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Op-Ed: Public utilities commission is working against California’s climate goals

Laura Neish, CALMATTERS

Rooftop and other small solar projects are an important part of the state’s future energy grid, not just benefiting their owners, but providing stability, resilience and key services to everyone. Given rooftop solar’s importance to us all, it is extremely disappointing that the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted last month to significantly reduce the value small-solar owners are credited for their energy contributions to the grid.

The decision will discourage — or even destroy the market for — rooftop solar on existing roofs. It also raises the question of whether it will keep the state’s electric grid from reaching its goal of distributing 100% clean (nonfossil fuel) energy by 2045, as required by law.

The commission maintains an incentive structure that pays Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to do the wrong thing. The commission needs to rethink what is best for California and encourage more rooftop installations, which provide essential benefits, such as keeping energy flowing locally during outages. They are the fastest route to 100% clean energy in the state.

These millions of rooftop systems can act in concert to supply energy during peak demand, eliminating the need to power up or build new, inefficient, “peaker” electric generation plants. Less dramatically, rooftop systems allow solar owners to reduce their own grid use during high electric demand.

Read more at https://calmatters.org/commentary/2021/06/public-utilities-commission-is-working-against-californias-climate-goals/

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Rooftop solar and home batteries make a clean grid vastly more affordable

David Roberts, VOLTS

A New Roadmap for the Lowest Cost Grid

Energy nerds love arguing over the value of distributed energy resources (DERs), the rooftop solar panels and customer-owned batteries that are growing more popular by the day. There’s a fight in California right now over the value of energy from rooftop solar, just the latest skirmish in a long war that has ranged over numerous states.

The conventional wisdom in wonk circles is that the value provided by DERs is not sufficient to overcome the fact that the energy they produce is, on a per-kWh basis, much more expensive than that produced by utility-scale solar, wind, and batteries (residential solar is roughly 2.5 times as expensive as utility-scale solar, according to NREL).

For that reason, many wonks view DERs as a kind of boutique energy and argue that public funds are better spent on utility-scale energy.

Turns out: no, that’s wrong. Some groundbreaking new modeling demonstrates that the value of DERs to the overall electricity system is far greater than has typically been appreciated.

Read more at https://www.volts.wtf/p/rooftop-solar-and-home-batteries?

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California just hit 95% renewable energy. Will other states come along for the ride?

Sammy Roth, LOS ANGELES TIMES

Something remarkable happened over the weekend: California hit nearly 95% renewable energy.

I’ll say it again: 95% renewables. For all the time we spend talking about how to reach 100% clean power, it sometimes seems like a faraway proposition, whether the timeframe is California’s 2045 target or President Biden’s more aggressive 2035 goal. But on Saturday just before 2:30 p.m., one of the world’s largest economies came within a stone’s throw of getting there.

There are several caveats. For one thing, Saturday’s 94.5% figure — a record, as confirmed to me by the California Independent System Operator — was fleeting, lasting just four seconds. It was specific to the state’s main power grid, which covers four-fifths of California but doesn’t include Los Angeles, Sacramento and several other regions. It came at a time of year defined by abundant sunshine and relatively cool weather, meaning it’s easier for renewable power to do the job traditionally done by fossil fuels.

And fossil fuels actually were doing part of the job — more than the 94.5% figure might suggest. California was producing enough clean power to supply nearly 95% of its in-state needs, but it was also burning a bunch of natural gas and exporting electricity to its Western neighbors. It’s impossible to say exactly how much of the Golden State’s own supply was coming from renewables.

That said, what happened on Saturday is definitely a big deal.

“It sends chills down my spine. It’s amazing,” said Elliot Mainzer, president and CEO of the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s main power grid. “These types of transitions aren’t always pretty. But we’re getting a lot of renewable generation online, making a real dent in the state’s carbon emissions.”

