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: 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.


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.


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.


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.”

# # #

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

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.

Local government energy-buying idea bruised by ruling

The effort of Butte County and Chico to form an agency to buy electrical power for their citizens suffered a blow Thursday, but it’s unclear just how severe a blow it was.

The state Public Utilities Commission approved a set of costs for customers who leave PG&E or the state’s other investor-owned utilities (IOUs) to receive power from providers like the community choice aggregator that is being pursued locally.

“The ruling was favorable for the IOUs, so it’s not favorable for CCAs,” said Butte County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Brian Ring.

Under a community choice aggregation program, a government entity buys power on the open market, which locally is estimated to result in savings of at least 2 percent. PG&E would still deliver the power and retain ownership of the power lines and other electrical infrastructure, but it would be delivering power provided by the county and city.

The other municipalities in Butte County could join in, but a study found in the minimum Chico and the county would both have to participate to provide the necessary customer base.

What the PUC approved on a 5-0 vote largely involves long-term power purchasing contracts PG&E and the other utilities have. The contracts were signed to provide power for a customer base that is shrinking as more and more CCAs and other alternatives form.

The utilities argue the people who leave owe a share of the costs of the contracts that were purchased partially for them. There hasn’t been much disagreement on that, but how much that cost would be has been contentious for more than a year.

The vote Thursday put the charge at an average of 1.68 percent for residential customers in PG&E’s service area. The costs for customers who leave Southern California Edison or San Diego Gas & Electric are even higher: 2.50 percent and 5.24 percent respectively.

Locally, that could still mean savings if the CCA is formed. The 2 percent figure was a conservative estimate, and savings could easily be more than that.

But Ring said it would mean less money coming to the CCA, and lengthen the time it will take to pay off the debt it will have to incur to form. Paying off the debt would give the CCA flexibility to reduce rates or pursue other initiatives.

He said the county’s consultant would be rerunning the data through the model used for the study to see if the CCA was still feasible here. “We’re crunching the numbers,” Ring said.

“It’s going to have an adverse impact on our study,” he said, “to what degree we haven’t determined.”


Local government energy-buying idea bruised by ruling, by Steve Schoonover, Chico Enterprise-Record, October 14, 2018.

Squaw Valley’s plan to use Tesla to lower risk to skiers and to snow

Andy Wirth seems to never lack enthusiasm. He jumps into everything 100 percent. This has gotten him into deep trouble at least once.

After arriving in California to run Squaw Valley in 2010, he took up skydiving. On a windy day in 2013, he was blown toward electrical transmission lines. To avoid them he instead crashed into a vineyard near Lodi, in the state’s Central Valley. His arm was ripped off and he was hung up in the air, gushing blood.  As a former backcountry ranger with training in trauma medicine, he realized he’d have to help himself if he was to survive. He did survive, and that night surgeons spent 12 hours reattaching his arm surgically. Such is one outcome of risky recreation.

Squaw Valley’s effort to get on the front edge of the energy transition had a different motivation. It wanted to avoid risk. A couple of black-outs in 2011 had left skiers stranded on lifts at Squaw and adjoining Alpine Meadows. Wirth, then the chief executive at Squaw, had a conversation with Liberty Utilities, the electrical supplier. As the largest private consumer of electricity among Liberty’s 49,000 customers in the Tahoe area, what could Squaw do to minimize interruptions?

Wirth had a second and ultimately more pressing concern. About 20 percent of electricity delivered by Liberty to its Tahoe-Truckee customers came from a coal plant in Nevada. Could the utility shave the carbon from the generation portfolio and increase renewable energy?

Climate change is a giant risk to skiing. It’s a hot-button issue at Squaw also because that’s home turf for Jeremy Jones, the big-mountain snowboarder who created Protect Our Winters.

In March, when I talked with Wirth by telephone, he stressed that his conversations with Liberty were “friendly and collaborative. We didn’t take a hammer approach.” But Squaw had clear goals. “The good news is that we had a partner,” he said.

Change hasn’t happened overnight. Liberty still has a dark carbon shadow on its power supply. In 2016, it ceased getting coal-fired power from Nevada and has now added two solar farms that together deliver 65 megawatts to augment power from hydroelectric and geothermal sources.

Even so, Liberty remains 75 percent reliant upon fossil fuel generation, primarily natural gas. That is likely to decline to 70 percent next year. Company officials, however, have indicated they intend to move even more deeply into renewables

As for those power interruptions, Squaw will have to go through another ski season. A backup power plant at Squaw Valley called a microgrid must be approved by both Placer County and the California Public Utilities Commission. No decision is expected until mid-way through 2019, according to Liberty representatives.

If those plans are approved, Liberty will house lithium-ion batteries at Gold Coast, a mid-mountain location. The batteries will have a capacity to store 8 megawatts of electricity. That would be sufficient to provide electricity for four hours at Squaw and Alpine Meadows as well the 900 businesses and residents of the Olympic Valley, as the base area for Squaw is called. It won’t be enough power to sustain snowmaking, but it will keep the lights on and the bull-wheels rotating. Nobody will be left dangling in the air.

