Tuesday, August 3, 2010

California Needs to Know: Renewable Energy Integration Questions and Topics

Q: What is RESCO and why should we care?

The Reason for RESCO

A couple years ago the California Energy Commission launched a program entitled Renewable Energy Secure Communities, or RESCO. It aimed to create technical solutions California communities could use to deploy renewable energy in a locally integrated way for purposes of energy security and environmental stewardship.

What was the reason for this initiative?

In 2007 I was re-entering the world of renewable energy R&D after 13 years in the solar industry. So, I needed to update and organize my thoughts. One step was to review California’s renewable supply options and grade them according to applicability, development status, industry status and so forth. I noticed that some of them scale well to small systems, some to large power plants while most are economically viable in the mid-range which I chose to call community scale. Meanwhile, I had an invitation to visit UC San Diego, where most campus energy needs are supplied by combined heat and power systems integrated with efficiency and demand response measures… because this approach saves money.

Finally, one of our on-going projects involved providing technical and analytical support to communities interested in exploring “community choice aggregation”, a program established in California legislation that allows local jurisdictions to generate or purchase electricity for use in their communities. Attending project workshops around the state I discovered that large numbers of California communities have clean energy goals and are working to achieve them.

I am reminded of the saying: “Technology tells you what you can do; economics what you should do; politics what you will do.” Taken together the above insights led to the conclusion that community based renewable energy systems can, should and will be a big part of California’s energy future. The question I had to answer was: “What can a public benefits R&D program do to help communities move toward their energy goals without undue technical risk and with the tools necessary to capture maximum cost savings?”

It seemed unlikely that one renewable source by itself would result in an optimum solution. It also seemed that integrating multiple renewable sources with efficiency, smart grid and demand response measures would typically be the right approach. But interested communities would need to proceed in stages, from exploratory data gathering, modeling and planning, then to pilot deployment, and finally to full implementation of plans for energy security enabled by renewable energy. Technical risks at every stage could be mitigated through cost shared RD&D, and the shared experience of diverse communities would provide more of the needed technical solutions than a single project. So the Energy Commission’s Renewable Energy Secure Communities (RESCO) program was conceived, a solicitation was prepared and more than 50 California communities responded.

The abiding impetus for RESCO is simply that thoughtful and well informed communities are strongly inclined to act in their own long term best interest. Increasingly, an element of their long term interest is sustainability, especially 21st century jobs and strong, enduring local economies. Energy has long been a key factor in economic balance and stability in modern economies. Now inextricably linked to national and global issues like climate change, it may well become a decisive factor at every level of every modern economy in the future. Conceptually, it makes no more sense for a local economy to be over-dependent on energy imports than a national economy….maybe a lot less sense.

But local planners in California and the US typically don’t worry about energy. There once was a good reason for this; but no longer. In the past, economies of scale drove energy infrastructure to increasing levels of facility size and customer aggregation. Cost-effective modular energy sources were not an economic option. But they are now. A powerful new global clean energy industry has come of age in the past decade. Cost-saving clean energy solutions are rendering the old paradigm obsolete. Net zero is the appropriate strategic target for 21st century communities, and California communities must be empowered to achieve it in the context of their current infrastructure and resource opportunities. Centralized policy and planning is still necessary but it is no longer sufficient. In some parts of the world it isn’t even possible. That’s the reason for RESCO!

Gerry Braun

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