Keeping the ship afloat: Nevada County solar experts consider the best way forward for the area’s energy system | SierraSun.com
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Keeping the ship afloat: Nevada County solar experts consider the best way forward for the area’s energy system

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

This is the final story of a two-part series on Nevada County’s energy system. Read Part 1 here.

There’s a reason county residents must deal with PG&E power shut-offs and extreme wildfire threat.

It’s due in part to the culmination of poor foresight on how society has come to produce, distribute and consume its electricity, said Martin Webb, Cal Solar commercial sales manager and host of KVMR’s “The Energy Report.”

He, like others in the solar community, believe the state must move away from what they deem is an antiquated centralized power grid system.

“We have problems with electricity reliability,” said Webb, adding that “millions of (our) dollars are sent to (PG&E in) San Francisco.”

Generally, Webb wants two things: experts under Nevada County control to redesign its electrical grid, and for the county’s future electrical utility not to have a profit motive. Still, he noted the transition will be hard.

“We should not be racing to support local control if it’s not bundled carefully with local expertise because it might make the problem worse,” he said, later putting it more bluntly in a KVMR interview: “Local control also could mean local disaster.”

Webb estimated that it may take 400 people to get the grid rearranged in about 10 to 15 years. It will also be expensive: burying PG&E lines could cost each electrical customer $15,000, he said. PG&E’s website states that burying power lines underground costs about $3 million per mile.

Nonetheless, Webb believes the future situation will be less painful than our current one, especially if Nevada County PG&E consumers become a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), enhancing local control but sticking with the private utility provider as has happened in Marin, Sonoma and Placer counties.

“A CCA turns half of a PG&E bill into money for the community,” he said.

Kerri Timmer, vice president of the climate and energy team with the Sierra Business Council, favors Community Choice Aggregation because she said it allows localities to purchase cheaper energy, particularly from local renewable energy sources.

“(A local agency) can choose to procure the energy from whomever they wish,” she said.

COMMUNITY SOLAR, LOCAL ELECTRICAL COOPERATIVES

Penn Martin, solar designer and sales manager for Sustainable Energy Group, believes community solar projects under a regional cooperative model — while allowing individuals who have solar panels to install net metering — is the county’s best path forward.

The solar designer is skeptical of Community Choice Aggregation because he said in some places with this structure, like Placer County, customers still pay too much of their bill to PG&E.

“One of the beautiful things about basically unplugging from PG&E is now we’re in control of the distribution and transmission charges,” said Martin, “because we’re the ones getting it from the substations to the meters.”

Instead, a regional cooperative, where the members are in democratic control of their utility, is preferable. (These structures already exist in northern California, as with the Plumas-Sierra Rural Electrical Cooperative.) This political structure is also supported by state Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, whose district includes Nevada County.

“Rate payers need to be in control of their destiny and they’re not right now,” Dahle said.

Martin said he believes the Nevada Irrigation District is the best agency to take up the cooperative model because it already has a billing structure in place and it’s a utility. Still, he acknowledges that the district may not yet be prepared for the challenge. (A majority of district board members were reticent to pursue the opportunity before PG&E exits bankruptcy.)

To circumvent the lack of local expertise issue, Martin suggests the district could contract out its experts, just as PG&E does.

But Martin, like Webb, also acknowledges that the project of putting lines underground will be laborious, consuming much time and money, but also that it’s the only way forward.

Anderson Barkow, co-founder of BoxPower, agreed with Martin’s sentiments and interest in community solar projects. He believes this is the future for Nevada County — and energy systems around the country — in the next 10 years.

“In a lot of places, everyone will be self-generating,” said Barkow, noting that solar micro-grids will feed energy into anywhere from 15 to 100 residential or commercial units. A lot of this is simply due to the economics.

Prices for energy storage batteries will decline, he said, in addition to prices for solar panels. As the prices continue to fall, the clean energy system will be more alluring.

FOLLOWING LOCAL DIRECTIVES

With help from the Sierra Business Council and PG&E, Nevada County, Nevada City and Grass Valley have established Energy Action Plans, which provide a road map to conserve more energy and subsequently increase renewable energy sources. Changing energy systems, as some in the solar community suggest, means aligning the county with these actions plans.

According to Nevada City’s plan, residential and non-residential construction should meet “70% of energy needs with renewable energy.” Grass Valley’s plan has a goal of reducing utility-supplied electricity by 36% and reducing natural gas consumption by 29% by 2035, saving the city an aggregated $11.5 million. The plan explicitly endorses “energy storage and grid optimization infrastructure projects that support local renewable energy systems and community resilience.”

Nevada County’s Energy Action Plan promotes reducing annual electricity provided from the grid by 51% by 2035, and reductions in annual natural gas use by 35% by the same time, saving the county a total of $47.5 million.

Justine Quealy, who helped write Grass Valley and Nevada County’s Energy Action Plans as the planning technician for the climate and energy team with the Sierra Business Council, said there’s not one easy solution to the area’s energy woes. Answers will come by the county and two cities using every tool in their energy toolkit: using jurisdictional power, following their Energy Action Plans to continue increasing energy efficiency by cutting back on consumption — including natural gas, propane and water usage — and then installing renewable energy sources like biomass, hydroelectric or solar.

“There’s a lot of options right now, and that’s kind of exciting,” said Quealy, noting that whatever path is chosen, the energy efficient improvements of businesses, residences and government buildings on individual agency levels should be advanced and equitable: “How do you invite more people in to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases?” she asked. “Because there’s more than one way to do it.”

On a larger scale, Martin and Barkow hope the county invests in the latter part of this framework: community solar projects, where those who don’t have solar panels connected to their infrastructure will get power from a regional solar source.

Examples of this may be coming — and one is already here. On Jan. 20, the Nevada City Council began requesting proposals to install a solar panel array at the Old Airport. A solar farm off Highway 49, in addition to elevated panels along the Eric Rood Administrative Center’s parking lot, already pump electricity into that building.

“It’s not like we don’t have land and it’s not like we can’t create local, green power,” said Martin.

CAUTION

What Martin advised against — echoing Martin Webb’s caution — is moving fast and breaking things. Specifically, he suggested people and institutions, like Nevada County schools, don’t buy generators because they are afraid of future power shutoffs.

“It’s polluting and it’s just another beast that you have to keep feeding and feeding and feeding,” he said. “People are rushing toward an inappropriate solution and in their frantic desire to create a fix, they create a problem instead.”

A fire in Rough and Ready earlier in the year during the power shut-offs, said Martin, was caused due to an improperly wired generator.

In preparation for future power shut-offs, state regulators approved $830 million worth of incentives to help residents and small businesses buy batteries that are otherwise more expensive, according to the Sacramento Bee.

On Jan. 28, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors voted to support the energy storage company Spin Storage Systems in obtaining a grant from the California Energy Commission to develop kinetic battery technology. If the grant is awarded, Spin Storage Systems could in the future develop and install this battery storage technology for Nevada County use, which could power businesses, government buildings and residences.

Whatever the path forward, though, Barkow, Quealy, Martin and Webb all agree on one thing: residents should proceed by reconfiguring the energy system and its levers of power with caution. In this case, Martin suggested people become skeptical of their survival instincts.

“We’re humans and in response to any type of crisis a lot of times we start flailing around for a life raft,” he said. “We just have to make sure anything we grab on to won’t sink us.”

To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email scorey@theunion.com or call 530-477-4219.


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