisco has a stronger chance than ever to take cues from dozens of other cities and split from the investor-owned utility.

The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to discuss the proceeding at its Jan. 10 meeting at 9:30 a.m. held at 505 Van Ness Ave.

 

Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Utilities Powered by the People, Ida Mojadad, SF Weekly, January 2, 2019.

City To Switch Residents To Locally Owned Electricity Provider By March 2019

San Jose will switch its residents to a city-owned electricity provider by March 2019 in a push toward 100 percent renewable energy over the next decade.

Residents will begin receiving postcards announcing the switch to San Jose Clean Energy (SJCE) later this month with an option to opt out back to regular PG&E service. SJCE will become the city’s official electricity provider in February.

“With SJCE, San Jose will initially see about an 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation, the same as taking about 35,000 cars off the road,” the city said in a news release.

SJCE’s “GreenSource” program will offer 45 percent renewable energy at a cost of about 1 percent less than PG&E per month, according to the city. The “TotalGreen” program will charge about $20 less per month for 100 percent renewable energy. The City Council in 2017 voted to enter the community choice aggregation program, moving away from investor-owned utilizes.

Zachary Struyk, the city’s spokesman for the program, said San Jose is able to provide electricity at a lower cost because SJCE is a nonprofit, meaning all profits are reinvested into the program.

He added that senior executives for the city are paid less than those at PG&E, and the renewable options are now the most inexpensive on the market.

The California Public Utilities Commission recently approved an increase to an exit fee known as a Power Charge Indifference Adjustment for providers who leave investor-owned companies like PG&E.

Though SJCE prices could increase as a result, Struyk said the city will maintain a 1 percent difference between local energy and PG&E regardless of CPUC’s decision.

“Even taking [Power Charge Indifference Adjustment] into account, [residents] will still be saving money,” Struyk said.

PG&E will still oversee power lines, repair and billing, but the city will buy a majority of its power through independent power producers. The procurement process for residential use in 2019 is currently ongoing.

For municipal use beginning earlier this year, the city contracted with Terragen, Constellation, Powerex, NextEra and PG&E wholesale, according to Struyk.

 

City To Switch Residents To Locally Owned Electricity Provider By March 2019, by Bay City News Service, SF Gate, December 17, 2018.

SFPUC to absorb $25 million in fees to keep CleanPowerSF bills from rising

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is moving ahead with a plan to absorb an estimated $25 million in added fees that would otherwise fall on the agency’s CleanPowerSF energy customers next year.

On Tuesday, the commission unanimously approved a proposal to offset the fees with an automatic subsidy, protecting CleanPowerSF’s roughly 115,000 residential and commercial customers from higher energy bills.

Since October, SFPUC officials had vowed to shield CleanPowerSF’s customers from potential rate increases. That’s when energy regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission handed down a controversial decision to raise the so-called “exit fees” that customers pay when they switch from investor-owned utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to government-run power programs like CleanPowerSF.

The SFPUC is automatically enrolling large portions of San Francisco in CleanPowerSF, though customers can opt out of the program and choose to stay with PG&E. Just over 3 percent of customers have elected to do so since the program began enrolling customers in 2016, according to the agency’s data. The SFPUC is still on track to enroll an additional 280,000 accounts next April.

Absorbing the increased fees represents one way for CleanPowerSF to stay competitive with PG&E’s electricity rates, creating an incentive for customers to utilize the program’s greener energy mix. But over time, SFPUC officials have expressed concern that the added fees will slow the agency’s ability to invest in more job-creating green energy projects in San Francisco, which CleanPowerSF’s revenues were intended to help fund.

Without the SFPUC’s subsidies, the average residential customer’s energy bill would rise by around 4 percent. Costs would be substantially higher for commercial and industrial customers, however.

The fees that the state PUC raised in October are meant to offset the costs that utility companies incurred to purchase long-term energy contracts and other investments. PG&E, for instance, has spent billions buying and generating renewable energy since the early 2000s.

As government-run programs like CleanPowerSF continue to sprout up across the state, PG&E and other utilities say the rate increases are essential to ensure that the costs of those earlier investments don’t fall unfairly upon customers who choose to stay with the company or have no energy alternatives to turn to.

Last month, the SFPUC and other municipal power providers asked the state PUC for a rehearing on the exit fees. The state PUC has until February to decide whether to take the issue up again. After that, the city could choose to sue over the raised fees.

The SFPUC, as well as other operators and proponents of local power programs, contend that state regulators are mistakenly factoring costs into the fee formula that make PG&E and other utilities’ expenses seem greater than they really are.

Commissioner Francesca Vietor told staffers Tuesday that she wanted to highlight that the SFPUC was absorbing the costs “because we believe so strongly in this program and in the environment.”

The SFPUC won’t have an exact projection of the costs of the subsidy or any changes to CleanPowerSF’s rates until PG&E sets its own rates for next year. SFPUC officials expect that to be finalized at the beginning of next year. Because of that, the commission also voted to give SFPUC General Manager Harlan Kelly the authority to tweak CleanPowerSF’s rates once PG&E’s rates have been worked out.

Dominic Fracassa is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: dfracassa@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @dominicfracassa

 

SFPUC to absorb $25 million in fees to keep CleanPowerSF bills from rising, by Dominic Fracassa, The San Francisco Chronicle, December 11, 2018.

Generous electric vehicle rebate in San Mateo County offered

A rebate program worth up to $23,000 is sparking interest in electric vehicles. Hundreds of thousands of drivers in San Mateo County could qualify by buying or leasing an electric vehicle before the end of the year.

Robert Saltzman of Redwood City got into his brand new all-electric Nissan Leaf. It’s the first new car he’s had in a number of years.

“It feels great, plus it smells like a new car and I haven’t had a new car in 16 years, so I’m pretty excited about it,” said Saltzman.

Rebates from Peninsula Clean Energy, the car dealership, the auto manufacturer, California Air Resources Board and the IRS reduced the price by more than $13,000.

Saltzman would have qualified for more than $20,000 in rebates had he decided to lease.

“The rebate was a very big incentive for me to come up here and buy the car.”

The program is sponsored by Peninsula Clean Energy– one of many new public agencies now in the business of selling electricity.

Jan Pepper is the agency’s CEO and she said, “We’re using the revenues that we generated from providing electricity and putting those into this program to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions to San Mateo County.”

Nissan of Burlingame estimates sales of electric vehicles have spiked up to 66 percent since the program began in October. The general sales manager says the rebates have broken down any hesitancy to going electric.

“There’s some resistance to getting an electric car because it’s new for people,” said Rick Peterson of Nissan of Burlingame. “It’s just a little extra to help them to take the plunge to give it a try.”

Peninsula Clean Energy is just the second in the Bay Area to offer this program. The first was Sonoma Clean Power. In three years, they’ve seen a big spike in interest.

“We had dealers clamoring to take part in this because they saw our competitors getting more sales,” said Neal Reardon of Sonoma Clean Power.

Those sales also translate into dollars saved for car buyers.

“There’s no maintenance. You don’t have to take it in for an oil change. All you have to do is rotate the tires once in a while,” said Pepper.

“I won’t have to go to a gas station much anymore,” said Saltzman.

Besides Nissan of Burlingame, Steward Chevrolet in Colma and Peter Pan BMW in San Mateo are also participating. Go here to learn more about the rebates being offered.

Go here to learn more about the IRS Rebate

Go here to apply for the California Air Resources Board Rebate

Go here to learn about an additional PG&E rebate.

 

Generous electric vehicle rebate in San Mateo County offered, by Michael Finney and Randall Yip, ABC 7 News, December 11, 2018.