CalCom Energy solar projects offset 75% of California utility’s power use

CalCom Energy and Bella Vista Water District announced the completion of a 693-kW solar project to provide clean energy for the utility’s use in Redding, California. The system will advance the district’s sustainability efforts, improve resiliency and reduce costs by offsetting electricity used to pump water throughout the district.

The project is the second solar PV system installed by the district as part of a comprehensive energy strategy to increase the district’s reliance on locally produced solar energy. Together, the two systems are expected to offset 75% of the district’s annual electricity use.“Water districts in California are faced with many challenges today, including water shortages, drought and resiliency challenges — and solar can help address all these issues,” said Dylan Dupre, CEO of CalCom Energy. “By utilizing clean energy to reduce costs and carbon emissions, Bella Vista can serve its customers in a more sustainable and resilient way.”

Bella Vista financed the projects using a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART grant and district funds. The cost savings from reduced energy consumption is estimated to be well over $3 million over the next 25 years.

CalCom Energy engineered and built the ground-mount system, located near the district’s Regulating Facility on Hidden Acres Road in Redding. The system is expected to produce more than 1,000 MWh of clean energy per year.

“By leveraging district funds, we managed to maximize our overall investment in locally produced clean energy, which is central to the district’s energy strategy to reduce dependence upon retail power purchases and exposure to greatly increasing energy costs,” said David Coxey, general manager of Bella Vista Water District.

News item from CalCom Energy

 

CalCom Energy solar projects offset 75% of California utility’s power use, by Billy Ludt, Solar Power World, March 20, 2019.

California Tribe’s DIY Electric Grid

I was working at a private insurance firm in Sacramento, California, and the Blue Lake Rancheria tribe in Humboldt County came in to look for insurance coverage. I got to know them, and they got to know me. I found that working with a tribal government is much more interesting than insurance. Go figure.

I became communications director for the tribe in 2004. I also became part of the project management team for this hotel the tribe was building. We were looking for ways to increase efficiency. What kind of hot-water tanks are we using?⎯those kinds of details.

The building became the first hotel in California to be used as an energy efficiency model by Pacific Gas and Electric. It turned the tribe’s head to the fact that it could spend a little bit of money up front on sustainability efforts and really reduce its costs of doing business over the long term. I thought, “I really would like to do more of this work.”

I took advantage of the online curriculum offered by the Department of Energy and the Office of Indian Energy Policies and Programs, and I just laser-focused on the goals and what I needed to do to achieve them. In 2013, I started working full-time on sustainability and government affairs for the tribe.

In September 2014, I got a call from Peter Lehman, the founding director of the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State. “You know, I had this crazy idea,” he said. “Would you be interested in doing a microgrid?”

Many tribes in California⎯and across the country⎯don’t have access to the electrical grid, and never have. Where tribes are connected to the grid, a lot of them are at the end of the distribution line. So when things happen, their infrastructure is prioritized below more populous areas’ and other needs of the electrical grid. It’s a chronic problem for tribes.

Here at Blue Lake, we’re at the end of the line. We get a lot of outages because of landslides or wildfires and will get more with this new regime where PG&E is going to de-energize transmission lines when conditions could lead to fires. In the last few years, wildfire conditions have been just terrible. Everything’s just too dry. We’re getting wildfires even on the coast, where typically we haven’t had to worry about them.

We have tribal government offices here. We have a hospitality and gaming complex that has to run 24/7. We are also an American Red Cross–certified shelter. So in an emergency, we want to make sure we have power.

The Idaho National Lab and Siemens had been working together on a microgrid project⎯solar panels combined with batteries. They contacted Peter and said, “Hey, do you know of any community that would be a good host site?” The tribal government had a reputation for being a good partner and being able to invest the required matching funds.

We debated whether we were willing to take the risk. A community microgrid of this complexity is no small thing. You can’t anticipate and budget for every detail. None of these grids are off-the-shelf.

The tribe is now saving between $150,000 and $200,000 per year in electric bills. We still buy power from PG&E, but we provide 20 to 40 percent of the power for our government offices, water and wastewater systems, food storage, and other critical buildings through our solar-battery system. We should pay off our initial investment in four years. We’ve had lots of other utilities come here for tours of the technical side of this, because it is unusual to have a small microgrid that can disconnect and reconnect seamlessly with a larger utility. But the people who’ve been most interested recently are the emergency-preparedness people⎯they understand that renewables plus battery storage is one of the most secure and reliable forms of energy.

