In summary

By using locally generated clean power from “microgrids,” California could reduce its reliance on expensive long-distance transmission infrastructure.

By Steve Weissman and Barry Vesser, Special to CalMatters

Steve Weissman is a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and senior policy adviser at the Center for Sustainable Energy, steve.weissman@energycenter.org.  Barry Vesser is the chief operating officer at The Climate Center, a nonprofit focused on implementing policies to decarbonize California’s economy, barry@theclimatecenter.org. 

With climate change-amplified wildfires and power shut-offs becoming commonplace, all Californians are worried about how to stay safe and keep the lights on. Thousands have already purchased dirty, dangerous and noisy fossil fuel generators that exacerbate air pollution and climate change. 

New research suggests that polluted air is linked to higher COVID-19 death rates. And coronavirus is expected to be with us through the 2020 fire season. Is it a good idea to add tons of dangerous particulate matter to the air we breathe during a pandemic that attacks the respiratory system? Of course not.

To secure a healthier, climate-friendly solution, we must first understand a major failing of our current system: because private utilities can profit from building a vast network of transmission lines, they are not motivated to pursue cleaner, modern solutions that could reduce the need for those lines.

Relying on long-distance transmissions lines makes electric service less dependable, allows for delivery of high-carbon electric power, and increases the risk of wildfire. More than half of the most destructive California wildfires have occurred since 2008. Many of the worst fires were sparked by aging transmission and distribution equipment and became more lethal because of our changing climate. A new study concludes that extreme weather days, that make many fires worse, have more than doubled since the early 1980s and that this trend will continue unless we cut our warming emissions significantly.

For all of these reasons, we should reduce our reliance on expensive long-distance transmission infrastructure by using locally generated clean power from “microgrids.” A microgrid is a mini-grid with the ability to generate and store energy independently of the larger grid. A network of community microgrids that use renewable power, smart controls and energy storage could provide power when the larger grid is down and other services when it isn’t.

We need an equitable system for prioritizing solar and storage siting to power hospitals, fire stations, emergency shelters and other critical facilities. We also need a more equitable system to determine where to build electric vehicle charging stations. These decisions should be made locally – by developing “Community Energy Resilience” plans, which empower local governments to orchestrate decentralized clean energy resources for maximum community benefit.

Utilities should help with this planning but must be compensated for supporting the development of clean, local resources. Hawaii is in the early stages of implementing such a system. California must also create an energy market where anyone with solar and back-up batteries can sell power to one another or back to the grid. Instead, right now some Californians who aim to keep the lights on with clean solar plus batteries are running into significant delays

Local governments can help create a new, clean and resilient energy system while decarbonizing the economy. This requires utility reform as well as state financial and technical assistance. The Climate Center and partners are working with legislators in Sacramento to address both challenges in order to open the door to community microgrids for clean, safe, affordable and reliable local energy.

Creating this 21st century energy system would provide customers with a more resilient electricity supply and long-term affordability. Communities benefit because this system will reduce the risk of fires and the resulting unhealthy smoke days. And when disaster does strike, our communities will be better prepared to keep critical facilities up and operating. Owners of battery storage will also be able to sell their surplus power when the grid most needs it.  This will stimulate local investment, creating jobs that won’t be exported.

So let’s keep the lights on with clean, healthy, safe and affordable local energy. If California doesn’t lead on creating a climate-safe future, who will?

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Steve Weissman is a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and senior policy adviser at the Center for Sustainable Energy, steve.weissman@energycenter.org.  Barry Vesser is the chief operating officer at The Climate Center, a nonprofit focused on implementing policies to decarbonize California’s economy, barry@theclimatecenter.org. 

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