Local Energy Production Builds Resiliency in the Bay Area — Episode 101 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 8 Apr 2020 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

When communities have choice, they choose their best interest: clean, affordable, and resilient energy systems.

In this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Jessie Denver, manager of the Distributed Energy Resources Program at East Bay Community Energy. Denver develops customer-side resiliency programming, including rooftop solar with batteries, for East Bay. Farrell and Denver discuss how distributed energy resources can prepare communities for disaster — and increase resilience after it hits.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Jessie Denver And it’s really that customer side programming that is going to help all CCAs gain recognition with their residents and businesses about how local governments are delivering those services, that folks have wanted for so long, in a new kind of way.
John Farrell Two transformations are happening in the electricity business. In one, communities are taking charge of their energy future by taking over electricity procurement using a tool called community choice energy. In another, power generation is going small as more customers produce their own electricity. Jessie Denver, manager of the distributed energy resources program at East Bay Community Energy in Alameda County, California, is at the center of both. She joins us for a discussion of building resiliency with local energy production. I’m John Farrell, director of the energy democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy. Jessie, welcome to the program.
Jessie Denver Hi, thanks so much for having me.
John Farrell So I want to start off by having you maybe describe a little bit about East Bay Community Energy and how this program works. Just for people who might not be familiar with community choice energy, and then hopefully you could also then dive into what somebody who manages distributed energy resources programs does for a community choice agency.
Jessie Denver Sure. Uh, happy to do that. So over 10 years ago, the state of California passed legislation that enabled local governments to form their own load serving entities or joint power authorities that would act as load serving entities and procure electricity services, had a higher renewable energy content then the incumbent investor-owned utilities to enable local governments to achieve their climate action plan goals faster. And in 2016, Alameda County, which is home to about 1.6 million residents and 11 other cities within the County, entered into a joint power agreement that formed the East Bay Community Energy Authority. And in 2018 EBCE actually began providing electricity supply services to 600,000 commercial, industrial, residential, and municipal utility customer accounts. Our service area is in all of the unincorporated areas of the County and the cities and towns of Albany, Berkeley, Dublin, Emeryville, Fremont, Hayward, Livermore, Oakland, Piedmont, San Leandro and Union City. And since our launch in 2018 the cities of Newark, Pleasanton, and the city Tracy, which is actually in San Joaquin County, we have also began their process of opting into EBCE. So we’re expanding our territory and we cover quite a large area. We’re actually the largest community choice energy program in the state that’s in operation. Los Angeles, once their programs up and running, will be the largest.
John Farrell Cool. So this is great background for people trying to kind of wrap their heads around this and I really appreciate you giving that overview about how this enables communities to do more around clean energy. I think that’s something people often don’t realize is that cities in most States are constrained by kind of what the incumbent utility is offering. And so to understand how California is one of now nine States that allow cities to go further, I think it’s really important. So let’s talk a little bit about your role. You manage the distributed energy resources program. We should probably help people, first of all, by defining what is a distributed energy resource. And then how in your role are you helping East Bay Community Energy advance the use of those resources in that area?
Jessie Denver Sure, so East Bay Community Energy, our primary function is to procure power that has higher renewable energy content and distribute that power through the investor-owned utility transmission and distribution system. On the customer side of things though, on the behind the meter side of things, as you noted, local governments for a long time have wanted to deliver different kinds of programming and services to customer segments that helps them reduce energy use, make the transition from different types of fuels in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And so while we traditionally are known as an entity that procures power, most customers don’t actually know who we are. We show up as a line item on their PG&E bill for the electricity supply services and it’s really that customer side programming that is going to help all CCAs gain recognition with their residents and businesses about how local governments are delivering those services that folks have wanted for so long in a new kind of way. So as the distributed energy resources program manager here at EBCE, I am specifically tasked with developing our local customer side for learn storage for resiliency programming and strategy as well as all of our transportation and business electrification programming and strategy. We do have other folks on the team who are working on building electrification. So it feels switching from natural gas to all electric buildings as well as determining what our role is in delivering energy efficiency services in the next couple of years. Given that there’s so many legacy programs here in the Bay area for energy efficiency, but my specific role here is to develop strategy and programming around resiliency, solar and storage, and transportation electrification.
John Farrell So you mentioned the word resiliency and I was hoping that you could explain a little bit about why is this important, and I feel like some recent events in California might provide some fodder for this about why resiliency with these resources is so important and why East Bay is paying attention to them along with other community choice energy agencies.
Jessie Denver Yeah, definitely. So you had asked what a distributed energy resource is and per the state of California, the definition of a distributed energy resource is energy efficiency, renewable energy in the form of like rooftop solar, electric vehicles and EV charging infrastructure, demand response programming and battery energy storage, and we’ve seen market for renewables and electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging infrastructure and even energy efficiency really take off. But we haven’t seen the marketplace for behind the meter battery energy storage take off at the same pace as other distributed energy resource solutions and in the face of what could be the big one in California, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake for example, we really started paying attention to the need for that resiliency. Well over the last couple of years, that momentum around the need for that backup power has been amplified with PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutoff) events where the investor owned utilities, meaning to actually shut down electricity services when there are, for example, high wind events that are happening. We’re in California that are paired with high temperatures and everyone is quite aware that we’ve had some major wildfires that have been catastrophic events for the communities that they’ve impacted. And therefore we really are seeing PSPS events that are happening more and more frequently. And so that awareness around the need for backup energy storage is increasing. And so on our end of things, EBCE, we have a few initiatives that are underway. One is we’re working with all of our municipal partners who have identified critical municipal facilities that are designated to serve the community and time of emergency or now in the event that the grid was down because of the PSPS events and residents needed some sort of support. So we’ve kind of, resiliency centers are starting to um, be identified. And what we’re helping these communities do is identify the critical loads at those if the grid were down and then size solar and storage system for those sites.