Read more at https://www.latimes.com/environment/newsletter/2021-04-29/solar-power-water-canals-california-climate-change-boiling-point?utm_id=28229&sfmc_id=3422102

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How your water heater can be a secret weapon in the climate change fight

Todd Woody, BLOOMBERG NEWS

California wants to replace millions of gas water heaters with high-tech electric ones to serve as “thermal batteries” for storing solar and wind energy.

Nearly every home has a water heater, but people tend not to think about it until the shock of a cold shower signals its failure. To regulators, though, the ubiquitous household appliance is increasingly top of mind for the role it could play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and weaning the power grid from fossil fuels

High-tech electric water heaters can double as thermal batteries, storing excess production from wind and solar generators. In California, officials aim to install them in place of millions of gas water heaters throughout the state. That would reduce the need to fire up polluting fossil fuel power plants to supply electricity for water heating after the sun sets.

“Water heaters have significant potential,” says Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen of the California Public Utilities Commission. “We know we’ll need a tremendous amount of storage to get to our decarbonization goals. We’re challenged now in evenings when renewable energy production declines and demand peaks.”

The focus is on heat pump water heaters, which transfer warmth from the atmosphere to a tank. They’re up to four times as efficient as conventional gas or electric water heaters. Nationwide, about half of water heaters are powered by natural gas. In California, water heating is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and gas water heaters account for 90% of the market. Swapping them for heat pump versions could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from water heating in the state by as much as 77%, according to a paper published in January by the nonprofit New Buildings Institute.

Here’s how using heat pump water heaters for energy storage works: When renewable energy production peaks in the afternoon, a signal is sent that activates heat pump water heaters. After heating water, the devices shut down and store the hot water for use in the evening when demand spikes. That puts to use excess renewable energy generated during the day that would otherwise be wasted. Grid operators could also charge these thermal batteries as needed to balance supply and demand or before a planned power outage due to wildfire threats or in anticipation of extreme weather that could trigger blackouts. It’s estimated that heat pump water heaters could store hot water for 12 hours or more, depending on the size of the tank.
Continue reading “How your water heater can be a secret weapon in the climate change fight”

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Its electric grid under strain, California turns to batteries

Ivan Penn, THE NEW YORK TIMES

When demand exceeded supply in a recent heat wave, electricity stored at businesses and even homes was called into service. With proper management, batteries could have made up for an offline gas plant.

Last month as a heat wave slammed California, state regulators sent an email to a group of energy executives pleading for help. “Please consider this an urgent inquiry on behalf of the state,” the message said.

The manager of the state’s grid was struggling to increase the supply of electricity because power plants had unexpectedly shut down and demand was surging. The imbalance was forcing officials to order rolling blackouts across the state for the first time in nearly two decades.

What was unusual about the emails was whom they were sent to: people who managed thousands of batteries installed at utilities, businesses, government facilities and even homes. California officials were seeking the energy stored in those machines to help bail out a poorly managed grid and reduce the need for blackouts.

Many energy experts have predicted that batteries could turn homes and businesses into mini-power plants that are able to play a critical role in the electricity system. They could soak up excess power from solar panels and wind turbines and provide electricity in the evenings when the sun went down or after wildfires and hurricanes, which have grown more devastating because of climate change. Over the next decade, the argument went, large rows of batteries owned by utilities could start replacing power plants fueled by natural gas.

But that day appears to be closer than earlier thought, at least in California, which leads the country in energy storage. During the state’s recent electricity crisis, more than 30,000 batteries supplied as much power as a midsize natural gas plant. And experts say the machines, which range in size from large wall-mounted televisions to shipping containers, will become even more important because utilities, businesses and homeowners are investing billions of dollars in such devices.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/03/business/energy-environment/california-electricity-blackout-battery.html

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California’s looming wildfire threat requires a cleaner, more resilient electrical grid

Ted Lamm & Ethan Elkind, CALMATTERS

California’s electrical grid is getting cleaner, but it is still not well positioned to deal with a changing climate with its web of decades-old poles and wires.

