Our electricity system has been described as the world’s largest continuously operating machine. Yet without innovation now required by the climate crisis, our traditional power grids will fail us. This came close to happening during California’s record-setting heat wave in early September. Yet the extreme temperatures also gave us a glimpse into future solutions now being embraced by communities throughout the state.
Both recent challenges and promising pathways forward dominated conversation at the California Community Choice Association (CalCCA) gala last Saturday in San Francisco. It was inspiring to spend time with so many people on the forefront of empowering communities to take action in the climate crisis.
Think Global, Act Local
Many of us remember the failed attempt to deregulate retail supply of electricity in California over two decades ago, which led to rolling blackouts and gave California – often held up as a role model for electricity reforms – a big black eye. Yet 10 years later an alternative form of customer choice known as “community choice aggregation” (CCA) took root in Marin County. This approach to democratizing our shared power networks is working remarkably well, showing that reflecting community values in power supply is accelerating the ability of California to battle global climate change at the local level.
This community-based program of energy procurement and management that empowers state citizens themselves to join with their neighbors to scale-up alternatives to the status quo has spread like wildfire. These organizations do not substitute for the three large investor-owned utilities (IOUs) still operating in the state. In the case of the Bay Area CCAs, Pacific Gas & Electric still manages the poles and wires that connect us all to the power grid. But CCAs can decide where the power comes from through votes by county and city governments.
Increasingly, these community-based power systems are investing in local clean energy projects and helping balance the variability of supply and demand. These CCA programs are the most practical ways for local governments to meet their obligations to reduce carbon.
Consider the following:
- Twenty-four different CCA programs in California now serve over 11 million customers. By the end of next year, these CCA programs will provide clean electricity for almost half of all customers of the state’s three large IOUs, which collectively represent 75% of the state’s electric customers.
- California’s CCAs have signed contracts to bring on line 10,000 megawatts of clean power, enough electricity to supply roughly 10 million homes. These purchases include over 6,000 MW of solar photovoltaics, over 1,000 MW of new wind power, and more than 2,600 MW of energy storage.
- It is the investment in energy storage that is particularly important as CCAs move beyond simply procuring clean electricity and work with partners in the private sector to ensure that adequate reserves are in place to meet customer demand. These batteries, when integrated with demand response programs that can throttle back demand from customer air conditioners, help the state meet spikes in demand and balance the variability of solar and wind, which are the key resources expected to dominate our future power supplies.
From Volunteers to Virtual Power Plants
The potential for citizens themselves to play a key role in keeping the lights on was illustrated on September 6. The California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s grid, issued a Flex Alert calling upon state citizens to throttle down their air conditioners and turn off non-essential devices that consume electricity. While volunteers rode to the rescue, there is a better way to institutionalize these demand reduction processes, which will become even more critical in the future.
The model is to pay citizens for providing what are commonly referred to as “grid services” or “flexibility.” Aggregating smaller, smarter, and cleaner distributed resources (which include everything from rooftop solar PV panels to hot water heaters and electric vehicles), CCAs can leverage their credibility with local citizens to create “virtual power plants” (VPP) to displace the most expensive and polluting resources on the system, commonly referred to as peaking power plants. These peaking plants helped get us through the heat wave, but they also drove up carbon emissions and added to the air pollution already compromised by ongoing wildfires.
With the help of advanced digital platforms that can fine-tune supply and demand in real-time, CCAs can not only boost reliance upon clean power sources, they can also balance and back-stop the state’s power grid. During one week in September, my company’s VPP platform was dispatched over 100 times in California across our customer base. Imagine what might be possible if all CCAs throughout the state enabled VPPs to help boost grid reliability while reducing carbon and other forms of air pollution? Let’s find out.
Citizens in communities served by CCAs are clearly a force to be reckoned with. We should pay them for helping fight climate change and invest in our future.