And then our goal is to issue a competitive solicitation to actually get those projects built mid 2020, because we have PSPS events happening so frequently. We also wanted to take advantage of heightened community-wide awareness and be able to deliver a solution to the residential and commercial sector in time for the next couple of fire seasons. So about three and a half weeks ago, we issued a request for proposals in collaboration with the other load serving entities here in the Bay area, committing to procure, at least on our side of things, a minimum of 10 megawatts of resource adequacy from customer-sided solar and storage systems. So what we hope to do is be able to launch a program before the next fire season where residents and businesses can sign up to indicate their interest in hearing from the selected vendors and get solar and or storage systems installed at their homes and businesses and then EBCE as a load serving agency, we have resource adequacy requirements that we have to meet. And so we will be paying for that resource adequacy through the vendor. And our hope is that offering this kind of program to our customers not only reduces costs, because we’ve achieved economies of scale through the procurement and also are adding this resource adequacy kind of benefit where the costs should be reduced to the customer through that payment to the vendor, but also the complexity because we’ve issued this solicitation and kind of done the leg work in selecting qualified vendors that will make it easier for customers to make a decision about the solar and storage on their homes and businesses.

John Farrell And so it sounds like this is such an exciting thing. I think I actually saw the notice about this, or the news about this, a few weeks ago and I think it’s just exciting because it’s really a win win, right? Like you said, there’s a benefit for East Bay Community Energy in meeting some of their kind of utility requirements to have power resources, but then the customers are also going to get a benefit, right? Like solar and energy storage helps reduce their bills. And then also I assume that they can also have access to backup power then during these public safety power shutoffs.
Jessie Denver That’s right. And really most homes and businesses are not able to install it, not solar and storage to be able to serve all of the load of their particular building, and so it’s really looking at how much can you be able to serve with how much square footage you have for your storage and solar systems. And that applies not only to the commercial and residential sector, but also to the municipal facilities that I noted earlier. So really trying to ensure that folks have a solution that ensures their refrigerators and freezers aren’t down and that they have a few power outlets that they can rely on to be able to serve their needs when there are PSPS events. One more initiative that we just got approval for this week at our board meeting is to be able to start an assessment and develop a program that helps our medical baseline and electricity dependent customers. One thing that’s become, um, we’ve become very aware of is that a comprehensive plan County-wide is needed to be able to not just identify where these customers are and ensure that everyone is identified as the medical baseline and, or electricity dependence. But that we are working with the County health department and emergency services folks as well as, um, medical organizations like hospitals to be able to deliver solutions to some of these customers. So for example, we will be assessing where medical baseline, electricity dependent children are throughout our service area and work to deliver solar and or energy storage solutions to those customers. Uh, and then grow that program out from there to figure out how we deliver specific services to specific customers based on their individual needs. So we need to understand what kind of equipment they rely on, what kind of load that draws, what kind of solar and storage or other backup power solution would needed if that resident rents or owns and what kind of solutions can actually be installed at their home or apartment. And, and then also work with, uh, local government agencies to determine, you know, is there an alternate plan about how we get some of these residents to a facility that might not be their home in the case of a, of a grid outage if they’re not able to actually have an onsite solution that meets their needs. So this is a really exciting project and you know, we’re very grateful for the board for approving the budget that we need to be able to get this started so that we can really ensure that all of our customers have what they need when the grid is down.
John Farrell Yeah, it’s such an interesting project as well as you’re in this time of really interesting uncertainty. On the one hand you have the wildfires, which by themselves can threaten the electricity system and cause outages or cause displacement. But on the other hand, you have the sort of preemptive shutting off of the grid to help avoid those fires. And yet it still also causes displacement and other challenges. So a lot on your plate.

