September 27, 2016 - From the September, 2016 issue

Grid 2.0: Santa Monica Funded to Plan a Neighborhood-Scale Microgrid

In August 2016, the California Energy Commission awarded the City of Santa Monica a $1.5 million grant to plan and design a microgrid in Santa Monica that would incorporate renewable energy, energy storage, and EV charging. The CEC’s goal: to accelerate the deployment of advanced energy communities. The funding was also to help local governments work with private sector and academic partners to create a replicable model for other jurisdictions. TPR interviewed City of Santa Monica’s Sustainability Analyst Garrett Wong and Deputy Sustainability Officer Shannon Parry—the leads for the City Yards Project—about their working vision for how best to accelerate the development of an advanced energy, neighborhood scale, microgrid project. 


Garrett Wong

"An advanced energy community is one that maximizes renewable energy and energy efficiency, and does so at scale. It looks at the neighborhood as the building block." -Garrett Wong

The City of Santa Monica has been awarded a Phase One grant by the California Energy Commission to plan, design, and permit a small, localized energy grid. What is the CEC hoping to jumpstart? 

Garrett Wong: The Energy Commission is trying to deliver on the state’s ambitious targets around renewables and energy efficiency. They’re trying to create on-the-ground impacts—not just at the utility scale, but also at the local level. But they’re also very aware of how local energy resources are impacting the traditional grid, which is not prepared for the influx of new distributed generators and new, dynamic load.

They’re asking: What is the grid of the future? What does Grid 2.0 look like when we’re no longer just receiving energy, but also generating, storing, and demanding it at various times? How can we have more control to provide more balance, as well as maximize renewables? The concept of the grant is “Accelerating the Development of Advanced Energy Communities.” An advanced energy community is one that maximizes renewable energy and energy efficiency, and does so at scale.It’s not just a solar rooftop; it might be a solar parking lot that serves multiple buildings. It could be a geothermal district energy system. It looks at the neighborhood as the building block, rather than seeing just the building as a closed system.

Southern California Edison currently services the City of Santa Monica. What led the city to bid for this challenge grant from the CEC?

Garrett Wong: We have some pretty ambitious goals and targets ourselves at the city. We have a Sustainable City Plan and a Climate Action Plan, both aimed at reducing energy use in the community, reducing greenhouse gases, increasing renewables, and increasing electric vehicles.

We want to demonstrate that Santa Monica has a stake in building and owning energy infrastructure. At the moment, that isn’t necessarily our bread and butter—but that’s changing. Grid 2.0 is something that cities should embrace; it can deliver a lot of benefits.

That’s what inspired us to take this challenge on—to show our other departments, divisions, and decision-makers the benefits that doing something of this magnitude can have for the city and the community. If we want to see transformative change, we have to do something transformative.We sat down with some other staff people and looked at areas where there were opportunities for reconstruction and rehabilitation, and where the city has leverage and control. That’s how we identified our municipal yard area, which is known as the City Yards. It’s located in an industrial/arts district, on a landfill, adjacent to a mobile home community, and there’s a lot of industrial activity in the area. We’re preparing to redesign and redevelop it as a facility of the future—a critical, community-facing facility. All of that meshes well with what an advanced energy system could provide: renewable energy resources, local energy storage, resilience, EV charging, and good stewardship in terms of energy demand.

Shannon Parry: I think it’s important to situate this project within three overarching frameworks that the city’s operating under. The first is the Sustainable City Plan. We have had the plan since 1994,  and it sets what we call “aggressive but achievable” targets for sustainable communities. The second is Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accounting. We actively analyze our greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of those emissions on our coastal environment, as well as community resiliency. And finally, Carbon Neutrality. We’re looking at innovations to become a carbon-neutral community.

These pieces together show our history of leadership, our understanding of the whole-systems approach needed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and to plan for the impacts of previous emissions, and our innovation. We have two decades of history of looking at things that haven’t been done, or aren’t done often, or aren’t done by cities of our size—and figuring out how we can demonstrate that they can be done, they can be situated, they can be executed, they can be financed, and they can work. We want this project to demonstrate that this type of innovation is feasible, and that the time to deploy distributed technologies in urban environments is now.

How is Santa Monica intending to implement and leverage this CEC planning grant?