As California communities confront the reality of emerging from coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, another inevitable crisis that also requires aggressive preventative action looms: wildfire season.

In the face of this persistent threat, we need aggressive integration of clean energy technologies to power a reliable and resilient electricity grid for our homes, health care systems, transportation networks and supply chains.

Californians are familiar with the ways that climate change is increasing our wildfire risk, with six of the top 10 most destructive fires in state history occurring in the past three years. California’s electrical grid stands in the middle of this increasingly complex predicament.

At least three of those fires were triggered by utility equipment, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which took 85 lives in the process of destroying 18,000 structures and the town of Paradise. 2019 brought widespread public safety power shut-offs and far less destructive fires throughout the state, but at the cost of new outage-related risks for vulnerable communities and residents – a trade-off we may be making for the next 10 years or more.

California’s electrical grid is getting cleaner, but it is still not well positioned to weather this changing climate. Today’s grid features a web of decades- and century-old poles and wires, even as the state obtains a record level of energy from cutting-edge solar and wind technology.
Continue reading “California’s looming wildfire threat requires a cleaner, more resilient electrical grid”

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Op-Ed: PG&E – Monopoly power and disasters

Peter Phillips and Tim Ogburn, PROJECT CENSORED

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has diverted over $100 million from safety and maintenance programs to executive compensation at the same time it has caused an average of more than one fire a day for the past six years killing over 100 people.

PG&E is the largest privately held public utility in the United States. A new research report shows that 91% of PG&E stocks are held by huge international investment management firms, including BlackRock and Vanguard Group. PG&E is an ideal investment for global capital management firms with monopoly control over five million households paying $16 billion for gas and electric in California. The California Public Utility Commission (PUC) has allowed an annual return up to 11%.

Between 2006 and the end of 2017, PG&E made $13.5 billion in net profits. Over those years, they paid nearly $10 billion in dividends to shareholders, but found little money to maintain safety on their electricity lines. Drought turned PG&E’s service area into a tinderbox at the same time money was diverted from maintenance to investor profits.

A 2013 Liberty Consulting report showed that 60% of PG&E’s power lines were at risk of failure due to obsolete equipment and 75% of the lines lacked in-line grounding. Between 2008 and 2015, the CPUC found PG&E late on thousands of repair violations. A 2012 report further revealed that PG&E illegally diverted $100 million from safety to executive compensation and bonuses over a 15-year period.

PG&E has caused over 1,500 fires in the past six years. PG&E electrical equipment has sparked more than a fire a day on average since 2014—more than 400 in 2018—including wildfires that killed more than 100 people.

In October 2017, multiple PG&E linked fires (Tubbs, Nuns, Adobe fires and more) in Northern California scorched more than 245,000 acres, destroyed or damaged more than 8,900 homes, displaced 100,000 people and killed at least 44.

In November, 2018, the PG&E caused Camp fire burned 153,336 acres, killing 86 people, and destroying 18,804 homes, business, and structures. The towns of Paradise and Concow were mostly obliterated. Overall damage was estimated at $16.5 billion.

PG&E has caused some $50 billion in damages from massive fires started by their failed power lines. They filed bankruptcy in January 2019 to try to shelter their assets. PG&E’s 529 million shares went from a high of $70 per share in in 2017 to a low of $3.55 in 2019. Shares are currently trading at $10.55 with zero returns. At this point PG&E actually owes more in damages then the net worth of the company.

All but two members of the board of director resigned in early 2019, and the CEO was replaced. A new board of directors was elected by an annual stockholders meeting in June of 2019. PG&E now has a board of directors whose primary interest in 2020 is returning PG&E stock values to $50-70 range and returning to annual dividend payments in the 8-11% rate.

