The Peoples' Grid: Unplugging from the Monopoly Paradigm
July 1, 2018
Wenonah Hauter / The San Francisco Chronicle & Nick Chaset / San Francisco Chronicle & Peter Fimrite / San Francisco Chronicle
California's energy future is at a crossroads. The state must decide how it will replace its fossil fuels with renewable energy to avoid climate disaster. The Legislature is considering legislation to hand energy oversight management of the energy grid to an unelected regional board that would govern a single energy market across the Western US. A better option: Community choice aggregators -- public agencies that contract for cleaner, low-cost electricity -- that already provide clean power to millions of Californians.
California Must Retain Control of its Electric Grid
Wenonah Hauter / The San Francisco Chronicle
(June 6, 2018) -- California's energy future is at a crossroads. The state is both a renewable energy powerhouse and a major producer and consumer of fossil fuels. California's leaders must decide if the state will provide a model for the nation by replacing its fossil fuels with renewable energy to avoid climate disaster, or stay hooked on dirty energy.
Gov. Jerry Brown has tried to have it both ways. Despite preaching about climate change as our greatest challenge, he has supported fracking and a cap-and-trade system that allows the oil-and-gas industry to pay to continue business as usual, rather than reduce its pollution at the source. Brown has allowed the dangerous Aliso Canyon gas storage facility to remain open, even after it had the worst blowout in our nation's history and still springs leaks.
Now, California faces its biggest test yet over whether it will truly advance to become a renewably powered economy.
The Legislature is considering legislation, including Assembly Bill 813, to turn over the management of the California energy grid to an unelected regional board that would govern a single energy market across the Western United States.
The regional board would replace California's Independent System Operator and would ultimately answer to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, now under the Trump administration.
This move could result in a severe setback to California's renewable energy future. A regional board comprising largely out-of-state interests could load the grid with fracked gas and coal produced by Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Colorado. Trump's FERC, which is unabashedly pro-fossil fuel, would have the final say and has already imposed its agenda on other regional systems in the country.
Regionalizing California's grid would increase speculation and raise energy bills for Californians. The proposal would transfer the California-based market for buying and selling electricity to a Western interstate market.
While speculation in a financial instrument pegged to electric transmission is already costing Californians more than $700 million, the problem could grow worse in a Western market with even less oversight.
The plan is similar to the electricity deregulation of the 1990s that allowed corporations such as Enron to treat California's energy system like a casino, which resulted in Californians being overcharged and blackouts caused by manipulation.
Deregulation, which allowed private utilities to separate transmission and power production, has also resulted in California ratepayers paying billions of dollars for unnecessary gas-fired power plants, and profits for energy speculators.
The NRG corporation's announcement that it plans to close three gas-fired power plants on the Southern California coast shows that state regulators allowed the industry to build more power plants than were needed. Meanwhile, California leads the country in solar production but has to give away solar power to neighboring states because our grid has too much natural gas -- a problem that a Western grid would prolong and worsen.
Community Choice to Determine
California's Green Energy Future
Nick Chaset / The San Francisco Chronicle
(June 13, 2018) -- When the California Public Utilities Commission issued its May 3 white paper on change in California's electricity system and customer choice, it sounded an alarm of impending doom due to diversification coming from both local communities and technologies. Don't be fooled by this false alarm.
Good things are happening in California's electricity markets. Community choice aggregators are now providing electric generation service to millions of Californians. CCAs are public agencies that contract for cleaner, low-cost electric supply delivered to you by utilities such as PG&E.
The CPUC report asks important questions about the future of California's electricity system, but it misses the mark through its lack of understanding of how CCAs are governed, whom they serve and what they procure. CCAs are a critical part of the solution for California's challenges.
Let me address three contentions in the paper:
Renewable energy: CCAs across California are leading the charge to deliver ever higher quantities of renewable energy. In fact, since their formation in 2007, CCAs have gained the ability to power 300,000 homes with 100 percent renewable energy.
Peninsula Clean Energy has a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. Marin Clean Energy, which serves Marin, Napa and Contra Costa counties and Benicia in Solano County, already serves its customers with more than 55 percent renewable energy.
Disadvantaged communities: By the end of 2018, CCAs will be operating in 18 counties, from Humboldt to Alameda, San Benito to Riverside. More than 22 percent of their customers receive special discounted rates designed for lower-income households. A study by East Bay Community Energy found that CCAs also serve high-poverty communities at the same rate as the investor-owned utilities -- just over 19 percent each.
Governance: Every operating CCA in California is governed by a board of local elected officials. These mayors, council members and supervisors are directly elected by residents and actively govern a whole range of critical infrastructure, from water systems to mass transportation. Many have set stringent climate-action goals within their jurisdictions that far exceed the state's goals. CCA boards have oversight over all facets of operations, from reviewing and setting rates to approving procurement.
The local governance model helps to ensure that our procurement, rates and programs are designed to meet the specific demands of each community, instead of relying on the one-size-fits-all approach of the investor-owned utility model set by the commission.
Additionally, all CCAs must submit plans to the commission to ensure that they meet reliability and emissions reductions goals for all of California. In addition to the local boards, the California Energy Commission, the California Independent System Operator and the Legislature each have oversight responsibilities.
I appreciate the California Public Utilities Commission's concern around rapid change in the electricity sector, but through my experience and from the track record of CCAs in California, community choice is the solution. Consumers deserve more choice through innovative community programs, renewable options and local control. They shouldn't be forced into an antiquated monopoly structure pushed by the investor-owned utilities' self-interest.