Garrett Wong: One of the benefits of this project is that there are already funds committed to redeveloping the industrial site. That provides us with a lot of momentum. There’s also a team of very well known construction and design firms leading this project: Hathaway Dinwiddie is the primary contractor, Miller Hull is the architect, and Buro Happold is the engineer. They’re a very forward-thinking team, and this was a no-brainer for them.

We are going to be providing a higher level of analysis, looking at building energy loads for the whole campus as well as looking at some of the city-owned adjacent sites. One, the Bergamot Arts Center, is available for redevelopment by a private developer. Another is the mobile home park I mentioned.  We’d like to see this microgrid extend beyond the City Yards and integrate with other private, non-city structures and providing other benefits to the community. We’re implementing this by aligning with the planning and design that’s already happening around the City Yards, as well as potentially bringing in other assets for additional energy generation, storage, or electric vehicle charging, which we would need to integrate both physically and virtually. We’re also negotiating with our private developer about affording some space to do onsite energy generation and storage, and being an active participant in the microgrid.

What are the deliverables that the Energy Commission expects from the planning grant?

Garrett Wong: There are three big pieces. One is essentially getting past the red tape on the part of the utility in terms of integrating this kind of resource into the grid. Most microgrids that are online right now in the United States are single-user, so it’s pretty easy to own or manage the assets. Ours is looking to be multi-user, so that puts the city in a different position than what anyone else has done. We’re working with Edison to figure out the legal and regulatory pieces, and the transmission of energy. It will be an interesting issue for us to get through.

The second piece will be ensuring that we are also lining up our own financing to build out the project, regardless of whether or not it gets grant funded. We should be preparing to build this either way. The third piece is getting the project to “buildability”—getting it pretty much shovel-ready, to the point where all we need is that extra support from the Energy Commission to move forward by the time they roll out their second funding cycle.

Surely increased use of EVs and greater resiliency are being planned for by the City. How is the latter reflected in your microgrid planning?

Garrett Wong: We see electric vehicles as being new assets that can help provide the facilities with greater energy resilience.

Edison is operating an aging grid, and the kind of resources that we’re trying to integrate will continue to put strain on the grid. Energy storage can help fix that problem by allowing us able to control those assets—to be more self-sufficient and to be less affected by them.

We think about electric vehicles in that same way—basically just as a mobile battery. That creates a new asset out of something that doesn’t traditionally participate in demand response. We could utilize electric vehicles to provide extra power when necessary, either into a building or into the grid.

Share the challenges inherent in any move by the City from the traditional grid to a more advanced, neighborhood scale, integrated grid?

Garrett Wong: Actually, I think the planning process is where we’re going to have a lot of challenges. There are a lot of considerations in this project that aren’t present in typical construction projects.

The City Yards itself is unique. It’s a very confined space. There are a lot of programs onsite that have to maintain operation even during construction. It’s partially over a landfill where there is subsidence occurring. It’s also adjacent to a community park and a residential community, which needs to maintain some level of aesthetic and noise abatement.

All those are constraints that already exist. But add to that an additional layer: the fact that we’re considering integrating other assets that aren’t owned by the city. 

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There is also a likelihood of failure for electronics that rely on wireless communications. We’ll need to make sure that there is redundancy—that our own microgrid is not going to be the only thing that we have to rely on at the end of the day. Ultimately, it will come down to the technical know-how that we’re going to retain on staff to troubleshoot even the smallest of glitches as they happen.

Shannon Parry: I think Garrett has identified two key points that our success will depend on. One is the execution of the technology. We need to make sure that we are able to design, build, and operate over time a microgrid that delivers on its projections.

The second piece is the community integration, or the community execution. As we share the possibilities for distributed generations with our community, we need to make sure that the microgrid is aesthetically pleasing, that it’s appropriate for the other uses in its proximity, and that we coordinate with our community partners—commercial, residential, private developers. 

The two wings of a successful flight will be community execution and technology execution. It’s not that we’re worried about either as much as that we’re really mindful, at every step, that we have to deliver on both.

A city staff report on the advanced the City’s energy district reads: “There is a need for the grid to evolve into a decentralized system that allows for local generation, building to grid or vehicle-to-grid electricity flow, and grid independence.” Explain why it is important that planning anticipate a decentralized grid evolving?