We feel good now that all of our eggs aren’t in one basket. That really was the critical impetus for us to build out this infrastructure of resilience. We need to get prepared to take care of people.

This article appeared in the March/April 2019 edition with the headline “End of the Line.”

 

California Tribe’s DIY Electric Grid, by Heather Smith, Sierra, March 3, 2019.

Paying dividends: Climate group gets carbon-fee bill to Congress

In climatology, the term “tipping point” typically conveys bad news. Headlines with it signal pending thresholds for global warming, polar ice melt, sea level rise and other crises. When climate leaves a stable state—when a tiny change can trigger a massive effect, on the system as a whole—that’s what scientists mean by a tipping point.

Local environmentalist Julie Heath sees a different kind of tipping point on the near horizon. She dedicates countless hours to a solution for what she considers the most consequential problem of our time. That solution finally shows signs of legislative life.

Late last month, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) introduced House Resolution 763 in Congress. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019 puts forth policy initiatives championed the past 12 years by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nationwide advocacy organization to which Heath belongs. The bill would put a fee on fossil fuels to encourage transitions to cleaner energy, with proceeds going to the people, not the government. (See “Lobbying for change,” Greenways, June 22, 2017.)

H.R. 763 had 13 co-sponsors as of the CN&R’s deadline, including one Republican—but the congressional Climate Solutions Caucus, split evenly between GOP and Democratic representatives, has 90 members. Heath said the number wasn’t even two dozen when she joined CCL’s Chico chapter two years ago.

“It feels like we may be approaching a tipping point in this whole debate,” Heath said. “I have a very conservative family from Bakersfield. We were out to eat, and I said, ‘Well, what I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been doing some volunteering around climate action.’ I thought they were going to turn me off, or they were going to make snide comments—they thanked me.”

H.R. 763 awaits hearings in three House committees: Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Foreign Affairs. CCL legislative experts told Heath and Gordon Gregory, co-leaders of the Chico chapter, that they expect a Senate bill around June. Versions debuted in the House and Senate near the end of the last congressional session—Nov. 28 and Dec. 20, respectively—but expired.

Meanwhile, Feb. 7—two weeks to the day after H.R. 763 was introduced—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markley (D-Mass.) released a resolution calling for the federal government to create a Green New Deal designed to cut carbon emissions make for a more sustainable economy. CCL supported their resolution.

“I don’t fool myself [into thinking] that the politics of this are going to be easy, at any stage,” Gregory said. “Entrenched interests—overcoming that is going to be a heck of a challenge. I personally think the only way that’s going to happen is if enough people simply insist that we have to deal with climate change; we’re not there yet, but I think it’s growing all the time.”

CCL’s plan, as embodied in the legislation, calls for a fee on oil, coal and gas that increases over time. Each American gets an equal monthly share to defray associated price increases. The program pays its expenses; the government gets no part of the dividend. To level international trade, imports face a “border carbon adjustment” fee, while exports convey a refund.

H.R. 763 contains two carve-outs: exemptions for the military and the agricultural sector.

Heath explained those sound worse than they are. The military already has green initiatives, as it recognizes climate change as a significant threat to international security and its operations. Farmers, meanwhile, lack technological alternatives and financial resources to replace all their equipment with zero-emission machines—plus, ag exhaust contributes less than 1 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.

“We’re a very pragmatic organization,” Heath said. “Politically, if you want it to get passed, you have to be realistic.” Legislators from the farm belt warmed to the carbon dividend with those exceptions.

“We believe the military is greening faster than any other type of organization that exists,” she added, “so it’s unlikely that they’re going to be behind the curve anyway. And there’s just too many people in the country who [work in] agriculture who’d be adversely impacted, and it is a very small percentage of what’s being produced [in emissions], so we feel this is a worthwhile carve-out to get the legislation passed.”

The Chico chapter focuses exclusively on California’s first congressional district, currently represented by Republican Doug LaMalfa. A rice farmer from Richvale, LaMalfa staunchly supports President Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords, and refutes humans’ influence on climate.

Gregory has spoken multiple times with LaMalfa’s legislative aide on energy policy, Jack Lincoln; the chapter’s congressional liaison, Robin Anderson, met with LaMalfa at the Oroville field office.

