By Robert Perry, Director of Energy Research
Sometimes I hate being right.
Back in March, I wrote about my hopes and concerns regarding Southern California Edison’s proposed Request for Proposals (RFP) proceeding, that sought to develop approximately 95 megawatts (MW) of capacity, preferably in Santa Barbara County to help resolve its resiliency issues. On July 16th, I attended a Community Stakeholder Meeting hosted by SCE to provide a “a very high-level overview of the offers received and our very preliminary thoughts related to our potential ability to meet the RFP’s stated goals and objectives.” The meeting was well attended by County and City representatives and organizations, including County Supervisors Das Williams and Joan Hartmann.
At the beginning, we were given very good news: more than 5,000 MW of offers had been received as part of the RFP! Unfortunately, as we delved into the details and questions mounted, SCE disclosed that approximately 4,000 of the 5,000 MW were comprised of redundant submissions that would ultimately only apply to one project, so the actual number is much lower (although SCE could not provide any specific number or even an estimate).
In their presentation, SCE did provide a pie chart concerning the 1,000 MW of “mutually exclusive” proposals that are tied to one project. The news was not good. Of the 1,000 MW, only 12% (120MW) were proposals concerning “preferred resources” that included renewable energy generation and storage, presumably from solar PV panels. Another 68% (680MW) of proposals related to standalone energy storage which can only charge via energy supplied through the grid during non-peak hours. Finally, 20% of the proposals involved gas-fired generation (GFG) resources, which require either burning natural gas to power a turbine, or conversion to hydrogen for generation via a fuel cell. Both of these technologies emit carbon dioxide (CO2), and would basically work against recently passed resolutions targeting a 100% carbon-free system for Santa Barbara County.
Then we were given the coup de grâce: of all the proposals received in the RFP, only an “immaterial” amount was submitted for the Goleta area. This was the only concrete statement offered by SCE at the meeting which did not include extensive caveats and conditions concerning the preliminary nature of the information and the need to withhold information to preserve “market competition.”
From my perspective, this is conclusive proof that SCE’s antiquated attempts to develop energy in Santa Barbara County to date are a complete and utter failure, and I said as much at the stakeholder meeting. Furthermore, since SCE acknowledged that the miniscule amount of disclosed information was of public record, I reiterated my sentiments at last week’s County Board of Supervisor and Santa Barbara and Goleta City Council hearings to consider further pursuit of establishing a Community Choice Energy (CCE) entity to administer local energy procurement and development and to approve funding of strategic energy planning to identify optimal locations for renewable energy development.
The irony is inescapable: one day, SCE discloses the failure of the RFP process to solve our energy resiliency issues, and the next day our local governmental bodies pass resolutions to pursue community-based energy solutions. Whether it be SCE, local government, or a CCE, some agency needs to actively engage the community to promote local renewable energy development. SCE is clearly not up to the task, so it’s up to us to demand that SCE and state regulatory agencies work with us in good faith and in a transparent way to help us realize our goals.
Let me repeat my concerns and what I believe to be the solution:
For Santa Barbara County, SCE has reserved the right to accept proposals for gas-fired generation (GFG) resources, even though there is no technical requirement or deadline for meeting the RFP’s resiliency objective. SCE’s reservation of this option means that possibly one or more 25+-year gas-fired power plants could be developed which would directly conflict with local resolutions targeting 100% renewable energy. Although such plant(s) would likely be located outside city limits (somewhere between El Capitan and Gaviota), use of fossil-fuel GFG power would keep Goleta and Santa Barbara from meeting their obligation to develop a 100% renewable energy portfolio. SCE’s traditional RFP process— which has historically contemplated approval of a few large generation projects— is also not suited to distributed energy, which would require the development of a much higher number of sites to achieve the same result. To maximize stakeholder participation, fundamental restructuring of the procurement process is needed to streamline approvals and provide market certainty.
Despite community efforts to assemble local projects, if an insufficient amount of renewable energy is approved under the RFP, SCE may elect to include one or more GFG projects in the RFP. This would saddle the area with expensive, long-term facilities that will likely retire early and be paid for by ratepayers (i.e., you and me), regardless of how long they operate. Furthermore, this scenario effectively prevents the achievement of local 100% renewable energy goals until the plants are retired.
We are the Solution.
SCE’s RFP should be seen only as a first opportunity along the path to distributed, renewable energy, and communities must ensure that it doesn’t adversely impact progress towards their 100% renewable goals. Remember, the utilities and regulators work for us, and community activism can go a long way to determine how the RFP is conducted and whether GFG resources are approved.
I was born and raised in the Santa Barbara/Goleta area, and I remember the 1969 oil spill and how it galvanized the community into action, ultimately shaping the environmental movement. More recently, Montecito’s resilient response to January’s tragic debris flow also shows that when dealt a major setback, communities come together stronger than ever. As the even more recent Holiday and Cruces fires have shown, none of us are immune from being personally impacted by these events.
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the 1969 oil spill, and we are at an historic crossroad that could prove greater than what was accomplished all those years ago. It is again time for this community to unify and reclaim its environmental heritage to transform the area’s energy system into a model that will move us into a 100% renewable energy future.