CPUC Stymies Community Microgrid Development

(02/2021) Despite public comment from over two dozen community advocates calling for community-driven energy resilience, the CPUC voted unanimously on January 14 to put microgrid development rules in place that fail to meet community needs.
At issue is whether frontline communities will be able to create community-based resilience centers where key services can be provided to those most in need when electric power is shut off. These resilience centers would use microgrid technology to continue to provide electricity to schools, community centers, food banks, and other facilities that are critical for community health and safety. Currently there are many barriers to installing microgrid technology at such facilities, especially in low-income communities and those most at risk during power shutoffs. 

Organized by the Reclaim Our Power Campaign, speakers representing ally organizations from the breadth of California cited a letter sent by the Campaign to the CPUC days before. The letter urged a number of changes to the CPUC proposal for it to support the needs of frontline communities for a sustainable and resilient energy future. 
Instead, the Commissioners approved a plan that, according to the Reclaim Our Power Campaign, “expands the investor-owned utilities (IOUs) stranglehold on our energy system by facilitating development of complex microgrids to be owned and controlled by the utilities.” 
The January 14 CPUC decision applied to Track 2 of its Microgrid Proceeding. The Proceeding was established to implement SB 1339, which was passed by the state legislature in 2018 to help address utility power shutoffs. The bill mandated that the state promote “commercialization” of microgrids for California communities, providing standards that would make it easier for communities to develop microgrid-based resilience centers. 
Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, despite the raft of public comments to the contrary, touted the CPUC decision, saying it “builds on our efforts to reduce barriers for the commercialization of microgrids while keeping an eye to ratepayer equity and supporting vulnerable and low-income communities.” 
However, headlines in the trade press, which described the CPUC decision—and noted the Reclaim Our Power critique—told a different story: “Community Microgrid Advocates Left Waiting by CPUC” (California Currents), “California Approves Microgrid Tariffs as Grassroots Groups Push for More Local Control of Energy” (Microgrid Knowledge), and “PUC approves microgrid policies despite broad calls for more action” (Politico).
The CPUC now heads into Track 3 of the Microgrid Proceeding. Parties to that proceeding include a number of organizations attempting to steer the CPUC toward the equity ambitions voiced by Commissioner Shiroma. However, based on the track record of the Proceeding so far—in particular its deference to the microgrid interests of PG&E and the state’s other monopoly utilities, the effort to address equity and the needs of vulnerable and low-income communities promises to be an uphill battle.