“He was polite, asked good questions, was aware of the organization and the basic concepts of the bill,” Gregory said, noting that Anderson and CCL Chico lobbyist Ann Bykerk-Kauffman, who also attended, told him they were encouraged.

“Even though he has publicly questioned the reality of climate change, and to my knowledge taken no steps to understand it or deal with it in a positive way,” Gregory added, “this is the kind of legislation that somebody like Doug LaMalfa can potentially support.”

 

Paying dividends: Climate group gets carbon-fee bill to Congress, by Evan Tuchinsky, News Review, February 21, 2019.

Ski Resort in Tahoe Will Get Tesla Powerpacks to Reach 100% Renewable Energy Goal

Tesla will install a Powerpack energy storage system totaling 8 megawatts in Tahoe, California. The system will hold power for local solar farms and other sources to help stabilize the local electric grid. The Powerpack system that rose to fame from their use in South Australia will help the Squaw Valley Ski Resort achieve its goal of using 100% renewable energy by the end of 2018. The proposed “Olympic Valley Microgrid Project” was announced late last month by the Squaw Valley resort and Liberty Utilities.

Powerpack to provide stability

“Battery energy storage can facilitate use of renewable energy sources. Battery storage can also improve service reliability and help offset purchases from fossil fuel sources during times of high electricity demand, saving money for our customers. The Olympic Valley Microgrid project proposal is just one piece in a larger mosaic of renewable energy and battery energy storage projects that Liberty Utilities is exploring throughout our service territory,” said President of Liberty Utilities’ West Region, Greg Sorensen.

The ski resort will provide the land for the system to be built on, while the system will be owned, operated and maintained by Liberty Utilities. Squaw Valley is well on track to achieving their 100% renewable goal by the end of the year thanks to a recent deal with a local solar energy farm.

Ski Resort on 100% renewable target

The new Powerpack system will allow the resort to continue to use renewable energy during blackouts. It currently needs to rely on diesel generators to keep lifts and other critical equipment running during power outages. “We had quite a few brownouts and blackouts last year,” said Andy Wirth, president of the company that operates both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows recreation areas. “This system will provide four to six hours for the community and or the resorts.”

In addition to their goal of 100 percent renewable energy use, the Squaw Valley Resort is setting other goals in relation to the environment. The popular holiday destination has banned the single-use plastic water bottle sales and is in the process of introducing rideshare and carpool incentive programs, and more.

Liberty Utilities will reach mandate

Wirth went on to describe the bigger impact of the project. “It is inspiring to work with a motivated and innovative utility provider like Liberty Utilities on a project that will bring tangible, long-lasting benefits to the power grid that supplies our entire community,” said Wirth. “This project has the ability to significantly increase the resiliency of Olympic Valley’s current power sources, and help set the entire Tahoe Truckee region on a path toward a greater goal of identifying and implementing 100 percent renewable energy sources.”

The project is still under review by the California Public Utilities Commission and Placer County. If approved the project will help Liberty Utilities meet their requirements under California law to provide 50 percent renewable energy supply by 2030.

 

Ski Resort in Tahoe Will Get Tesla Powerpacks to Reach 100% Renewable Energy Goal, by Jessica Miley, Interesting Engineering, February 6, 2019.

PG&E: Worker reported flames near power equipment at Camp Fire origin site

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Tuesday one of its employees spotted flames near a transmission tower close to the time and place the monstrous Camp Fire roared to life one month ago in Butte County.

In a letter to California utility regulators, PG&E said at about 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, an unnamed employee spotted a fire “in the vicinity” of a transmission tower near Camp Creek and Pulga roads. State fire officials have said the Camp Fire began around that time near those same cross streets.

The utility also provided its most detailed description yet of damage to that much-discussed transmission tower, and it disclosed for the first time it found bullet holes on a downed power pole at a second location.

About 15 minutes before the PG&E employee saw a fire, the transmission line there malfunctioned, the utility told regulators last month.

The fire spotted by the worker “was reported to 911 by PG&E employees,” wrote Meredith Allen, the utility’s senior director of regulatory relations, in the new letter to an official at California Public Utilities Commission.

The cause of the Camp Fire, which killed at least 86 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, is under investigation. But PG&E has been under intense public scrutiny since first reporting to regulators — without much detail — two cases of malfunctioning equipment. Allen’s letter provided fresh insights about those equipment problems.

