PG&E Backs Down from Fossil Fuel Microgrid Proposal

Effective Community Resiliency Strategies Need CPUC Support

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which serves some of the highest risk parts of the country for catastrophic wildfires, has backed down from a proposal to build new fossil gas power plants that could operate as microgrids when transmission lines need to be shut off. The PG&E proposal was to build 20 new fossil power plants connected at large sub-transmission substations up and down Highway 101, around Clear Lake and in several other high fire risk locations in the Central Valley and the California Foothills.  PG&E intended to operate the new power plants both during emergency power shut-off events and on a regular basis to provide grid reliability.

Vote Solar and other organizations challenged many of the assumptions behind the PG&E proposal in a California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) proceeding on microgrids.  Vote Solar argued that the proposal could not be realistically implemented before the 2020 fire season and it diverted effort and resources from more effective solutions to protect the most vulnerable in high risk areas.  In a separate CPUC proceeding dealing with long term planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Vote Solar argued that the PG&E proposal would also be a significant reversal of California’s commitment to prioritize the development of clean energy resources to meet electric system reliability.

PG&E’s reversal came after they went out to bid last December for almost 500 megawatts of fossil fuel generators to serve more than 136,000 customer accounts.  According to reporting in Utility Dive, PG&E decided that it was not feasible to build these power plants in advance of the 2020 wildfire season. PG&E is also abandoning its proposal to spend $135.2 million to make the selected sub-transmission substations ready to connect the fossil power plants.  However, according to Utility Dive, PG&E may still try to build these power plants by 2023 as a way of meeting their share of statewide Resource Adequacy needs.

Vote Solar, along with the Sierra Club and the California Environmental Justice Alliance, have argued that building new fossil fuel generators violates state policy established by the CPUC that prioritizes the development of solar, battery storage, demand response measures and other clean technologies to assure electric system reliability.

In response, PG&E had suggested that it might power the new power plants with biomethane captured from California dairies.  However, PG&E has so far provided little information about the feasibility and cost of gathering, processing and delivering what they call “renewable natural gas”, a euphemism for biomethane.  Given the low costs of solar paired with battery storage, Vote Solar is skeptical that PG&E could cost-effectively implement an extensive biomethane strategy for grid reliability.

Meanwhile, Vote Solar will continue to participate in the CPUC proceeding on microgrids.  That proceeding was established to design a policy framework for commercializing microgrids in response to the passage of Senate Bill 1339 (Stern, 2018).  Last November, Vote Solar had requested that the CPUC split the microgrid proceeding and immediately address policies and programs that could be implemented to make communities more resilient before the 2020 fire season.

In January, the CPUC agreed to prioritize resiliency measures that could be implemented this year and published a white paper with specific policy recommendations.  They also invited California’s three investor-owned utilities to submit resilience plans that could be implemented before the 2020 fire season. SCE proposed a limited pilot program to install microgrids at six sites in Southern California, but found out that the costs of doing so with fossil generation was prohibitive.  SDG&E, which had already implemented several microgrids in their service area, proposed some modest enhancements.

Vote Solar and others argued that the first track of the microgrid proceeding should focus on single-user microgrids since they did not rely on the utility distribution system to operate in islanded mode.  We also argued that many ‘critical facilities’ could implement microgrids behind a single point of interconnection before the 2020 fire season. On the other hand, multi-user microgrids are more complicated and will require more time to work through policies and tariffs.

Vote Solar argued that the CPUC needs to establish a clear and predictable interconnection process for single-user microgrids that establish timelines that allow for systems to be deployed before the 2020 fire season.  We also advocated for incentives to promote collaboration between local governments and the state’s electric utilities that would help local governments plan for cost-effective, local resilience measures.

After submitting two sets of detailed comments and recommendations to the CPUC, we are awaiting a “proposed decision” that will advance realistic microgrid solutions and promote community resilience ahead of the 2020 fire season.  We will continue to provide updates on this proceeding in the future.

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