What Puerto Rico teaches us about power resilience for all communities

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, knocking out power for the entire island and damaging 80% of the island’s energy transmission and distribution system. The United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is tasked with repairing the current system, a process that is expected to take months and cost $5 billion.

Manatí, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria | Photo: José Reyes

FEMA will be repairing, not upgrading, an antiquated electricity distribution and transmission system powered primarily by fossil fuels.

On the island of Puerto Rico, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, 3.4 million people depend on the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). PREPA uses a fuel mix of 47% petroleum, 34% natural gas, 17% coal, and 2% renewable energy. With the grid currently down, diesel generators are providing power to those who can afford them.

Both the diesel generators and PREPA’s fuel mix provide the island with dirty electricity — and both are barely affordable options for the people of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican Americans pay $0.24-$0.48/kilowatt-hour (kWh) for their electricity, compared to an average price of $0.13/kWh on the United States mainland. Now is as good a time as any for Puerto Rico to upgrade to clean local power.

Since the hurricane, both Tesla founder Elon Musk and Virgin head Richard Branson have publicly advocated for microgrids to provide a cleaner, cheaper, more resilient option for islands in the Caribbean that depend on imported fossil fuels for electricity. In an area with abundant solar energy, using clean local energy is the obvious choice to get Puerto Rico up and running as soon as possible.

After disasters like Hurricane Maria, a bare minimum of power is essential for relief and recovery efforts. Emergency responders, hospitals, and water utilities that provide clean drinking water need electricity. Solar emergency microgridscombine solar photovoltaic panels, energy storage, and monitoring, communications, and controls, could deliver electricity instantly and indefinitely for disaster response.

Puerto Rico’s difficulty in performing emergency response services highlights the importance of resilient backup power systems. This need is not limited to Puerto Rico. Every village, town and city should be thinking about what services they need to keep running in the event of a natural disaster. In California, the Peninsula Advanced Energy Community (PAEC) is working with hospitals and municipal governments to plan affordable, clean, and resilient power systems that combine energy efficiency, local renewables, electric vehicle charging stations, energy storage, and monitoring, communications, and controls. During a power outage, essential services can island themselves from the grid and still function.

In San Mateo County, CA, the City of Atherton is preparing for resilience in the face of earthquakes and fires. When planning their new zero net energy Civic Center, the city included a solar emergency microgrid for their police station. If a large earthquake or fire knocks out power, emergency responders will still be able to field calls and respond to community requests for assistance.

Planning for disasters is more important now than ever. This year, the back-to-back hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast and Caribbean, and the wildfires that have decimated communities in the West, shone a light on the importance of a resilient electricity grid. It’s time to upgrade our aging, dirty grid with cleaner electricity systems that can withstand shocks from natural disasters and provide emergency power when it is needed most.

The PAEC is a groundbreaking initiative to streamline policies and showcase projects that facilitate local renewables and other advanced energy solutions like energy efficiency, energy storage, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The PAEC will create pathways to cost-effective clean local energy and community resilience throughout San Mateo County, the City of Palo Alto, and beyond. The PAEC is a collaboration between the Clean Coalition, the California Energy Commission, Pacific Gas and Electric, and an array of municipalities, emergency response jurisdictions, schools and universities, and corporate entities. For more information, please visit www.clean-coalition.org/PAEC.

No heat molecule left behind: Stanford’s district-level heat recovery system

What if you could take the wasted heat from a building and reuse it in another where more heat is needed? This is happening now at Stanford University. Heat Recovery Chillers (also known as heat pumps) transfer waste heat to a hot water tank in the university’s Central Energy Facility, then circulate it throughout the campus as part of the Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI) project.

In addition to three heat pumps, the Central Energy Facility contains two five-million-gallon cold water tanks, and a two-million-gallon hot water tank, all involved in an innovative heat transfer process. Using these components, recovered heat is distributed as hot water through 22 miles of hot water piping. This district-level heat recovery system serves 155 buildings around Stanford’s campus.

