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Wildfire season is coming. Will Northern California businesses have power to operate?

Powering the Bottom Line

Doron Amiran (doron@theclimatecenter.org) is program manager at The Climate Center.

Read past columns: nbbj.news/powering

As our economy struggles to reopen in the face of a surging pandemic, residents and businesses in the North Bay are faced with a new worry – power shutoffs.

As we learned last year, Pacific Gas & Electric, in order to suppress fire risk and liability, will turn off electricity to wide swaths of their service territory, leaving homes and businesses in the dark.

Given the precarious state of many local businesses struggling to cope with the impacts of the pandemic, how can we prepare, not just this year, but into the future? The quick-and-dirty answer is gas- and diesel-powered generators. But this century-old approach is terrible for air quality, public health, and the climate, as well as adding more risk of accidental fires. Current technology offers a better solution.

In order to create a climate-safe local economy, we need to create clean, resilient energy storage systems, and we cannot wait for the PG&E’s of the world to lead the way.

As David Burdick, executive vice president of Terra Verde Energy, explains: “In the ideal case, our electric utility would have systems in place to be able to better isolate and support portions of the grid through wildfire season. However, last year’s shutoff events, which affected millions of Californians, expose the long road ahead before we get there.”

Based on comments from the CEO of PG&E, Burdick predicts that we can “expect 10 more years of planned power shutoffs.”

Many businesses, including restaurants and groceries are rightly concerned about losing inventory if their refrigeration goes down. Medically-vulnerable individuals are worried about losing power, since in many cases relocating to an evacuation center can be risky.

On a macro-economic level, we should all be concerned that this interlocking set of challenges could drive both talent and even entire companies to leave the area. Now that working remotely has become so normalized, reliable power and communications are more essential than ever.

Reliable clean microgrids are available today. Through smart policy at both the state and local level, we can make them accessible to all.

Clean community energy resilience programs, which pair batteries and other energy storage technologies with solar panels, can mitigate the risks, and in many cases provide financial benefits to customers. A battery system can provide crucial backup power to preserve inventory and keep the lights on, and when rightsized with a solar or other renewable energy system on site, this power can continue for days, weeks, or indefinitely.

These systems can also provide financial benefits when the power is not shut off, reducing the cost of energy bills, and in many cases actually generating revenue. Unlike polluting generators, clean energy microgrids are safe for public health and can pay for themselves over time.

As Burdick points out, “Solar + battery microgrids should be the first energy resiliency resource considered, since these resources can also generate substantial financial benefits.”

Although this solution may not pencil out for everyone at this time, it is important to remember that solar took decades to go from a high-tech and high-priced NASA research project, to today where solar panels are ubiquitous. The use of batteries for home and commercial energy storage is only about 10 years in, so we have a way to go. But we need to get there fast if we are to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Some smart policies are already in place.

California’s Self Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) offers financial incentives for the installation of battery systems.

Here in the North Bay, Sonoma Clean Power (SCP) is making it easier to receive these funds by providing the money up front for qualifying residential customers, in what is essentially a no-interest loan. This program has already awarded over $200,000.

SCP also offers a free energy resilience audit program for commercial customers that can help identify critical loads and determine the best path forward, including a financial analysis analyzing bill savings and payback times.

SCP has further identified 27 municipal sites already equipped with solar systems that could be paired with batteries to create community resilience centers, and is working to add dozens of schools to this list.

More programs are on the horizon, including expanding SCP’s GridSavvy program, which currently offers rebates and discounts on electric car chargers, heat pumps and smart thermostats, to include battery systems for residential customers.

Sonoma Clean Power is following exactly the advice that their Program Director Cordel Stillman offers to all local residents and businesses who are worried about the convergence of pandemic and power shutoffs: “Be aware of what might happen,” he says, “and plan ahead.”

Other Community Choice Agencies are also pushing forward with assistance for expanding battery storage.

Monterey Bay Clean Energy recently announced a $25 million low-interest loan fund for energy resilience and clean micro-grids. Additionally, new funding may come from Sacramento and Washington, DC in the form of COVID stimulus support.

Clean community energy resilience is part of The Climate Center’s comprehensive policy platform, Climate-Safe California.

We must ensure that Sonoma County residents and businesses can continue to operate during power shutoffs. And we must craft the right policies to encourage installation of battery storage systems as a critical part of the path towards a future that is clean, affordable, resilient, equitable and safe.

Powering the Bottom Line

Doron Amiran (doron@theclimatecenter.org) is program manager at The Climate Center.

Read past columns: nbbj.news/powering

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