An Uncertain Future For Our Gas System

On August 27th, 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved Agenda Item 27, a Biomethane Standard Interconnection Tariff (R. 13-02-008). In layman’s terms, this rulemaking created a standard process for interconnecting renewable natural gas producers with any investor-owned utility pipelines. For many citizens, this groundbreaking ruling represents a huge step towards decarbonizing our power infrastructure, since it creates an efficient process for lessening our reliance on fossil fuels in our power system.

Furthermore, there is one more significant issue. As more and more users begin to leave the gas system, fewer consumers, oftentimes low-income communities, are left to continue paying for the maintenance of the entirety of the infrastructure, which are costs that would otherwise have been supported by the customers that have switched. Similar issues arise with the Power Charge Indifference Adjustment (PCIA) exit fee which is paid by electricity users that want to buy their power from Community Choice Aggregates instead of their traditional utilities; this charge was used to supplement the transmission costs for utilities. While similar to the gas system change, the PCIA charge is triggered by users simply switching providers, rather than moving off the transmission infrastructure entirely. Thus as Gridworks, a consulting organization focusing on transforming our energy system for the future, puts it, we have two paths forward:

However, there is also different side to this debate.  Since much of the natural gas system, especially the transmission pipeline portion, is prone to leakage, it is one of the largest contributors to atmospheric pollution. Thus, some view this ruling as allowing the natural gas industry to entrench itself in an effort to stay relevant and provide different kinds of gas, contrary to calls for widespread electrification of buildings, cars, and homes. For instance, the city of Berkeley recently became the first in the nation to prohibit natural gas pipeline hookups to new buildings. Consequently, the system of pipeline infrastructure is slowly falling into disarray with an uncertain plan for its future, as communities are likely to continue to leave the system.

  1. A smart, managed path that maximizes benefits and minimizes costs for everyone
  2. An uncontrolled path is reactive and costly

The upshot of Gridworks’ analysis of these two paths is that California needs to put a plan in place to address this soon so as to avoid the inevitable scramble of supporting an inefficient and outdated gas system. Yet, this is easier said than done. In effect, this will require creation of a formal state-wide effort ensuring a sound and sensible transition off the system, while adjusting gas customer rates in a way that incentivizes the exploration of alternative external funding sources to recover gas transition costs. Unfortunately, the 2019 report by Gridworks, a leader in the energy consulting field, offers no further guidance than big picture considerations, and a grim reminder that this transformation will be one of the most challenging tasks facing us in the 2020 decade.

Wesley Clark

California Wildfires

            In a rare acknowledgment of corporate wrongdoing, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) recently pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter arising out of its failure to maintain a transmission line that sparked the devastating Camp Fire in 2018.  In the aftermath of the public backlash against PG&E, and faced with increasingly severe wildfires in the state, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), hosted workshops in August of this year to seek the public’s input on the safety practices of the state’s three largest investor-owned electric utilities (IOUs), including PG&E, to mitigate California’s evermore devastating wildfires.  Implementation of the workshop results, titled the 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan, has been tasked to the CPUC’s newly created Wildfire Safety Division.  Among the most impactful action items of the Plan will be (1) to standardize data collection across utilities, while (2) increasing local outreach efforts to better direct the public during such a dangerous time (D.20-05-051).

Given that 15 of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California’s history have occurred since the year 2000, engagement of utilities and the public through these workshop was both laudable and long overdue.  However, the Division’s focus on data collection and local outreach to enhance preparation for an exacerbated fire season fails to address the root cause of the mess we are in: climate change.  As a warming climate produces longer and hotter summer dry seasons and more frequent droughts, wildfires during California’s fire season will become more severe and destructive.

            Even though the Wildfire Mitigation Plan will provide a more structured response to exacerbated wildfire risks, it will be insufficient to prevent future fires.  Given that the Camp Fire caused $8.5 billion of damage, developing action items on preventative measures in addition to reactive processes would be time and effort well spent.

As a concerned citizen within PG&E service territory, I will continue to be an advocate for the CPUC to be involved in one of the best preventative measures currently undertaken by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE): controlled burns. This fire management method prevents serious wildfires by burning in a controlled manner the excess brush and foliage that otherwise would otherwise serve as fuel for more serious uncontrolled fires. This method was in fact widely used in pre-historic California and was largely successful up until the 1980s.  However, budget cuts and failure by Congress to renew the requirements allowed the lapse of this fire control method.  Interestingly, controlled burn strategies to maintain forest health continue to be lobbied for at the national level, but systematic implementation continues to remain elusive. However, as the regulatory body overseeing the safety of utility operations, it is well within the CPUC’s authority to require electric utilities to work more closely with CAL FIRE to get us back on track to a time before California became known as the wildfire state.

Wesley Clark