We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll talk about how the East Bay Community approach differs from the incumbent investor owned utility, how programs target low income communities and those burdened by high pollution, and what advice Jessie has for getting a new community choice program on its feet.

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John Farrell You know one question I had about some of these programs is, I’m curious if you see a distinction between the way that an entity like East Bay Community Energy, with that community focus, you have that direct relationship with the municipalities that are part of this joint powers agency and the investor-owned utilities. When it comes to offering some of these kinds of programs, I mean, is it, are you better suited to do this? Is it something that investor-owned utilities do themselves? Is there any kind of distinction there or would you say the external, any, any entity right now is looking to do this for their customers in California?
Jessie Denver Well on the front of resiliency, you know, I think that the investor owned utilities focus right now is on ensuring that the transmission and distribution system is safe and that it wouldn’t be the cause of any sort of impacts. And that’s where the investor-owned utility is being very proactive and ensuring that when there are climate related weather events, that they’re really managing their grid appropriately. And so that we have the opportunity for, energy programs like you say, community energy and evolve all of our neighboring colleagues to start thinking about how we deliver these other solutions to customers that are very, very helpful. And so like I noted earlier, you know, local governments and the entities that have been formed to deliver these types of services are really well suited to do that because a big organization like an investor-owned utility has a lot of other priorities that they need to consider.

They also have shareholders and you know, very specific directive from legislators and the state that they’re meaning manage at the same time. I would say that we’re also very much collaborating with the investor-owned utility and an area that is noteworthy of highlighting is on transportation electrification, so at the same time that our investor owned utility PG&E has a lot going on with the PSPS events, they also have a lot going on around transportation electrification and we work closely with really great colleagues at the investor-owned utility on that particular distributed energy resource program area. And we, EBCE, along with a number of our colleagues at other CP programs, are working with the California energy commission to bring some major charging infrastructure incentive programs to our communities. He, he hopes to launch one in 2021 and working with PG&E is key on that to understanding where there’s constraints on the transmission and distribution system. If we’re wanting to incentivize hub with DC fast chargers, having that understanding with them is critical. We serve our transit agencies who are all now mandated to electrify their fleets of buses by specific dates, and that’s a major load.

So ensuring that our customers, the transit agencies are getting what they need from PG&E and working with those stakeholders to help move things forward is something that we’re engaged in our school districts and school buses. We’re trying to help them ramp up. And then Alameda County, the County that we serve is actually home to one of the busiest container ports in the United States. We also have an international airport that moves almost 1.5 million tons of air freight through it every year. And as a result, Alameda County has one of the highest volumes of medium and heavy duty truck traffic in California. And so with advanced clean truck rules coming down from the state of California, we’re going to see a lot of electrification efforts happening in the goods movement sector and working with the investor and utility on transmission main distribution issues there. As we incentivize charging infrastructure for those leads, it’s going to be very, very important. And ensuring that, you know, we’re really accelerating market transformation for zero emission vehicles.

