The Cost of Grid Worship

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) seems to be declaring a truce in a battle that has barely begun in an op-ed it co-authored with California utility company PG&E (yes, the same company that poisoned desert community groundwater with hexavalent chromium to pump natural gas).  While I appreciate the need to exploit opportunities for common good when interests align, I see the NRDC's move as a losing bet for the environment because PG&E fundamentally opposes the opportunity we have today to greatly expand energy efficiency and distributed generation; when PG&E claims support for these, it is usually only because it has been ordered by California regulators to do so.  A utility company's default preference is to build more centralized infrastructure, regardless of whether or not it is efficient or friendly to the environment.  With our planet facing two intertwined crises - global warming caused by our greenhouse gas emissions and the growth of the human population leading to the destruction of wildlife and wildlands - our focus should be on reducing our overall footprint (carbon and land use).

According to the NRDC, "[o]ur electricity grid, deemed “the greatest invention of the 20th century” is now in a new century, facing new demands of its balancing act of physics and governance."  This is true, but adopting a more sustainable paradigm for consuming and generating energy that cuts not only our carbon footprint, but our overall impact on natural resources will require a less centralized grid that taps into local clean energy sources.  NRDC's blog post points out the potential for energy storage, but PG&E is one of the utility companies that is setting up bureaucratic hurdles for local energy storage installations that would allow us to store excess energy from rooftop solar panels to use at night.   PG&E has also lobbied against California rules that expand the total number of rooftop solar systems allowed in California.  

Californians have installed tens of thousands of solar systems on rooftops in spite of efforts by PG&E and other utility companies to undermine the expansion of this threat to their profit.
Most recently, PG&E filed a submission to the California Public Utilities Commission opposing a new criteria to more closely scrutinize the risk involved in new power plants, including for the potential that each project will have a high impact on endangered species or important habitat.   NRDC supports this new criteria, but PG&E does not.  The new evaluation criteria might stop PG&E and other utility companies from entering into power purchase agreements with projects that will turn out like BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project, which has displaced or killed over 170 threatened desert tortoises, burns birds in mid-air, and is increasingly dependent on natural gas-fired boilers because BrightSource over-estimated the efficiency of its design.  PG&E claims that "developers have no incentive to propose and attempt to construct projects in areas that do not allow such development or with significant permitting risk."  I'll pause here for the irony of that statement to sink in... 

PG&E apparently could not find enough sun in northern California, so they had to buy some power from the Ivanpah Solar project in the Mojave Desert.  Unfortunately, the Ivanpah Solar project destroyed over 5 square miles of intact desert ecosystem, and runs on natural gas-fired boilers.
Quick Reminder:  PG&E is incentivized to build more infrastructure - and thus destroy more nature - because California regulations require ratepayers to pay PG&E not only for the infrastructure it builds, but also a healthy profit margin on each project.  More transmission lines and centralized power plants mean more money for PG&E executives and shareholders.  Is it any wonder why PG&E would rather buy electricity from a power plant hundreds of miles away instead of allowing customers to install their own solar panels on rooftops?
If you believe PG&E's comments on rooftop solar, then for the first time in the company's history it has become a voice for economic justice and equality, but if you take a moment to peel away the layers you find PG&E is simply protecting its profit margin.  PG&E argues that people with rooftop solar still use the grid, but do not pay enough money to PG&E to help maintain the grid, therefore forcing customers without rooftop solar to shoulder more of the cost.  However, PG&E does not explain why it is bad for us buy solar generated in our communities, but it is okay for PG&E to buy energy from destructive power plants hundreds of miles away, and then pay millions of dollars more for new transmission lines to ship that energy to the Bay Area.  By the way, most of those power purchase agreements are confidential and we are not allowed to know most of the details of those contracts, including the cost.   Why is this more fair to people and wildlife than generating clean energy on rooftops and keeping the investment in the community?  It is convenient for PG&E to set up a battle between customers with and without rooftop solar because it shifts the scrutiny away from everything that is wrong about our outdated and centralized grid.  Instead we should be focusing on expanding clean energy investment in our communities and ensure everyone can benefit from energy efficiency and rooftop solar.   

Transmission lines - a utility company's solution to everything, including climate change.

So how do we transform the grid to accommodate more clean energy, kick out fossil fuels, and reduce our overall footprint on the wild places that we love?   We need to change the economic incentive structure in a way that benefits energy efficiency, distributed generation or larger projects built on already-disturbed lands.   We indeed have to update our grid to accommodate this, but not in a way that PG&E will like.  It will involve upgrading our local electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure to allow more solar generation in our communities, and permitting storage projects that capture the benefit of rooftop solar for use at night.  We could use feed-in-tariffs to encourage rapid expansion of solar projects in our cities (learning from Germany's experience),  and we can provide incentives for larger solar projects built on already-disturbed lands over those that companies want to build next to our National Parks.  The evaluation criteria that PG&E is currently opposing at CPUC would be a good start. 

In the meantime we can count on PG&E and other utility companies to propose more of the same, and more "all of the above" insanity.  If a plan involves stringing up more transmission lines - without taking others down - you should recognize that this is merely a ploy by utility companies to expand profit.   It should be no surprise that Nevada utility company NV Energy is welcoming clean energy on its own terms - remote solar plants paired with natural gas generation, but still no meaningful program to expand rooftop solar or energy efficiency.  PG&E will behave no differently; it will accept more solar on its own profitable terms.  Sustainability, not profit, should guide our long-term investments in transforming the grid.


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