At the transmission tower in the area of the fire’s origin point, PG&E saw via aerial patrol in the afternoon of Nov. 8 that a suspension insulator supporting a jumper had become separated from an arm on the tower, according to the letter. That description is similar to claims about the transmission tower made in a lawsuit filed against PG&E last week.

Subsequently, while assisting fire investigators on Nov. 14, PG&E spotted a broken hook attached to the separated suspension insulator, Allen’s letter said.

PG&E also saw a “flash mark” on the tower near the suspended jumper, along with damage to the jumper and insulator. At a nearby tower, an insulator hold-down anchor — which is not energized — was disconnected, PG&E said.

PG&E also divulged in the letter the nature of damage it found on a separate distribution line, which is where the utility had reported a second malfunction not long after the Camp Fire started.

A PG&E employee patrolling the area Nov. 9 found a power pole and other equipment on the ground with “bullets and bullet holes at the break point of the pole and on the equipment,” Allen’s letter said. Three days later, PG&E found downed wires and damaged and down poles on the same distribution line, along with “several snapped trees, with some on top of the downed wires,” the letter said.

In its public statement announcing the letter late Tuesday, PG&E said the “loss of life, homes and businesses in the Camp Fire is truly devastating.”

“Our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety, restoring electric and gas service where possible, and helping customers begin to recover and rebuild,” the statement said. “Throughout our service area, we are committed to doing everything we can to further reduce the risk of wildfire.”

PG&E also stressed that the incidents are still being investigated and the information it provided remains preliminary.

“The causes may not be fully understood until additional information is available, including information that can only be obtained through examination and testing of the equipment” that Cal Fire has retained, PG&E said. PG&E is cooperating with Cal Fire’s investigation.

The utility also announced this week a series of additional wildfire safety measures it is undertaking, including inspections of 50,000 transmission structures in high fire threat areas. PG&E is also adding new weather stations and fire-watching cameras, among other efforts.

 

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

PG&E: Worker reported flames near power equipment at Camp Fire origin site, by J.D. Morris, San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 2018.

Letter: Paradise can reinvent itself as green city

The Camp Fire firestorm just made our climate crises personal: Paradise Lost, 56 dead so far. Paradise City Council members are talking about lowering building standards to rebuild faster.

Buildings in Sonoma where Santa Rosa suffered a similar fate two years ago, is just now beginning to rebuild. According to licensed contractors, it will take about two years before any building starts. Sonoma 350 are about to get their City Council to commit to rebuild green and all electric, no gas, via solar — just as I believe Paradise should do. Climate change induced droughts are creating a perfect storm for more devastating wildfires to come. As Gov. Jerry Brown said last Sunday, this is the new abnormal, and these fires are caused by climate change.

Starting 2020, California building codes require all new residences and small apartment buildings  to have solar installed. Why should residents be required this and not government buildings? Currently our new laws SB 100 and SB 2045 put 2045 as the deadline to go 100 percent clean energy and carbon neutral, but the UN’s latest report gives us just 12 years. Climate crises cannot be mitigated without drastic and vast changes. Over 100 cities around the world are already doing this — including a town in Kansas, Greensburg, that rebuilt totally green energy after a supercharged tornado destroyed it a few years ago.

Why not Paradise? Why not transform this tragedy into an opportunity for Paradise?

— Mary Kay Benson, Chico

 

Letter: Paradise can reinvent itself as green city, by Mary Kay Benson, Chico Enterprise-Record, November 15, 2018.

PG&E Transmission Line May Be Tied to Disastrous Butte County Fire

PG&E has informed state regulators that it experienced an incident early Thursday on a major electrical transmission line at a remote site in Butte County just minutes before the reported start of the devastating Camp Fire.

In a brief report filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, the company said a power outage was recorded on its 115-kilovolt Caribou-Palermo line at 6:15 a.m. Thursday. Cal Fire says the blaze started at 6:29 a.m.

Driven by high winds in the Feather River Canyon, the Camp Fire raced west, destroying parts of the the communities of Paradise and Magalia. So far, 23 people are confirmed dead in the fire, which had burned a staggering 6,453 homes and 120,000 acres as of Sunday morning.