John Farrell Yeah. You know the, you mentioning the port there reminded me that um, one of the interesting kind of complimentary outcomes in that focus on truck transportation and vehicle electrification is of course the all the other emissions. So not just the greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation, but of course all the other bad chemicals that contribute to smog and health effects especially, and of course the communities that tend to live close to those are often low income, communities of color. I meant to ask you before, it sounds like a lot of your distributed energy resource programs are targeting folks who obviously have some very significant needs for resiliency in the terms of electric outages. Do you also have ways that you are trying to target folks who maybe, are paying a lot of their income on energy bills or folks that are experiencing high pollution levels or things like that?
Jessie Denver Yeah, definitely. So in the RFP that I noted for solar and storage or resiliency and resource adequacy, that our RFP actually has requirements around percentages of systems that need to be delivered in our CalEnviroScreen three disadvantaged community areas and our low income census track areas as well as customers who are on our care, great. Around transportation electrification, you know we have three major interstate corridors here in Alameda County, I 85, 80 and 80 that move goods up and down those corridors. The counties roadways also experience a disproportionate amount of regional congestion with approximately one third of all regional commuter trips involving Alameda County. So this is residents and businesses coming from other places and going through Alameda County. So nearly one fifth of all those trips are actually pass through trips and 47% of all those trips originate outside of the County. So we have a lot of commuter of congestion and that paired with the good movement. So truck traffic and all those aggregated vehicle miles traveled definitely impacts our communities along the county’s interstate corridors. And those residents are those higher levels of criteria air pollutants and have increased incidences of health impacts than those of other Bay Area counties. So we’re really looking at how do we strategically deploy charging infrastructure to meet the needs of residents in those communities? But also looking at can that strategic deployment of that charging infrastructure have other co-benefits. And we think that it can. So if we’re, for example, wanting to incentivize with sighting of DC fast charging hubs along 880, that will benefit our low income residents who are also in designated disadvantaged community areas. It will help commuters that are traveling along 880. And uh, you know, as we start to see an increase in use of ride share providers so that people are actually getting out of their vehicles and getting into more shared options, um, it’ll help those drivers that are operating in that economy as well. So strategically figuring out where you want your investments to go is a priority for us and we are taking into consideration all of the specific customer attributes and how we ensure that we’re helping as many people as possible. We also have a lot of our medium duty fleets that are registered and domiciled in these areas where our low income residents and residents in our designated disadvantaged communities live. So as much we can really work to accelerate, vehicle electrification in safe class three through six medium duty truck traffic that will have an immediate benefit to those residents in those areas where the fleets are operating.
John Farrell Well, I feel like this whole conversation is rife with good advice that other folks at other community choice agencies could pick up on. But if there was just maybe one or two things that you’d want to offer, either about the kind of programs that you’re doing or maybe about the process that East Bay has gone through in developing the programs, what would you have to offer to other folks who are trying to set up effective community choice programs?
Jessie Denver Well, I think that our leadership has been really smart and for the last year and a half very much focusing on the procurement side of what we do, which is at its core the function of community choice energy program and ensuring that we have great contracts in place for really good renewable energy projects throughout the state. Ensuring that there’s a great procurement on board and that when you launch a program like this, you’re able to serve all of your customers and have a strategic rollout that really meets the local community’s needs. And then starting to bring on folks on the team who can start to build out these local customer sided programs is a good way to kind of create a cadence and how the organization grows. And I’ve seen EBCE do that since it’s launched and since I joined earlier this year and our team is full of great people who have been in this industry for a very long time and have a lot of experience and have great ideas. And as we build the team and expand our programming, we just have to figure out what that cadence is of the programming that we offer because there’s a lot to do, but we can’t do it all at once. Even though we’d love and ensure that every step of the way our local government stakeholders are engaged in that decision making process and that we’re really providing them with the technical support that they need to achieve the different objectives and goals that they each have, which is something that all local governments have been seeking and now that we are up and running, we’re actually able to provide those to them, which as a long time, local government employee for two major cities, is such an honor to be on the other side of things, to be able to help my colleagues actually get where they want to go faster.
John Farrell Well, Jessie, thank you so much for joining me for this conversation and sharing your great work with East Bay Community Energy.
Jessie Denver Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks so much for inviting us for the conversation.
John Farrell This is John Farrell, director of ILSR’s energy democracy initiative. I was speaking with Jessie Denver, manager of the distributed energy resources program at East Bay Community Energy in Alameda County, California. Check out the show page for a link to ILSR’s recently released report on community choice energy, as well as several more podcast interviews with folks from community choice energy programs. Learn more about how communities drive local climate action and clean energy with the interactive community power map and community power toolkit, both available from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance at I L S R dot org. While you’re at our website, you can also find summaries of more than 90 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Out of a Community Choice Boom, East Bay Community Energy is Born

Cities in Alameda County, Calif. came together to form the East Bay Community Energy Authority (EBCE) in 2016. EBCE is a community choice energy entity, also known as community choice aggregation (CCA), meaning that this network of local governments buys the electricity for its residents. They procure the electricity for Alameda County customers and the investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), delivers it. 

Jessie Denver manages the Distributed Energy Resources Program at EBCE.

Read more about community choice energy in a new report from ILSR.