This innovation will be done without mandate, but in response to what Squaw wanted, says John Friedrich, Liberty Utilities territory manager for business and community development in California. “It‘s the right thing to do. It makes operational and economic sense.”

By 2019, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows may also be able to make the claim of being 100 percent powered by 100 percent renewable sources. It’s an asterisked claim. Not all of the electrons in the batteries will be as pure as the driven snow. Liberty hopes to offer customers green tariffs, a form of a renewable energy certificates, at an added cost of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour. This will entitle customers to claim the exclusive use of that portion of Liberty’s renewable portfolio.

“This can be done in the present tense,” said Wirth when we talked in March, shortly before he unexpectedly resigned from the Alterra Mountain Co. resort. “It just takes some will and interest and drive.”

The story at Squaw is not of a future arrived, but one that can be glimpsed. Renewable energy prices have been tumbling, in many cases undercutting conventional fossil fuel sources. The fuel of renewables is free, unlike coal and gas, although far less predictable. Even so, by dispatching electrons to disparate markets, engineers have been able to deepen the renewable portfolios. In Denver, Xcel Energy is pushing toward 55 percent renewables in the portfolio by 2025, and company personnel say they can see how it would be possible to get to 70 percent. The company provides power to several of Colorado’s ski areas, including those in Summit County, and indirectly to Aspen and Steamboat. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says 80 percent is possible given existing technology.

Change rarely occurs without provocation. The Colorado utility was pushed by successively higher renewable energy mandates delivered first by voters and then legislators. California legislators, in laws passed in 2013 and amended in 2016, are helping drive a brisk reduction in the price of batteries. The state’s three largest utilities are required to provide 1,825 megawatts of storage. Massachusetts in 2017 adopted a 200-megawatt mandate.

Battery prices fell as much as 32 percent for several years but now are declining by about 8 percent annually. A March report by GTM Research predicts continued declines of about 8 percent annually through 2022. Two key federal tax incentives, the investment tax credit and the modified accelerated cost recovery system, have encouraged adoption of energy storage systems such as batteries.

Solar-plus-storage projects could be competitive without federal tax incentives in California by 2020, according to Paul Denholm, senior policy energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He told Utility Divide in May that solar-plus-storage could soon be competitive with gas-fired peaking plants in other locations, including the Southwest. Much depends upon the fluctuations in the cost of natural gas.

Forbes last year said that a $250 billion battery manufacturing industry was in the making. Tesla aims to be part of that with its manufacture of lithium-ion batteries. Its largest factory, called Gigafactory 1, is located 70 miles from Squaw, east of Reno. You can easily recognize the 4-million-square-foot factory in the desert landscape while flying into the Reno-Tahoe international Airport.

“And it’s only 35 percent done. It’s absolutely the best example, the poster child, for scaling,” said Wirth.

When the Squaw project was announced in February, J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technology officer and a member of the original founding team, said Tesla has much bigger ambitions than just transportation.

“Tesla’s mission is to get us (the world) to 100 percent renewable energy as fast as possible,” he said in the webcast press conference. Tesla began its energy storage development initiative seven or eight years ago. “We just saw it as an inevitable part of the future as everything progressed toward more and more renewable energy,” he said.

He oversees the technical and engineering design of Tesla’s electric cars.

“Inherently, storage and renewable energy are linked,” he said. “You can’t get to 100 percent renewable energy without having a way to firm that output, to ensure you have that reliability in the process, so you can manage the gird and manage the loads. That’s why we have invested so much in the Gigafactory.”

But if renewable generation is a goal, the Powerpacks being manufactured by Panasonic at Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 can help utilities save money by avoiding transmission lines and excess generation capacity—all while making the grid more stable and robust. The key, he added, was to put the storage in the right places. Squaw Valley, he said, was the perfect example.

David Pasieka, chief operating officer of Liberty Utilities, also identified battery storage as the “key element to making the transition to clean energy.”

In a personal note, Pasieka noted that his daughter has asthma. “I would like to think that what we’re doing here today and our mission tomorrow will help her breath easier as she goes on in life.”

Going off script, he then talked about growing up in Southern California, when the outdoor air was too filthy for healthy breathing. He remembers thinking somebody should do something.

“Well, I’m here on a panel with people and companies that are doing something about it today,” he said.

The bigger issue is that of climate change. During his time at Squaw, Wirth saw some of the wild swings that climate scientists say will become even more common as the atmosphere continues to heat. After two parched years the snowpack went to near normal before yet another year of unprecedented snow. Then came last winter’s weirdness: almost no snow followed by a near-record March.

Climate scientists at Stanford University, about three hours away, and other institutions have consistently said that greenhouse gas emissions must be slowed or even reversed. From 280 parts per million at the start of the industrial revolution, the levels of carbon dioxide crept upward to about 315 ppm in the 1950s. Since then, CO2 levels have soared, topping 400 ppm just two or three years ago.

Is it too late to preserve the climate in which the modern ski industry was created? Probably. Scientists predict continued warming even if the global civilization can miraculously end the practices that have created the outsized greenhouse effect. A special concern is when oceans will release their heat into the atmosphere.