The new PG&E management took widespread aggressive action during the fire-season of 2019 shutting down electric power to over 2.5 million people statewide. Nonetheless, a high voltage power line malfunctioned in Sonoma county lead to the Kincade fire that burned 77,758 acres destroying 374 structures, and forced the evacuation 190,000 Sonoma county residents. Estimated damages from this fire are $10.6 billion.

The fourteen new PG&E directors were essentially hand-picked by PG&E’s major stockholder firms like Vanguard Holdings 2019 (47.5 million shares 9.1%) and BlackRock (44.2 million shares 8.5%). A new PG&E Director, Meridee Moore, SF area founder & CEO of $2 billion Watershed Asset Management, is also a board member of BlackRock.

Only three of the new fourteen directors live in PG&E’s service area (four if we count the newly appointed CEO from Tennessee). One board member lives the LA area. The remainder of the board live outside California, including three from Texas, two from the mid-west and the remaining four from New York or east coast states. Pending PG&E Bankruptcy court approval, new directors are slated to receive $400,000 each in annual compensation.

Ten of the new 2020 directors have direct current links with capital investment management firms. The remainder have shown proven loyalty experience on behalf of capital utility investors making the entire PG&E board a solid united group of capital investment protectors, whose primary objective is to return PG&E stock values to pre-2017 highs with a 11% return on investment. They claim that wide-spread blackouts will be needed for up to ten years.

All fourteen PG&E board members are in the upper levels of the 1% richest in the world. As millionaires with elite university educations, the PG&E board holds little empathy for the millions of Californians living paycheck to paycheck burdened with some of the highest utility bills in the country. PG&E shuts off gas and electric to over 250,000 families annually for late payments.

The PG&E 2020 board is in service to transnational investment capital. This creates a perfect storm for the continuing transfer of capital from the 99% to the richest 1% in the world, all with uncertain blackouts, serious environmental damage, widespread fires, with multiple deaths and injuries.

We need to liquidate PG&E for the criminal damages it has afflicted on California. The “PG&E solution” is to manage PG&E democratically on the basis of human need, rather than private profit. It is time to take a stand for a publicly owned California Gas and Electric Company as the way to reverse the transfer of wealth to the global 1% and provide Californians with safe, low-cost and more renewable energy. All power to the people!

For the full report with all PG&E board names see: www.projectcensored.org/pge

Source: https://www.projectcensored.org/pge-monopoly-power-and-disasters-by-the-rich-1/

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PG&E should belong to Californians. Not to its Wall Street shareholders.

Charlie Eaton, THE SACRAMENTO BEE

As the lights went out across California this month, residents wondered if we will ever fix PG&E — the nation’s largest for-profit electric utility.

Some predictably joked that we should simply unleash the power of that mythical institution, which some economists still refer to as the “free market.” But PG&E’s latest failure illustrates that markets — and how well they work for consumers — always depend on state regulation. For this reason, California must use the crisis to deeply reform its utility regulations.

A critical regulatory choice for any market is the allowed forms of ownership for organizations that sell goods in the market. California’s courts, lawmakers and regulators are confronting this very issue as PG&E seeks to emerge from a bankruptcy that stems from its responsibility for recent wildfire catastrophes. The specific questions are: Who will own PG&E? How much control will regulators give them? And how much profit can owners extract from the utility?

Any changes to PG&E’s ownership will have big consequences for consumers and communities as California tries to transition to a carbon-neutral power grid. So, policymakers should take into consideration the latest social science on how the form of ownership will affect both consumers and society.

The first big lesson from recent research is about who should not be allowed to own PG&E – namely Wall Street. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other policy players should take every step necessary to block a consortium of 24 private equity and hedge funds that are currently attempting a hostile takeover of PG&E. Why?
Opinion

The interests and track record of the investors trying to take over PG&E speak for themselves. These types of funds explicitly seek to extract windfall profits from the companies they acquire, with little concern for the long-term economic viability or social importance of the company. It is telling that PG&E’s largest current group of shareholders are Abrams Capital, Knighthead Capital and Redwood Capital — a rival alliance of hedge funds that is trying to maintain control after running PG&E into the ground just 17 years since the company’s last bankruptcy.

