PG&E wants to decide when rural customers make shift to solar
The two key players in Sonoma County’s electrical grid agree that small banks of solar panels are often safer than electric power lines in areas of dense foliage. But they’re at odds over who should decide how and when specific customers go solar.
In July, Sonoma Clean Power — the public electricity supplier formed to deliver a greater share of power from renewable sources to PG&E customers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties — contested a bid by the utility giant to determine when it can move customers to remote grid systems.
Remote grids replace a utility line’s final distribution segments with a small array of solar panels, a battery for storage and a propane generator in case the first two fail.
“Up to now, it has always been an option,” said Neal Reardon, Sonoma Clean Power’s director of regulatory affairs. “PG&E would go to a customer and say, ‘Bill, we want to take you off the grid. It won’t change your monthly cost.’ Now they want to notify you they’re taking you off the grid. What that does for property value, who knows? You’re basically losing the right to service on your property.”
Pioneer Community Energy signed onto Sonoma Clean Power’s protest, and at least two other entities, the California Public Utilities Commission’s Public Advocates Office and the Rural County Representatives of California, also opposed the request.
PG&E told The Press Democrat in a prepared statement that moving customers to stand-alone grids is a collaborative process that involves customer outreach and consultations with “community choice” groups like Sonoma Clean Power.
“We are reaching out to specific customers in high fire-threat areas to identify customers who may be interested in participating in the program,” the utility said. “During the process, PG&E has a team of experts who work closely with property owners and customers every step of the way. Customers on a remote grid retain their service from PG&E for the long term.”
A Public Utilities Commission spokesperson agreed, saying it’s inaccurate to characterize PG&E as requesting unilateral powers over remote grids, and that community choice programs would have to be consulted. But that would place the local provider in the position of making critical decisions based on incomplete information, Reardon argued.
“Without precise maps detailing the condition of PG&E’s lines and their timeline to harden and repair dangerous portions, we are not best equipped to advocate for customer’s interests,” he said. “Instead, we’re being asked to believe that PG&E is acting in the customer’s interest without the ability to trust-but-verify.”
Reardon admitted the odds might be stacked against Sonoma Clean Power because there is precedent for PG&E’s request. Last February, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a similar bid by the state’s other huge electricity provider, Southern California Edison. Edison’s “advice letter” to the utilities commission clearly stated that if customers refuse the switch to remote grid, they would be electing to remove themselves from the network altogether.
“In that instance,” Southern California Edison wrote in its letter, “if the customer is not served by added facilities, the customer would be responsible for finding alternate power resources.”
PG&E had previously gained an inroad to remote grids (the utilities commission approved their request in March 2021), but had asked only for the right to negotiate such transitions with customers. When Edison received permission to make those evaluations on its own, PG&E attempted to follow suit.
The Public Utilities Commission expects to resolve the matter later this year or in early 2023, the representative said.
It’s an issue that has little immediate application, but promises to be of increasing importance in the months and years to come.
Remote grid sites are a response to wildfire risk. All of the major North Bay fires of October 2017 are believed to have been sparked by power equipment failures or trees falling onto overhead power lines, most of them maintained by PG&E.
Keeping vegetation away from electrical lines in isolated areas can be expensive. So while stand-alone grids don’t make sense for large developments — the total capacity of PG&E’s remote grid plan is no more than 2 megawatts of historical measured peak customer load — the utility companies argue they are safer and more cost effective for some properties.
Reardon, the Sonoma Clean Power executive, agrees. But he doesn’t believe PG&E should be making that decision for customers.