Some prominent scientists have argued that we need to figure out ways how to reduce emissions through various—but unproven and perhaps risky—geoengineering. One such prototype of a carbon-capturing technology, funded in part by Bill Gates, has been operating at Squamish, between Vancouver and Whistler. Promising results were announced in June.

“I think it’s a little bit frustrating that we might be a generation or two on the wrong side of climate change,” Wirth said when we talked in March. “Of course, climate change is absolutely real. It’s an existential threat to our environment.”

But Wirth objects to accepting its inevitably. The challenge he sees is to “actually get something done instead of just talking about it,” he says. America’s waterways in the 1960s were badly polluted, he pointed out, but that has been turned around.

Climate change, he concedes, is a much bigger challenge. “But I would say this is just a question of will.”


Squaw Valley’s plan to use Tesla to lower risk to skiers and to snow, by Allen Best, Mountain Town News, September 16, 2018.

Meetings scheduled on government power-buying proposal

Meetings are planned in Chico and Oroville to provide information and take feedback on a proposal that would see Butte County and Chico buying electrical power for their citizens.

Under a community choice aggregation program, a government entity buys power on the open market, which can result in savings. Locally, PG&E would still deliver the power and retain ownership of the power lines and other electrical infrastructure, but it would be delivering power provided by the county and city.

A feasibility study of a local CCA including the unincorporated areas of the county and Chico could save customers at least 2 percent on their electricity bills, totaling $4 million.

The other municipalities could join in, but in the minimum Chico and the county would both have to participate to provide the necessary customer base.

Earlier this summer, the feasibility study was presented to the Board of Supervisors and the Chico City Council, and both directed staff to gather additional input, and look at funding options.

Four meetings have been set to provide more information and take comments:

• Oroville: 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sept. 12 in the Southside Community Center, 2959 Lower Wyandotte Road.

• Chico: 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sept. 13 in the Chico Masonic Family Center, 1110 W. East Ave.

Much more information is available at A signup for email updates is also available at that site.

There’s also a short survey asking whether a CCA is a good idea, and what aspects of it are more important: lower cost, local control, the potential for green energy, and/or economic development. The survey will be available until Sept. 19.

The topic will come back to the supervisors and council for consideration this fall.


Meetings scheduled on government power-buying proposal, by Staff, The Chico Enterprise-Record, September 3, 2018.

Nevada City United Methodist Church: Clean, sustainable energy for Nevada County

NEVADA CITY, Calif. August 31, 2018 – “We are committed to approaching creation, energy production, and especially creation’s resources in a responsible, careful and economic way. We call upon all to take measures to save energy…..We strongly advocate for the priority of the development of renewable energies”. Taken from the SOCIAL PRINCIPLES OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, 2017-2020.

If you’ve been reading the news over the past year or two, you may have noticed convergence of several exciting developments occurring in our county to address the importance of transitioning to sustainable, non-extractive energy sources. Highlighting them are these four:

First, Nevada County has installed a series of solar arrays, including the “solar farm” on Highway 49, which will supply its facilities with at least 80% of their own energy needs. The County is currently updating its Energy Plan with goals for reducing residential, non-residential, and municipal energy consumption and emissions.

Second, Nevada City passed a resolution in August 2017 to transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, and 100% total renewable energy by 2050.

Third, Grass Valley is currently creating an Energy Action Plan which will include voluntary strategies to reduce energy consumption in residential and non-residential buildings and facilities. A major component will be the use of solar energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Fourth, on Aug. 23, a public round table chaired by NID explored the possibility of creating a CCA (Community Choice Aggregation), which allows cities and counties to join together and purchase electricity from a specific, renewable source, at a cheaper price than from an investor-owned utility (ie PG&E). CCAs are rapidly gaining popularity in California.

In a similar vein, last year the Nevada City United Methodist Church, reflecting on our Social Principles as quoted in the opening paragraph above, began to ask whether it was feasible for us to install a solar array on our beautiful 160-year-old Victorian church in the historical district of Nevada City. Fortunately, the Nevada City Planning Commission was enthusiastically supportive of our plan, and any structural concerns were allayed by the solar contractors we consulted. Our congregation, understanding our need both to be stewards of our fragile creation, and to be fiscally responsible, were so supportive that nearly half of the bid cost was pledged before construction even began. And so, on July 25 of this year, a team from Sustainable Energy Group installed the 38 panels atop our roof, and within a week we were getting “power from above!” We thus joined the many churches, homes, businesses and organizations in Nevada County that are saving money each month by switching to a clean, renewable energy source.

In today’s world, there is so much discouraging news about how we can’t do anything to solve the world’s problems. As our little church seeks to fulfill its mandate to move toward clean, sustainable energy, we hope that all our citizens can be inspired by the many examples of this movement in Nevada County to decrease our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, through the conversion to sustainable sources of energy.


The Nevada City United Methodist Church and Society Committee


Nevada City United Methodist Church: Clean, sustainable energy for Nevada County, by Nevada City United Methodist Church and Society Committee, YubaNet, August 31, 2018.