In summary

The California Public Utilities Commission adds millions to a program to support vulnerable residents most likely to be impacted by wildfire and power shut-offs.

By Clifford Rechtschaffen and Edward Randolph, Special to CalMatters

Clifford Rechtschaffen is commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission, Cliff.Rechtschaffen@cpuc.ca.gov. Edward Randolph is deputy executive director for Energy and Climate Policy of the California Public Utilities Commission, edward.randolph@cpuc.ca.gov. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

California’s efforts to provide vulnerable citizens with clean energy storage systems to help keep the lights on during wildfire-related power shut-offs is on track to provide more than 10,000 new storage systems for customers in 2020.

Recently, my fellow Commissioners and I at the California Public Utilities Commission implemented Senate Bill 700 by state Sen. Wiener and approved major changes to the CPUC’s “Self-Generation Incentive Program,” which offers rebates for installing distributed clean energy technology at residential and non-residential facilities. This includes battery storage systems that can function during a power outage. Depending on the battery and how much a customer uses it, batteries can provide power for several hours or longer, and can be an important component of a more robust emergency preparedness plan.

The California Public Utilities Commission added $830 million to the program budget, allocating $512 million to support vulnerable residents most likely to be impacted by wildfire and power shut-offs. This new “equity resiliency” budget now grants customers who are economically disadvantaged, medically vulnerable or serve critical resiliency needs in low-income and environmental justice communities a generous $1 per watt-hour incentive for new battery storage. In most cases, that should cover 98-100% of a project’s costs.  

Our decision was part of an effort to reexamine and refine the Self-Generation Incentive Program so the benefits of a clean energy economy can accrue to all – particularly those most impacted by wildfires and Public Safety Power ShutOffs

Our new focus has required the California Public Utilities Commission and industry to more aggressively help stakeholders navigate the new eligibility rules – from hosting webinars and workshops to creating additional resources. We also clarified eligibility rules for residential and non-residential equity resiliency applicants. 

We additionally developed outreach tools to identify eligible customers. We recently launched a new website for the Self-Generation Incentive Program that includes brochures to educate consumers about the program. ​This page includes a new, comprehensive mapping tool that helps identify areas that are likely eligible for the equity resiliency budget by providing census-tract based information, including information on areas where two or more Public Safety Power ShutOff events have occurred. The California Public Utilities Commission has made one map for residential and one map for non-residential customers.

COVID-19 has complicated contractor outreach to customers, but the pandemic has not delayed our efforts to ensure a smooth rollout of the equity and equity resiliency application processes.  We have implemented additional steps to better explain the application screening process and reduce the risk of confusion.  We’ve also taken steps that enable post-installation inspections to be completed virtually. 

This work appears to be paying off. We opened the application process to all equity and equity resiliency projects on May 12. A week later, almost 2,000 applications had been submitted, totaling nearly 40 megawatts, and requesting nearly $122 million. An additional $512 million approved under Senate Bill 700 will be released soon.

We continue to work to ensure applications are rapidly processed and with utilities to ensure that their employees can safely perform work to interconnect new systems.  

We invite feedback from stakeholders to ensure the Self-Generation Incentive Program meets its goals. We have heard the concerns that only a few customers may be eligible for the program, although early experience shows this has not been the case.  We hope the energy storage industry leans in on the equity resiliency program to benefit California and its most vulnerable.

More work is required to reduce the impacts of wildfires and to equitably meet California’s climate goals. The pandemic has dramatically underscored the gaps in our safety net and the vulnerability of so many. Refocusing the Self-Generation Incentive Program to support residents who need assistance and reshaping the program will help us achieve these goals.

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Clifford Rechtschaffen is commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission, Cliff.Rechtschaffen@cpuc.ca.gov. Edward Randolph is deputy executive director for Energy and Climate Policy of the California Public Utilities Commission, edward.randolph@cpuc.ca.gov. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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