PG&E’s brief report said that an aerial patrol was sent to survey the transmission line — actually three lines strung across high-rise steel towers on the west side of the Feather River — hours after the fire started. The report says the patrol observed a damaged transmission tower about a mile northeast of a resort called Pulga.

It’s not clear from the report whether the damage occurred before or after the fire began, and a company spokesman did not address that question.

But the location identified in the report appears to be very close to the spot where firefighters first encountered the blaze.

In a story published Friday, the Bay Area News group reported that Cal Fire crews arriving on the scene reported seeing vegetation burning “on the west side of the river underneath the transmission lines.”

According to the Bay Area News Group, fire crews made that report from Poe Dam. The dam is about eight-tenths of a mile northeast of Pulga.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said Friday that the cause of the fire is still under investigation, but added that the agency is “looking into all possibilities including electrical equipment failure.”

Jason King, a PG&E spokesman, emphasized that the report is preliminary, that the cause of the fire has not been determined and that the company is fully cooperating with Cal Fire as the agency investigates the blaze.

CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said commission staff is reviewing the information from PG&E

“CPUC staff will incorporate PG&E’s incident report on the Camp Fire into its investigation to assess the compliance of electrical facilities with applicable rules and regulations in fire impacted areas,” Prosper said in an emailed statement.

“The staff investigation may include an inspection of the fire sites once Cal Fire allows access, as well as maintenance of facilities, vegetation management and emergency preparedness and response.” she said.

PG&E has been under intense scrutiny after a series of disasters for which it has been found responsible, including the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion and a series of catastrophic wildfires.

Those blazes include the 2015 Butte Fire, a 70,000-acre blaze in Calaveras and Amador counties that killed two people and destroyed 500 homes. Cal Fire said the utility’s poor maintenance of trees along power lines led to the fire. The company’s liability in the fire has been estimated at $1 billion or more.

The highest-profile blazes PG&E has been blamed occurred during the October 2017 fire that swept the North Bay and other parts of Northern California.

Cal Fire investigators have determined that 16 of those fires involved the company’s electrical equipment: with snapped poles, slumping or falling power lines, and trees or parts of trees coming into contact with lines sparking fires.

Four of the 2017 fires that PG&E has been blamed for so far — the Redwood (Mendocino County), Atlas (Napa County), Nuns (Sonoma County) and Cascade (Yuba County) — accounted for 22 of the 44 deaths during the fire siege.

Investigators have not yet released a cause for the deadliest, most destructive North Bay blaze — the Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes in and around Santa Rosa.

The October 2017 fires caused an estimated $10 billion in insured losses. The magnitude of the disaster — and PG&E’s possible liability — prompted the company to lobby the Legislature for relief.

The result was legislation, signed in September by Gov. Jerry Brown, that will allow the company to pass on some of its fire-related costs to customers. The law will also allow the CPUC to consider a broad range of factors — including weather conditions, a utility’s efforts to prevent fires and findings of mismanagement — in deciding whether fire-related costs can be charged to ratepayers.

 

PG&E Transmission Line May Be Tied to Disastrous Butte County Fire, by Ted Goldberg, KQED, November 9, 2018.

Power Politics: The growing number of publicly owned CCAs offer cheaper and cleaner electricity than for-profit utilities — so are they viable in the long-term?

David Baker has noticed a change in his energy bill. The president of RobbJack, a Lincoln-based manufacturer of carbide cutting tools, used to get his electricity from Pacific Gas & Electric, until this past February when Pioneer Community Energy launched in Placer County. Baker says representatives from Pioneer worked closely with him on a plan to cut electricity costs. RobbJack runs air conditioning and power for industrial machines in a 42,500 square-foot space, so Baker says even small savings make a big dent.

Pioneer’s entrance into the market has also been a win for Thunder Valley Casino Resort, another customer. It has seen rates drop by 2-3 percent, says Doug Elmets, a spokesman for the United Auburn Indian Community, which owns the casino. For a facility that’s open all day and all night, and cycles through 16,000 people every 24 hours, that’s a significant savings, he says. (Pioneer customers save 5-7 percent compared with PG&E, according to Pioneer’s data.)

“Currently, we know collectively we’re saving ratepayers here in Placer County $10 million a year,” says Placer County treasurer and tax collector Jenine Windeshausen of the switch to Pioneer. “And it’s highly likely that money is going to be spent here.”