Garrett Wong: It comes down to individual choice and control.

As a community that wants to achieve sustainability goals, we have to have an active role in our own destiny when it comes to energy. If we’re in a space where we only get what the utility provides us, or what they’re willing to rebate us for according to whatever programs they roll out, we’re not going to get everything that we want.

We’ve seen the solar movement provide energy independence and cost-savings to people. Those are the kinds of benefits that we want to have for more than just one building, but for a campus of buildings or a neighborhood of residents and businesses. We want to provide them with choice, control, and reasonable costs, so they won’t be locked into whatever the monopoly utility says is available to them.

Is it fair to assume that 50 years ago, the alternative for a city the size of Santa Monica would have been to form it’s own municipal utility.  Are you now suggesting the future requires an alternative to a centralized grid—a Grid 2.0? What’s the difference, in terms of benefits, between Santa Monica seceding from SCE to create a municipal utility, and investing in community scale micro grids?

Garrett Wong: To be clear, we are in the process of a greater effort that’s happening in the County of Los Angeles to look at what’s known as “community choice aggregation,” which would effectively establish a municipal utility that involves Santa Monica. That’s something that we are actively supporting right now.

The microgrid is something we can do with our physical assets to provide more control at the neighborhood scale.

In my mind, that’s the baby step toward something more robust, like the community choice aggregation model. We’re doing this at the neighborhood level, but being part of a CCA would allow us to do it at a much higher level, as well as to incentivize, procure, and install much more substantial energy resources that could be located within our communities.

Perhaps of greatest value to other jurisdictions that are not yet as bold as Santa Monica, could you elaborate on the Climate Action Adaptation Plan that the City is beginning to rewrite? What will that rewrite likely include, and perhaps inspire other cities to emulate?

Shannon Parry: I hope, first and foremost, what it will inspire other cities to do is to establish greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that include specific reductions by a set date in time; to methodically develop a plan that analyzes their greenhouse gas emissions; and then to develop a strategy to reduce those emissions, through both program execution and policy development.

Santa Monica started tracking our greenhouse gas emissions in the mid-1990s, and established a target to reduce our communitywide greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2015. We developed our 15x15 Climate Action Plan, which was essentially an action-oriented checklist of programs and policies that could be executed to achieve those reductions. Our office just recently went to Council to share that we have indeed reduced our emissions, not only 15 percent below 1990 levels, but 20 percent below 1990 levels. 

That demonstrates the power of setting clear goals and systematically working toward them. It can often seem overwhelming, but establishing an overarching goal gives a community a framework under which to direct their effort.

The next focus in our climate action planning will be carbon neutrality. Our goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 or sooner is the framework that allows us to try distinct innovations like this microgrid, investments in electric vehicles, bikeshare, and other programs.

The City Manager of Santa Monica, Rick Cole, formerly Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles and Mayor of Pasadena, increasingly emphasizes the value of data-driven governance. We’re all familiar with goal-setting, press releases, and MOUs, and that a number of cities now have set stretch energy targets. How is the public supposed to sift through all the rhetoric about these goals and appreciate when there really is an executable plan versus when there’s just robust rhetoric masking a commitment to the status quo?

Shannon Parry: I think that’s one of the things that set Santa Monica apart.

We’re remarkably fortunate that Rick has come here at this point in his career. He brings a lot of knowledge and information on aggressive policy-development and goal-setting, as well as a real affinity for innovation and performance management. Fortunately, that is also a culture that has existed in Santa Monica for the better part of two decades. 

We’ve been reporting annually or biannually on our Sustainable City Plan indicators for a decade. We set it up as an opportunity for our councilmembers, for our division and department heads, for community members, for Business Improvement Districts, for our Chamber of Commerce, and for many other community partners to have access to data on our progress. And we think it’s just as valuable to report on the places that are challenges, and the places where we’re not moving toward our goals, as it is to report on our successes.

We’ve cultivated a culture of data communication. Under our current city manager’s leadership, we’re investing more, not only in performance management, but also in open data, and in tying data to decision-making throughout the organization. Folks invested in our community and in our climate action can see for themselves the places where we’re succeeding, and the places where we’re challenged.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.