California’s Distributed Energy Future Part 1

CPUC Launches New Proceeding To Better Integrate Distributed Energy Resources Into The Grid

Part 1 of a multi-part blog 

As Vote Solar’s new California Regulatory Director, I am excited to dig into how Distributed Energy Resources can be leveraged to improve our energy grid as well as address climate change. I came to Vote Solar in December, after almost ten years working on federal climate and clean energy legislation, because I wanted to work at the forefront of equitable energy policies and because California, my home state, is where much of this work is happening. For me, ensuring that Distributed Energy Resources are accessible to all Californians, and especially prioritized for those who have been bearing the brunt of California’s pollution and climate impacts is an extremely important priority, and is why this proceeding is going to be a major focus of my work going forward. 

Many clean energy supporters know and are fans of customer-sited solar and batteries. However, some might not know that these resources sit under a broader category of energy resources, called Distributed Energy Resources or DERs, which are increasingly becoming key to decarbonization in California and across the United States. DERs are not traditional centralized power plants, but resources that serve customers close to where they live and work, and encompass a wide range of technologies. DERs also include things like your electric car and your neighbor’s energy efficient appliances plus the smart thermostat that turns those appliances on when electricity is cheaper. Additionally, they could be a group of solar-powered homes that are aggregated and managed together. DERs matter because they harness the power of customer choice to decarbonize faster, provide a wide range of values to the electric grid, including resiliency and reliability, and can reduce the need for expensive transmission and distribution upgrades. For California to meet our climate goals, we will need to electrify the entire economy, including transportation and buildings, and DERs are essential to meeting  those goals in a way that is flexible and cost-effective. 

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) launched a “High DER Future proceeding” in summer 2021, intending to prepare for the swift evolution of grid capabilities and operations to integrate DERs, improve the distribution planning process, optimize grid infrastructure investments through community input, and focus on how existing DER functions can be used to best meet stakeholder needs. The CPUC divided the proceeding into three Tracks that will move forward simultaneously, with multiple decisions expected over the next three years. The tracks include: (1) Distribution Planning Process (DPP) and Data Improvements, (2) Distribution System Operator (DSO) Roles and Responsibilities, and (3) Smart Inverter Operationalization and Grid Modernization Planning. 

I will be representing Vote Solar in this important proceeding. I expect that the outcomes could have major implications for enabling access to DERs and helping to align our current grid with the grid we need to reach for our electrification and decarbonization goals. Ensuring that equity and access to DERs by Environmental and Social Justice (ESJ) communities are essential pieces of this proceeding and are going to be a major focus for me. Without ensuring adequate community engagement opportunities and attention to the current inequities in data and grid functionality for disadvantaged communities, we risk continuing business as usual and missing the opportunity to further equitable decarbonization in California. While the proceeding promises to be a long and complex endeavor, I believe there are numerous opportunities within the three Tracks to expand access to distributed solar and storage and find synergies with other DERs that will reduce emissions as well as grid costs.

 Vote Solar will work toward at least three overarching goals in this docket. Our first goal will be to ensure that the CPUC approves effective and inclusive community engagement processes so that representatives of ESJ communities can provide meaningful input into the utilities’ distribution planning process (DPP). This goal will be addressed in the first Track, which aims to improve the DPP through near and long-term actions. The DPP has previously been opaque, utility dominated, and difficult even for those in the energy industry to engage with. By increasing engagement opportunities and transparency, I hope we can see a more coordinated effort to allow input from communities and help bring greater benefits to communities that are often left behind or not considered in planning. Many communities  will want to share their perspectives on where electrification and other DERs can provide the most benefit, but communities often lack access to data on where grid upgrades are most likely to be needed to support their decarbonization goals. As buildings and vehicles are electrified, communities should help to determine when and where to prioritize grid upgrades and should be able to prioritize non-wires alternatives if they choose. Additionally, there should be an emphasis on community ownership options for communities to build wealth and benefit directly from new grid resources such as paired solar and storage in their neighborhoods, all while reducing local air pollution at the same time. 

Within the first track of this proceeding, the CPUC is coordinating with a consultant firm, Kevala, to conduct an important Electrification Impacts Study. This study promises to “enable the identification of  grid enhancements and changes necessary to support California’s stated transportation and building electrification policy goals for 2035.” Part 1 of the study, due in the next couple of months, will model the growth of power demand at a very granular level in California communities as we meet our electrification goals, and will estimate the cost of distribution upgrades needed to meet that growth in demand. I hope we can use this study to begin a conversation with communities on where they want grid improvements and DERs to facilitate local electrification, rather than leaving choices entirely up to the utilities, as has been the norm previously. Within this proceeding, I intend to address the following questions:

  • How can we use data from the Electrification Impacts Study to help communities, and especially ESJ communities, learn about what grid improvements and DERs can facilitate local building and vehicle electrification?  
  • How can Distribution Planning Processes better incorporate community desires around DERs? How can we ensure that communities, especially those that are burdened by a number of issues at once, have the time and resources to engage in complicated processes within the CPUC and utilities to ensure outcomes that benefit them?
  • How can we ensure the data being used in distribution planning does not bake in current inequities and instead works to solve them and plan for the equitable grid we want? How can we ensure that communities who have been left behind in grid modernization to date don’t get left behind in the transition to electrification?
  • How can different DER ownership models be included in the planning process and how can we value DERs for all of the benefits they bring communities, including building wealth and resiliency?

I’ll explore Vote Solar’s other goals for this proceeding in future blog posts, and continue to dig into the issues we see as the proceeding begins. I’m hopeful our work with allies will achieve meaningful achievements in how DERs are integrated into our grid, and most importantly, that outcomes are community-centered and decided in a way that prioritizes the needs of our ESJ communities. Our transition to a fully decarbonized economy can be realized if we lean into the opportunities DERs can provide while ensuring that all communities have equitable access to their benefits.  


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