Nick Chaset was chief of staff to California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker until last August, when he became the CEO of East Bay Community Energy, a community choice aggregator.
Climate Change Is Ruining
California's Environment, Report Warns
Peter Fimrite / San Francisco Chronicle
(May 9, 2018) -- Bigger, more intense forest fires, longer droughts, warmer ocean temperatures and an ever shrinking snowpack in the Sierra Nevada are "unequivocal" evidence of the ruinous domino-effects that climate change is having on California, a new California Environmental Protection Agency report states.
The 350-page report released Wednesday tracks 36 indicators of climate change, including a comprehensive list of human impacts and the effects on wildlife, the ocean, lakes, rivers and the mountains.
The study pulled together research from scientists, academia and research institutions and found that despite a marked downward trend in greenhouse-gas emissions in California, including a 90 percent drop in black carbon from tailpipe emissions over the past 50 years, CO2 levels in the atmosphere and in seawater are increasing at a steady rate.
"To me, it shows how important it is to bring carbon emissions down to zero and to limit the amount of climate change that occurs as much as possible," said Christopher Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute and a top climate scientist whose research is reflected in the report. "The risks are coming into sharper focus, the range of impacts are coming into sharper focus. (The report) reinforces and amplifies the messages we've already seen."
The report, called Indicators of Climate Change in California , shows a dramatic increase in temperatures since 1895, especially since the early 1980s. The warmest year in California history was 2014, followed closely by 2015, 2017 and 2016. Most alarming of all, though, are night temperatures, which have increased 2.3 degrees over the past century, the report notes.
Extreme heat waves have also increased since 1950, according to the report. Record heat combined with drought has had a debilitating effect on the ecosystem.
The drought from 2012 to 2016 was the most extreme in terms of high temperatures since records began in 1895. Some 129 million trees died during the drought, which deprived the trees of water, dried out their sap and promoted infestations of bark beetles, which thrived in the heat.
The drought coincided with record-low snowpack. Snowmelt has, in fact, been in a continual decline, decreasing by 9 percent since 1906, according to the climate document. The largest glaciers in the Sierra have shrunk by an average of about 70 percent, the report said.
Meanwhile, the water temperature in Lake Tahoe -- California's signature high-altitude water basin -- has warmed nearly one degree since 1970. The study said the warming has been 10 times faster over the past four years.
Sea levels have also been rising and temperatures have been warming, according to the report. The mean sea level in San Francisco has risen 7 inches since 1924. Oxygen depletion has also been detected in the water off San Diego.
The result of all this change has been an alarming increase in extreme weather-related calamities. The five largest fire years since 1950 have all occurred since 2006, and last year saw the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in state history. These included the Thomas Fire in Southern California and the wind-blown wildfires that killed 45 people and destroyed 8,900 homes in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties in October.
"The observed changes in wildfire have outpaced all of the models," said LeRoy Westerling, professor at UC Merced who has created fire models for the California Energy Commission. "Warmer temperatures enhance the droughts, and that drives more wildfire."
Westerling said there are likely to be more forest fires, as opposed to chaparral fires, in California in future years. That means more wildlife habitat will be destroyed by fire, humans will be breathing more particulate matter, more homes will be in danger, and the cost of homeowners insurance will continue to rise.
"Under any of the scenarios we've looked at, we see increased wildfires in the Sierra Nevada, Southern Cascade and North Coast range forests because their elevation makes them more sensitive to temperature increases." he said. "It means we are going to have big increases in air pollution emissions from these burning forest fires."
But there are bright spots.
Senate Bill 32, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, put California on course to reduce emissions an additional 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The state expects to drop below 1990 levels within two years. Concentrations of black carbon from vehicle exhaust have already dropped 90 percent over the past 50 years even as diesel fuel consumption has increased seven-fold, according to the report.
California's leadership role in the development of clean fuels and sustainable energy has largely been driving the market in the rest of the country. Experts say that innovative spirit, in defiance of the political winds blowing in Washington, D.C., have put the state at the forefront of a new economic model that could eventually make clean energy the standard throughout the world.
"As California works to both fight climate change and adapt to it, it is critical that we understand the dramatic impacts climate change is already having in our state," said Matthew Rodriquez, the California secretary for environmental protection. "California's climate leadership is unquestioned, and this report builds on the essential scientific foundation that informs our efforts to respond to climate change."
Still, California contributes only a fraction of the world's carbon emissions.
"If I were going to look across North America, ground zero for climate change is the Arctic. It is just changing really, really rapidly," said Steven Beissinger, professor of conservation biology at UC Berkeley. "But California is an important laboratory to understand the effects of climate change on biodiversity."
Temperature: Average air temperature increases have accelerated since the mid-1970s. The last four years were the hottest on record.
Wildfires: The five largest fire years since 1950 occurred after 2006. The Wine Country fires in 2017 were the deadliest and most destructive in state history.
Drought: California is becoming drier. The 2012-16 drought was the most extreme on record.
Species migration: About 75 percent of small mammal species and 80 percent of bird species surveyed in the Sierra Nevada region have shifted ranges in an effort to find suitable habitat.
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer and an experienced reporter and writer who has traveled the world covering, among other stories, the Beijing Olympics, Hurricane Katrina, illegal American tourism in Cuba and development in Mexico. He has written investigative pieces and humor, covered high-profile court cases, politics, crime, historical sagas and social movements. Now covering the environment, natural resources and public lands, he is the San Francisco Chronicle's point man on the National Park Service, California state parks and issues relating to climate change.
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