Pioneer is just one of a large number of “community choice aggregators” — electric-power purchasing organizations run by a municipal or county government or some combination of the two — that have entered the state’s energy market in recent years. Valley Clean Energy, which launched June 1, serves Woodland, Davis and unincorporated Yolo County.

CCAs are quickly taking over from investor-owned utilities how electricity is bought in California. They’re the latest test of whether local, publicly run ventures can deliver cheaper and cleaner power. But electricity procurement can be a fickle industry, and time will tell how well they’ll navigate regulatory and market changes.

GAINING GROUND

The state’s electricity crisis in 2000 and 2001 helped pave the way for an influx of CCAs. The shortage of electrical power and resulting large-scale blackouts led policymakers to rethink the rules governing the industry. In 2001 and 2002, a package of bills was passed to ensure there wouldn’t be a repeat, including a 2002 law that authorized the formation of CCAs.

But setting up the technical and governance structures took time, and the first CCA — Marin Clean Energy — wasn’t launched until 2010. With MCE’s launch came a template for others to follow, and the number of CCAs is growing: Today there are 18, nine of which started this year. If current trends hold, within 10 years, CCAs may serve the majority of the state’s consumers now served by the big three investor-owned utilities, according to a July report from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation.

Lower energy rates are a fundamental aspect of the CCA promise: Valley Clean Energy set its rates 2.5 percent below PG&E’s, and Pioneer’s have come in an average of 9 percent lower. Their boards are made up of local elected officials who regularly face voters and are therefore, proponents say, incentivized to negotiate harder on contracts. And as nonprofits, they don’t need to build in returns for private shareholders or pay federal taxes, says Pioneer spokesperson Alexia Retallack.

CCAs also say they’re more accessible to customers and able to adapt to their needs. “People can walk into our office [on Second Street in Davis] and talk to the executives,” says VCE spokesperson Jim Parks.

As VCE was planning its launch, there was a small uprising of rooftop-solar customers worried they’d pay more under VCE than PG&E. So VCE held public meetings that brought out standing-room-only crowds. The board took comments, and as of August was working on a new proposal. RepowerYolo, a Davis-based solar consulting company that runs an influential blog and was skeptical of the original plan, advised customers to stick with VCE after the hearings, writing on its blog that VCE “listened to our concerns, analyzed our recommended changes” and “is diligently doing the right thing.”

The timing is also ripe for CCAs: Electricity prices are far lower now than when investor-owned utilities were required under state law to invest millions in contracts for renewable energy from 2002 to 2012.

MORE RENEWABLE OPTIONS

Electricity will make or break California’s ambitious climate agenda. By 2030, state law requires greenhouse gas emissions to fall 40 percent below 1990 levels. Under a new law passed in September, 100 percent of the state’s electricity generation must be carbon free by 2045. That means ever-rising demands on the grid: more electric vehicles plugging in, electric heat pumps replacing gas boilers, induction stoves taking over from their gas-fired relatives.

The state’s electricity sector as a whole is getting cleaner: One-third of electricity procurement by all providers must be renewable by the end of 2020. The state’s investor-owned utilities are there already, generating 35 percent of their electricity from renewable sources on average.

But the CCAs are doing even better, while increasing the overall share of renewables on the grid: A May 2017 Luskin Center analysis concluded that all five of the state’s CCAs then in operation sourced a larger share of renewable energy than did their affiliated investor-owned utilities. Locally, 75 percent of VCE’s standard electricity package is made up of renewable or large hydro sources, compared with 51 percent for PG&E. Only 29 percent of Pioneer’s energy portfolio is from renewables, with the remainder from “unspecified sources of power.” Retallack says that’s because Pioneer has been running only six months and hasn’t secured all of its long-term contracts; with time, its renewable percentage will rise. “We’re very cognizant of renewables, but we’re also very cognizant of cost,” she says.

POWER STRUGGLE

You might not think control of the electrical grid could start a knife fight — but if you lived in Yolo County in 2006, you’d know that’s wrong. That year, local activists and elected officials got two measures put on the November ballot to expand the service territory of Sacramento Municipal Utility District — one of the 10 largest publicly owned utilities in the U.S. — into parts of the county. (PG&E had fought hard against SMUD’s formation, tying it up in the courts for almost 25 years, after voters first approved its formation in 1923.) Then and now, SMUD’s residential electricity rates beat PG&E’s by about 30 percent.