According to Denver, EBCE serves 600,000 accounts: commercial, industrial, residential, and municipal customers. The community choice entity began serving customers in 2018 and has been growing ever since. Now, cities both in and outside of Alameda County are working to opt in. It is the largest CCA in the country (until the Los Angeles CCA begins operations). 

Denver explains that many people do not realize what EBCE does. By increasing rooftop solar, electric vehicle charging, and other services near customers, Denver is hoping to change that.

Most customers don’t actually know who we are… it’s really that customer side programming that is going to help all CCA’s gain recognition with their residents and businesses about how local governments are delivering those services that folks have wanted for so long in a new kind of way.

For more on the formation of East Bay Community Energy, listen to this interview with Coordinator of East Bay Clean Power Alliance Jessica Tovar.

EBCE Offers Distributed Energy Resources to Customers

In the state of California, many things are defined as distributed energy resources: energy efficiency, certain types of renewable energy, electric vehicles, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, demand response programming, and battery energy storage are a few Denver lists. In her role at EBCE, Denver works specifically on system resiliency. Her current targets? Solar paired with storage and an electric car charger.

We’ve seen markets for renewables, and electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and even energy efficiency, really take off. But we haven’t seen the marketplace for behind-the-meter battery energy storage take off at the same pace as other distributed energy resource solutions.

Pairing Distributed Generation and Storage is a Resilience Necessity

Denver describes how recently, “momentum around the need for that back-up power has been amplified” by public safety power shutoff (PSPS) events.

During these 2019 events, energy providers in California shut off power to customers when there was a high risk of fire. Dry conditions, high winds, and poorly maintained transmission lines have been deemed responsible for many of California’s devastating wildfires that season.

To prepare for future shutoff events, which will increase in intensity as climate change worsens, EBCE is working with municipalities to identify “resiliency centers.” These centers will provide a refuge of basic services, including stored electrical power, to residents in emergencies. For the program, EBCE needs to identify these locations, their critical energy load, and how much solar and storage is needed to support that load. Denver hopes to secure solar and storage developers for these sites by 2020.

Beyond resiliency centers, EBCE is hoping to facilitate more solar and storage installation for individual customers. The community choice agency has committed to procure a minimum of 10 MW for customer-sited solar and storage for interested residents.

Finally, EBCE’s newest initiative is a combination of resilience support and individual customer service. Denver describes a project to facilitate solar and storage capacity for medical baseline and/or electricity dependent customers. Wildfires, and even planned PSPS events, put the lives of these customers at risk. EBCE plans to start by identifying medical baseline and electricity dependent children within the service area, ultimately delivering solar and storage solutions to these customers.

How a Community Choice Agency Differs from the Investor-Owned Utility

In the interview, Denver explains how utilities provide service based on their priorities. Investor-owned utilities, which are accountable to shareholders and state-level legislators, have the pressing priority of safe transmission and preventing any disasters. In contrast, a CCA is tied to the municipalities it serves and can step in to deliver other services.

Despite their differing missions, Denver says that EBCE works closely with the investor-owned utility PG&E. Specifically, she emphasizes the importance of collaboration on transportation electrification initiatives. Since PG&E owns and operates the distribution system, EBCE works with the utility to develop electric vehicle charging infrastructure along those local transmission lines. Since EBCE wants to add some major loads to the distribution system by electrifying fleets and buses, the local agency needs PG&E’s help.

Directing Energy Programs to the Areas that Most Benefit

Through all of its operations, EBCE must ensure that a portion of its programs are going to communities identified by the CalEnviroScreen tool, or by the census as low-income. Without intentional programs to include them, these communities will be left behind in the transition to renewable energy.

Many low-income and environmental justice communities lie along Alameda County’s interstate corridors, which suffer from the harmful air pollutants spewed by commuter and truck traffic. Poor air quality contributes to health impacts like asthma and other lung diseases. If EBCE can add electric vehicle charging infrastructure in these corridors, it will meet the needs of local residents, while also supporting the electrification of trucking and commuting (reducing local pollution).

Building a Successful Community Choice Agency

When Farrell asks what advice Denver has for community choice entities that are just starting out, she replies that it is all about the foundation. Denver recommends that CCAs find a good procurement team and solid energy contracts that meet local needs. Then, build out customer-sided programs that build customer trust and further local goals.

As a long-time local government employee for two major cities, it’s such an honor to be on the other side of things to be able to help my colleagues actually get where they want to go, faster.

Episode Notes

See these ILSR resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is episode 101 of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: Joe Parks via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.