Source: SESI Project, Stanford University

The SESI project capitalizes on new technology that Stanford developed to efficiently recover waste heat and transfer it to where it is needed. The technology used takes advantage of the fact that large buildings are often heated and cooled simultaneously.

In the graph below, the dark blue area shows the days that are predominantly cooling degree days, and the dark red area shows the heating degree days. “Degree days” are a standard measure for heating and cooling. The light blue and orange areas depict the times when both heating and cooling happen. Given the overlap, it makes sense to recover waste heat from one area and transfer it to another area.

Source: SESI Project, Stanford University

The Stanford district-level heat recovery system provides 90% of total campus heating needs. Stanford’s Land, Buildings & Real Estate department produced a video illustrating how the system works:

The SESI project, which costs $485 million, benefits the university in many ways, including:

  • Overall operating cost reductions
  • Freed-up open space on campus, due to the removal of the old Combined Heat & Power plant
  • Noise pollution reduction
  • Improved overall safety
  • Significant potable water use reduction on campus
  • Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 150,000 tons per year

With this project and others, Stanford has been steadily chipping away at its fossil fuel use. Between the 4.5 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics onsite and 69 MW-DC of solar generation offsite — which provide just over 50% of the campus’s total electricity use — and the SESI district-level heat recovery system, Stanford’s greenhouse gas emissions are now 68% below its peak emissions level in 2011. And more greenhouse gas reduction projects are in the planning phase.

The Peninsula Advanced Energy Community (PAEC) initiative’s partners and collaborators are proud to have Stanford University as a project partner in working to highlight innovative projects that are replicable and scalable at the state and national level. While the SESI project may seem cost-prohibitive at nearly half a billion dollars, at its heart is a simple technology: a heat pump that transfers heat from one medium to another. As such, this project could be replicated at a smaller scale to build out clean local energy communities in other areas.

The Peninsula Advanced Energy Community (PAEC) is a groundbreaking initiative to streamline policies and showcase projects that facilitate local renewables and other advanced energy solutions like energy efficiency, energy storage, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The PAEC will create pathways to cost-effective clean local energy and community resilience throughout San Mateo County, the City of Palo Alto, and beyond. The PAEC is a collaboration between the Clean Coalition, the California Energy Commission, Pacific Gas and Electric, and an array of municipalities, emergency response jurisdictions, schools and universities, and corporate entities. For more information, please visit www.clean-coalition.org/PAEC.

Ensuring that PG&E procures more clean energy

Distributed renewable energy projects smaller than 20 megawatts (MW) face a number of challenges in California. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has recognized the need to overcome these challenges to spur the development of renewable energy. So in 2010, the CPUC developed the Renewable Auction Mechanism (RAM), a program designed to streamline and quicken the advancement of sub-20 MW distributed renewable energy projects in the state.

Holding utilities accountable

The Clean Coalition has played a major role in holding California’s investor-owned utilities (IOUs) accountable for the significant amounts of clean energy they were required to procure and connect to the grid under RAM. Recently, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) proposed canceling some of their mandated allotment — until the Clean Coalition intervened.

PG&E first requested to delay their remaining RAM auctions in July 2016. The utility argued that the CPUC should defer PG&E’s further procurement of renewables because costs may decline in the future. However, as the Clean Coalition noted, if the CPUC had followed this rationale a decade ago, prices for renewables would not have dropped to current levels. In fact, the inaction caused by waiting for prices to drop can mean a failure to create the very circumstances necessary for prices to drop even further.

The Clean Coalition also opposed the utility’s request because the delay would lead to substantial losses for developers and higher costs for electricity customers, in part due to the upcoming expiration of tax credits.

To further exacerbate matters, this summer PG&E requested to fully cancel their clean energy procurements under RAM. A motion to deny this request was filed, and the Clean Coalition intervened to support the denial.

The Clean Coalition argued that uncertainty can be highly damaging to well-functioning renewables markets. In these markets, it’s important to ensure predictability and avoid unnecessarily introducing more uncertainty — particularly for developers focused on small project sizes. These developers are generally less liquid, and risks on the road to project completion are higher.