SMUD is not a CCA (and CCAs can’t legally operate in areas served by a municipally-owned utility) and so would have needed to buy PG&E’s poles and wires in Yolo County, paying back the cost over time. But PG&E had no plans to go quietly. It got mirror proposals put on the ballot in Sacramento and Placer counties’ SMUD territory, putting the decision to voters. And it launched an $11 million publicity blitz (with which SMUD, a public entity, could not compete) to convince them that the deal could raise their rates dramatically.

That turned public sentiment. Sacramento and Placer’s voters turned down the expansion by a wide margin, and even Yolo’s broke for and against the referendums in almost equal numbers.

But the proponents promised they wouldn’t abandon efforts in these communities to take control of their own power choices. Just over a decade later, Pioneer and VCE are aimed to make good on that promise.

In 2010, PG&E spent about $45 million on a ballot measure that would have made it tough for CCAs to launch by requiring two-thirds voter approval. That backfired. Not only did the measure fail, but the next year, legislators passed a law directing the California Public Utilities Commission to establish a code of conduct forbidding utilities from using ratepayer revenues to “market against” CCAs — which it did.

So today PG&E cooperates with CCAs. PG&E spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen said the company wouldn’t make anyone available for an interview. But she released a statement by email that read in part, “We respect the energy choices that are available to our customers and will continue to cooperate with local governments as they consider pursuing and/or developing a CCA program.”

VCE’s Parks says he has weekly calls with his PG&E counterpart, and they collaborate to publish rate mailers. “We’ve had coffee together. It’s a pretty friendly relationship,” he says.

Still, changes in state law and regulation or the market could in theory jeopardize CCAs’ success.

There is the issue of a potential increase to the exit fee paid by customers who depart for a CCA. Remember those bargain rates for clean energy that CCAs enjoy that IOUs didn’t? The mechanism for dealing with that market problem is the exit fee. Set by the CPUC, it is supposed to compensate customers who stay with the utilities for the difference between the utility’s higher, legacy cost of electricity and the current market price.

Now, the CPUC is in the middle of deciding on a new methodology for calculating it, and its choice could threaten the CCAs’ ability to beat utilities’ prices. One option on the table would make it “uneconomic for new CCAs to launch,” according to the California Community Choice Association, which represents CCAs and others.

There is another rising competitor in the power market: electric service providers, or ESPs — private companies that procure and sell electricity direct to business customers. By law, ESPs have been allowed to deliver about 13 percent of the state’s total utility load, a cap set after the 2000-2001 disaster. But a new bill signed in September raises that cap. That means more CCA business customers can leave for ESPs if they get better prices. Indeed, so high is the demand for cheap, tailored electricity plans that ESPs have a waiting list 1,700 commercial customers deep, says Scott Olson of Direct Energy, a Houston-based ESP that serves parts of California. (For more on the various players in California’s energy market, see “A Primer on the Changing Electricity Market” on page 42.)

In any case, CCAs’ long-term success is no guarantee, according to the Luskin Center’s J.R. DeShazo. “The idea that a big, even really safe utility could go bankrupt is not crazy,” he says. “It just takes the wrong set of conditions and bad policy by the legislature.” He points to  PG&E’s bankruptcy in 2001. Ratepayers are still footing the bill for that failure, he says.

Windeshausen acknowledges the risk that a CCA could fail but says it’s overstated. Pioneer was funded through a $16 million bond issued by the Placer County treasury.  Pioneer has already paid down $3 million and is on track to repay the full $16 million within about two years, she says.

Windeshausen is willing to put her reputation behind Pioneer’s success: She’s been re-elected multiple times since 1994. “I live here, I’ve raised my family here, and I’m very passionate about Placer County,” she says. “We have a history and a track record of really solid deals.”

 

Power Politics, by Steven Yoder, Comstock’s, October 30, 2018.