Private equity and hedge fund ownership is especially pernicious in sectors with large public subsidies and little competition. For example, my colleagues and I show in a forthcoming article for the Review of Financial Studies that investor ownership has had dire consequences in the for-profit college sector. When federally subsidized for-profit colleges are owned by outside investors, we find that they are more likely to increase student loan debt, cut faculty-student ratios and engage in fraudulent recruitment.

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article236541993.html#storylink=cpy

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Greater wildfire risks prompt growth of electrical ‘microgrids’ to rely less on PG&E

Martin Espinoza, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In his standard blue jeans and unbuttoned flannel shirt, David Liebman could blend in with many of the young students walking to and from classes at Santa Rosa Junior College.

But Liebman, manager of energy and sustainability for the college district, has something bigger on his mind than class assignments and midterm projects.

Liebman, 27, is heading a $5 million electrical infrastructure project that addresses climate change and fundamentally will transform the way energy is distributed and used on campus.

Using the new solar arrays at the Santa Rosa campus, Liebman is coordinating the development of an electrical microgrid that could operate independently of PG&E during nearby wildfires, or when the escalating threats of fires in the age of climate change prompt the utility to temporarily turn off power.

“Unless we change the infrastructure that runs our society, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble because we won’t be able to adapt to the significant changes that are happening to both the environment and technology in general,” Liebman said.

Fueled by solar energy and equipped with battery storage and a complex control system, the SRJC project is a small part of a much larger movement environmental experts say could fundamentally flip the paradigm on energy usage here and across the country. Before, massive power plants were turned on to meet demand for electricity; now, microgrids could help do that with available renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal.

In Sonoma County, microgrid systems would allow key institutions such as hospitals, municipal utilities, a college campus and certain government agencies to continue to operate in the event of a natural disaster that interrupts PG&E’s electrical transmission and distribution.

Local interest in microgrids has heightened with the prospect of Pacific Gas & Electric shutting off power during times of high fire risk.

To provide a model for developing the mini-power networks, a microgrid laboratory has risen just west of the town of Sonoma, at the Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards & Winery. The multimillion-dollar microgrid — a testing ground for the latest renewable energy and storage and control technology — encircles 16 acres of vineyards, olive trees and fields of heirloom vegetables and fruit.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10027255-181/greater-wildfire-risks-prompt-growth

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California’s new rooftop solar mandate

Steven Weissman, LEGAL PLANET

The California Energy Commission’s new mandate receives mixed reviews.

The recent decision of the California Energy Commission to require the inclusion of rooftop solar photovoltaics on most new homes has engendered praise from some quarters, and criticism from others. Some see this new policy as a positive force, helping to reduce the cost of solar and contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Others despair policy makers’ tendency to choose technology winners and losers, and argue that the least cost choices are usually the best.

There is no disputing that the state’s new policy is a landmark event that may or may not set the stage for broader solar adoption across the country. Regardless of where you might find yourselves in the cheering section, allow me to offer several red flags to watch for, when considering critical perspectives on the topic of requiring rooftop solar:

1. When someone argues that rooftop solar is foolish because central station solar is cheaper, they are ignoring, or at least minimizing the import of, the difficulty in siting central station solar, the decade-long process of making such a project happen, the direct land use impacts of that technology, the need for more transmission lines and all of the related land-use impacts, the reduced reliability resulting from concentrating so much solar generation in one area as clouds roll by and nighttime falls, the potential of local grid benefits from local generation, and the way onsite generation can contribute to a broader strategy to make the use of energy more efficient and less impactful.

Read more at http://legal-planet.org/2018/05/18/californias-new-rooftop-solar-mandate/