In PG&E’s request this summer, the utility argued that no harm would be done by delaying or cancelling the 2016 and 2017 RAM solicitations. The reality, though, is that parties participating in RAM would face substantial losses from preparing for renewable projects that never got off the ground. Developers who enter the line for interconnection must expend time and money on siting activities, negotiating land leases, and performing initial permitting work. Delaying or canceling these projects would increase the risk for RAM participants, which would harm ratepayers.

Moving clean energy forward with RAM and ReMAT

After the Clean Coalition submitted additional comments as the sole intervening party, we were successful in urging the CPUC to deny PG&E’s cancelation request. In doing so, we helped ensure that 190 MW of clean energy will come online.

The main intent of the RAM program is to foster a broad range of clean energy procurement — in this specific instance, the sub-20 MW market segment that has been missing in California. This kind of program can potentially be replicated to develop the wholesale distributed generation market nationwide.

The Clean Coalition stands behind small wholesale renewables markets and leading innovation at the distribution grid level. One of our strategic objectives is to ensure that California’s RAM and Renewable Energy Market Adjusting Tariff (ReMAT) programs are efficiently bringing local renewables online.

ReMAT, which requires the state’s three major IOUs to procure 494 MW of wholesale DG projects sized no larger than 3 MW each, is currently under attack. The Clean Coalition is leading the defense of the ReMAT program to ensure that the remaining 246 MW of unfulfilled local renewable energy capacity is built, and we plan to continue being diligent and engaged through regulatory channels.

Fixing an unfair charge to Californians that harms clean local energy: The latest on the TAC campaign

Should local renewables be charged for a transmission grid they don’t use to reach customers? And should all utility customers foot the bill for these extra, unnecessary transmission lines that could be avoided if we invested more intelligently?

The answer might seem obvious, but that’s exactly what is happening in California.

A broken system

The fees for using California’s transmission grid, Transmission Access Charges (TAC), are currently being applied in a way that’s outdated, unfair, and inconsistent.

TAC are designed to pay for the state’s transmission system. It makes sense to pay for a system that we use; what doesn’t make sense is the way these charges are currently assessed. The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which manages the grid, now charges the large investor-owned utilities TAC on every kilowatt-hour (kWh) delivered across a customer’s meter — even if that energy was not delivered through the transmission system. And the utilities pass those costs along to all of their customers.

TAC adds about $0.03 per kWh to the cost of energy over a 20-year contract. That may not sound like much, but it adds up to about 30% of the wholesale value of energy in California.

This means that energy from local renewables is hit with transmission costs, even though it never touches the transmission grid. And that artificially inflates the cost of clean local energy. This system also incentivizes the construction of transmission-dependent energy, which drives the construction of more transmission infrastructure. We all pay for that. If this problem is not fixed, Californians will pay nearly $40 billion too much in electricity transmission costs over the next 20 years.

How to fix TAC

Fortunately, we can fix the TAC problem. We can adopt a system already being used by most of California’s municipal utilities: charge TAC only for energy that is delivered through the transmission system.

This would be a more equitable way to assess TAC, and it would apply a consistent method for assessing this charge across all utilities. In addition, it would incentivize clean local energy by removing the extra unfair charges that are currently inflating its price. As a result, there would be less need to build more transmission infrastructure, which would mean lower electricity costs for all Californians.

How the Clean Coalition is leading to fix TAC

Since the Clean Coalition launched our TAC campaign nearly two years ago, we’ve been working diligently to change the way CAISO levies transmission fees. Our campaign has amassed the support of nearly 80 advocacy groups, solar developers, and other high-profile organizations.

Last winter, the Clean Coalition sponsored Senate Bill (SB) 692, coauthored by Senator Ben Allen and Assemblyman Marc Berman, to force CAISO to address the TAC issue by implementing a statewide “user-pays” approach. The Clean Coalition and its supporters parked SB 692 in the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy to give CAISO the opportunity to address this issue through its stakeholder process. We can revive SB 692 next year if CAISO fails to deliver on its promise to address the issue.