Clean Air Victory for San Joaquin Valley, Yosemite and Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks

FRESNO, Calif – In a significant legal victory for clean air advocates, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enact deadlines for the State of California to submit plans to regulate fine particle air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley. The court order responds to a lawsuit brought by National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Medical Advocates for Healthy Air (MAHA), Committee for a Better Arvin (CBA), and Committee for a Better Shafter (CBS) over the EPA’s failure to enforce deadlines for San Joaquin Valley air quality plans impacting nearby Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) are more than two years overdue in finalizing plans to address public health and air quality and visibility standards – some of which were set more than 20 years ago. For years, residents in the San Joaquin Valley and park visitors to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have experienced hazy skies and degraded views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, along with adverse health effects like asthma and chronic respiratory illnesses. This order creates a firm deadline for the State of California to finalize a plan within 18 months; if the state fails to act, it will face federal sanctions. The currently proposed plans by the SJVAPCD and CARB do not come close to adequately reducing pollution.

Statement by Mark Rose, Sierra Nevada Field Representative. National Parks Conservation Association.

“This order is a major victory for clean air in the San Joaquin Valley and surrounding national parks including Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon. Valley residents and visitors to Yosemite and Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks are currently facing some of the worst air pollution in the nation, which rivals our most polluted cities. Community members and the more than five million annual park visitors who support our vibrant tourism economy deserve clean air.

“After two years without a plan, we cannot afford any additional delays or plans that will not effectively improve the quality of the air we breathe. The clock is now officially ticking for the Valley Air District and California Air Resources Board to finalize their proposals. We urge them to strengthen the plan to better protect the lungs and skies in our region.”

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About National Parks Conservation Association: Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than 1.3 million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org.

Lee Vining’s Pioneer Pavilion Small Step for a Big Idea–Solar EV Charging at the Eastern Gateway to Yosemite

Community activists have raised a solar pavilion in the small town of Lee Vining that they plan to use for charging electric vehicles (EVs). Dubbed the Pioneer Pavilion, the project is part of an ambitious effort by a local Climate Action Group to make the town on the east side of the Sierra Nevada more “climate friendly.”

Lee Vining is the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park and Toulumne Meadows at the head of the dramatic Tioga Pass Road.

The pavilion in Lee Vining’s Hess Park will feed electricity from the solar panels to the nearby Mono County Historical Society building. The pavilion, the Historical Society, and popular tourist attraction of the Upside Down House are all within easy walking distance of the shops and restaurants in Lee Vining.

Led by retired park ranger Janet Carle, the community group plans to eventually offer public WiFi in the pavilion and a J1772 Level 2 charge station at the parking lot.

There are no public non-Tesla EV charging stations on US 395 from Mojave, California to Gardnerville, Nevada a distance of more than 300 miles.

Carle, and other volunteers in the community, have worked the past three years to bring the $80,000 project to life. The effort began, says Carle, when the regional planning commission suggested that the climate activists do something concrete to show the community what can be done. From there, the idea just took off. Carle says the community’s endorsement and support of the project is “like a fairy tale.” It was the year of people saying “yes” rather than “no.”

Don Condon of the Eastern Sierra Chapter of the Electric Vehicle Association characterized the project as an “old-fashioned barn raising” where everyone pitched in with what they could.

That included solar contractor Sierra Solar who donated their time on the project, as did other vendors, including a local mason.

The pavilion uses translucent solar panels that provide a pleasing dappled light beneath the canopy says Carle. While the size of the solar pavilion is small in a state the size of California where many solar projects are gargantuan, completing the project was no small feat in a town of only 400 people.

Sierra Solar installed Lumos architectural solar panels made in San Jose, California. The panels lack a backing so the sun partially shines through. The panels are designed for use in car ports, pavilions, picnic areas, walkways, and EV charging spaces where the see-through panels make a statement about the use of solar energy while also providing shade.

This was an effect that the community group desired. They wanted people to know that they were beneath solar panels and not just roofing material. Carle envisions integrating the solar pavilion with the local schools as an outdoor classroom. The space is designed to hold 80 people.

In a textbook example of community participation, the project gained momentum when organizers solicited locally-made tiles painted by people in the community. The project’s FaceBook page shows a busy community hall as residents painted their tiles for use in the pavilion. Also popular was the decision to feature nine pioneer families of the Mono Basin in the pavilion. Story boards describe the families’ role in settling the area.

The “stars aligned” says Carle and the pavilion was connected to the grid 18 October 2018.

 

Lee Vining’s Pioneer Pavilion Small Step for a Big Idea–Solar EV Charging at the Eastern Gateway to Yosemite, by Paul Gipe, Wind Works, October 20, 2018.