In summary

Changing regulations in California would help keep the lights on by enabling customer-owned solar-charged batteries to provide energy to the grid.

By Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, Special to CalMatters

Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat from Orinda, represents California’s 16th Assembly District, assemblymember.bauer-kahan@assembly.ca.gov.

Like many of you, I worried for my family, friends and constituents during the recent rolling power outages. Losing electricity during an oppressive heat wave should not happen, it’s simply unacceptable.

One week we were suffering from an unprecedented heat wave, and the next our state is burning. It is clear that climate change is real and it is here. We cannot seek answers in the dirty energy that has significantly contributed to climate change.  Fossil fuel interests have used the opportunity to blame clean, renewable energy sources like solar power for the blackouts. Not only is that absurd, but the answer to these outages rests in clean energy.

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The outages resulted from the fact that the heatwave affected the entire western United States. California buys power from neighboring states when we have excess demand, but because all of our neighbors were cranking their air conditioners, there was no surplus power available. As a result, the Independent System Operator ordered utilities to cut the lights to hundreds of thousands of Californians to keep the entire grid from going down. There is a better way.

Some people are calling on the state to build even more natural gas power plants so we have a bigger buffer for the next heatwave, but that strategy has practical limitations in addition to pollution concerns. Energy companies do not want to build large, expensive power plants that are only used a few hours a day, a few days a year. To make these kinds of capital intensive projects pencil out, we would have to commit to running the plants throughout the day, even when the sun is shining.  We should not be committing to that kind of pollution when we can turn to solar with storage. 

The solution to meeting the state’s power needs as well as the occasional spikes in electricity demand is to store the vast solar energy we capture during the day. Many of our citizens are already doing that in their own garages in solar-charged batteries. These devices can also be found at schools, apartment buildings and businesses.   

In California today, about 30,000 homes and businesses have a battery energy storage system. In comparison to the 1 million solar systems we have built since 2006, that is a small number. But the number is growing every day as more and more people adopt energy storage along with solar power.

Unfortunately, outdated market rules, built upon the old way of doing things, stand in the way. Today, when your utility is desperate for power, they look further away from home, and there is no mechanism for them to buy power from the fleet of batteries that is right under their noses.

Every battery energy storage device, whether at a home or a school, has the ability to communicate with an offsite manager at near instantaneous speed. For customers who opt in to a power sharing program, the utility company could call upon that local battery to fill an urgent need for electricity. 

One customer may choose to sell half of their battery’s capacity to the utility while another may choose to sell none.  But if offered with the right price signal, enough people would participate and by aggregating all of these small batteries together, we could build a virtual power plant large enough to keep the lights on for California during events like what we experienced.

This type of arrangement is perfectly suited to the type of situation that led to the blackouts last month. Energy was sitting in batteries throughout the state at the same time that we were desperately trying to pipe power into California from out of state. 

While I am proud that Californians came together to conserve in the days after the initial outages avoiding further shut-offs, that burden should not rest on our shoulders when there are clean energy solutions at our fingertips.

We need to create the market rules for tapping into the power of local batteries without wasting another moment. It is time for state agencies to get the job done.

That is why I introduced legislation earlier this year, Assembly Bill 3251, to help keep California’s lights on by enabling customer-owned solar-charged batteries to provide energy to the grid when needed. Because COVID-19 greatly reduced how much we could get done in Sacramento this year, the bill did not move forward. It is quite clear how desperate the state is for solutions like this. But the state does not need to wait another year. The agencies could make it happen now if they hold it as a priority. Let’s work together to find clean energy solutions to solve the problems caused by climate change.

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