This summer, CAISO started the Review TAC Structure initiative to gather input from stakeholders on our proposed solution, and the Clean Coalition led its team of supporters to ensure the TAC fix proposal is adopted. Clean Coalition staff presented at the TAC Structure Working Group on August 29, and addressed questions and comments on the TAC initiative at a CAISO meeting on September 25. We intend to gain more support for the TAC fix over the coming months and plan on holding an overview webinar in the near future.

The Clean Coalition is making good progress and is more determined than ever for this solution to be available for all affected California ratepayers.

Collaborating and innovating to expand clean local energy in San Mateo County

The clean energy sector has seen massive innovation and cost reductions over the past decade, but hurdles remain in developing and connecting local renewables to the grid. Through the PAEC initiative, the Clean Coalition is exploring these challenges, identifying solutions, and working with strategic partners to demonstrate how California can streamline the creation of advanced energy communities (AECs).

In the first half of the 18-month PAEC initiative, the Clean Coalition has uncovered local renewable energy deployment opportunities, investigated a number of critical barriers, and developed concrete recommendations to accelerate adoption of clean local energy. Specifically, we have:

  • Conducted the PAEC Solar Siting Survey, which identified 65 megawatts of commercial solar potential in southern San Mateo County on parking lots, parking garages, and school rooftops.
  • Analyzed PG&E’s Fast Track program and recommended improvements to streamline interconnection of wholesale distributed generation (wholesale DG).
  • Studied and prioritized Best Practices on energy policies and ordinances in San Francisco and surrounding regions that should be replicated to accelerate the development of AECs.

While these studies shed light on key opportunities to accelerate deployment of AECs, they are only useful if the information and recommendations are used to guide decision making. That’s why the Clean Coalition is actively working with our key PAEC partners to disseminate this information.

Already, the Clean Coalition has shared highlights from these studies with dozens of municipalities, school districts, corporations, and institutions that are partners in the PAEC initiative. One group in particular that is incorporating PAEC findings into its work is the Regionally Integrated Climate Action Planning Suite (RICAPS), which is an association of 20 municipalities in San Mateo County overseen by San Mateo County’s Office of Sustainability. RICAPS promotes PAEC conclusions in their climate action planning work. Over the past nine months, the PAEC team has presented findings on a number of critical topics to RICAPS members.

The presentations have helped RICAPS members clarify policy direction for expanding electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure in existing multi-family and new large retail buildings. The City of Menlo Park has been particularly engaged on this topic and is moving forward with a new EV charging ordinance. RICAPS has also spent time focusing on ordinances and policies that would expand zero carbon space heating and water heating, as well as increase the number of solar carports.

Beyond holding workshops, the PAEC team also disseminates technical information at city planning commission and council meetings. The feedback the PAEC partners receive from municipal, corporate, and institutional partners has been used to further refine PAEC policy recommendations.

Moving forward, PAEC partners and collaborators will hold workshops on recommendations to streamline interconnection and the economic benefits of energy efficiency and fuel switching from natural gas to electricity.

PAEC collaborators

Much work remains to build out AECs. There needs to be deep energy retrofits across the built environment, significant development of local renewable energy projects, an expansion of EV charging infrastructure, and greater use of energy storage systems. The PAEC initaitive’s technical assessments, best practices research, and policy recommendations so far have been, and will continue to be, useful to municipalities, corporations, and institutions that seek to eliminate barriers to AEC project implementation.

The Peninsula Advanced Energy Community (PAEC) is a groundbreaking initiative to streamline policies and showcase projects that facilitate local renewables and other advanced energy solutions like energy efficiency, energy storage, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The PAEC will create pathways to cost-effective clean local energy and community resilience throughout San Mateo County, the City of Palo Alto, and beyond. The PAEC is a collaboration between the Clean Coalition, the California Energy Commission, Pacific Gas and Electric, and an array of municipalities, emergency response jurisdictions, schools and universities, and corporate entities. For more information, please visit www.clean-coalition.org/PAEC.