Legislation: Four little words can assure big energy savings

Power transmission wires on a Fontana tower carry electricity on a sweltering summer day. (Photo: Matt Gush, via Shutterstock)

Recently, California called for a “Flex Alert” for the first time this year. Amongst other things, these Flex Alerts are plea from the state’s grid manager to conserve energy because it anticipates that the electric grid will be unusually strained.

Californians, as they typically do, showed up – mostly out of the goodness of their hearts and wanting to do the right thing. Electric demand was lower than forecasted and we could keep the lights on without incident.

Imagine this being a core part of California’s clean energy future, where residents across the state save money and reduce stress on the power grid even during sweltering summer days and droughts.

Thanks to that technical flaw in the fine print, the grid support program is available only to California households served by publicly owned utilities.

That future is within our reach, thanks to Assembly Bill 205, which created a $200 million dollar grid support program.

That bill, as part of a larger energy package, was signed by Gov. Newsom in June earlier this year. Under that bill and others actions like it, utility companies such as PG&E and SCE will pay their customers to use less energy when the grid is under stress.

There also are third-party companies that perform this function in innovative ways – rewarding their customers and making saving energy both fun and easy to accomplish. One example is OhmConnect, which rewards customers with cash and prizes when they lower electricity consumption or shift their homes to smart thermostats and plugs. The service is free to California households. The ability to empower our energy customers to be active participants in their electric grid can happen.

Seems like we are done, right? Not so fast.

Unfortunately, there is an implementation problem. As drafted, the language wanted to ensure that we were not counting customers twice. But thanks to some technical language — just four little words — the bill inadvertently limits the effectiveness of a key electric demand reduction program. The effect is that potentially 89 percent of Californians are ineligible to save money and electricity.

Thanks to that technical flaw in the fine print, the grid support program is available only to California households served by publicly owned utilities, such as Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. These entities are not part of the state’s larger balancing authority managed by the California Independent System Operator and do not give us relief during a Flex Alert in the same way that customers in the rest of the state can.

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution.

In the last few days of session, lawmakers can quickly clarify its intent. By changing just four words, the Legislature can ensure every California household can sign up to participate in such a public benefit program—and address the concern that we are not counting people twice.

Four words. It is that easy.

Editor’s Note: Michael Colvin is the director of the California Energy Program at Environmental Defense Fund.

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