California Today: A Virtual Solar Power Plant for L.A.? ‘It Will Happen’

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How Californians get power has been in the news a lot lately, between Pacific Gas & Electric’s woes and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recent announcement that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power would phase out three natural gas power plants on its way toward 100 percent renewable energy sources.

“We have an obligation to end dependence on fossil fuels, embrace the technologies of tomorrow, and prioritize renewable energy,” Mr. Garcetti said in a statement to The Times this week.

The question now is how to do that.

Today, the residential solar power provider Sunrun released a report with what its leaders said could be the answer: a mass deployment of residential solar panels, along with batteries, that collectively form a kind of virtual power plant operated by a utility.

“If one of the challenges is that we want to decommission three of these gas plants, we believe that with rooftop solar and storage, we could pretty easily replace one of them by 2030,” said Lynn Jurich, Sunrun’s chief executive and co-founder.

According to the report, although L.A. already has 36,000 homes with rooftop solar units, as a percentage, it’s fractional: 2.5 percent of residential customers, compared with San Diego’s 11 percent, or 139,000 homeowners.

Expanding L.A.’s total to 75,000 homes and apartment buildings, with batteries, could provide enough power to replace one of the retiring plants and cost $60 million less, the report says.

The batteries, Ms. Jurich said, would give customers a backup power source when it’s less sunny, addressing a primary concern about solar.

[Read about Sunrun’s challenge to Tesla.]

The report suggests a virtual power plant could also counter another concern about residential solar power: that upfront costs make it too expensive for many would-be customers.

“You can contract with the utility, so you can use that credit,” she said.

Sunrun, however, has an interest in promoting solar power. So how realistic is its suggestion?

I put that question to Bill Powers, an engineer in San Diego who serves as an expert witness on behalf of consumers before utility regulators across the country.

“What Sunrun is proposing is absolutely doable — it is the future and it will happen,” he told me. From a technological and cost standpoint, it would be straightforward to make the transition.

“The problem,” he said, “is that it is so diametrically counter to the way investor-owned utilities and even large publicly owned utilities have made money and done business historically.”

But, Mr. Powers said, as pushback against the investor-owned Pacific Gas & Electric has built up, large-scale solar power in L.A. could be a model for cities like San Francisco, which is exploring creating city-owned utilities.

“What’s happening in the state is a general grass-roots fatigue with investor-owned utilities,” he said.

Aura Vasquez, a commissioner for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said she thought that, ultimately, rooftop solar will be a big, cost-effective source of the city’s power in the future. But getting there will be the tough part.

“Staff are excited and they want to do it,” she said, “but I don’t know if we really have the knowledge.”

(We often link to sites that limit access for nonsubscribers. We appreciate your reading Times stories, but we’d also encourage you to support local news if you can.)

President Trump and the border:

• “No one is above the law or the Constitution, not even the president.” Representative Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would sue President Trump over his declaration of a national emergency on the southwestern border, arguing that the move was an illegal attempt to get funding for a border wall. [The New York Times]

And Mr. Trump eased off threats to close the border ahead of his trip to Calexico on Friday. Instead, he gave Mexico a “one-year warning,” to halt all illegal immigration. [The New York Times]

• If you missed it, here are stories about Calexico from Jose A. Del Real, a Times correspondent based in L.A., who wrote about a toxic river there, navigating life as a transgender woman on the border and other issues.

San Diego County sued the Trump administration over its decision to end a “safe-release” program for asylum seekers, in which federal authorities reviewed migrants’ plans and helped connect them with family members. Now, San Diego County officials say service providers have been inundated as they’ve scrambled to help families. [Voice of San Diego]

Nipsey Hussle was a legend in Los Angeles, placing him in the ranks of an ascendant type of rap star: the regional hero who builds a following without ever becoming a Drake or a Cardi B. For Nipsey Hussle, though, staying close to where he got his start carried tragic consequences. [The New York Times]

• Born Ermias Asghedom, he was also an inspiration to Eritreans both within the East African country and those who lived elsewhere. [The Atlantic]

• The rapper’s brother, Samiel Asghedom, found him dying. He talked about his final moments. [The Los Angeles Times]

• A special jury in Mendocino County decided that the Hart parents killed themselves and their six adopted children in a murder-suicide. The family’s sport utility vehicle had plunged over a cliff, mystifying observers. [The New York Times]

For 148 years, a glacier in Yosemite National Park has helped experts learn about the earth’s history. Now, it’s almost gone. [California Sunday]

Tejal Rao, The Times’s California restaurant critic, is out today.

So in her stead, may I suggest that this weekend, you choose a tipple from E.&J. Gallo Winery’s gigantic family of big-name wine and spirit brands?

You may not have known that Gallo, which is based in Modesto, is the nation’s largest wine company. It had a portfolio of more than 100 largely lower-priced labels that you have perhaps picked up on the way to a party, like Barefoot Cellars or Dark Horse wines.

This week, the company announced it’s set to nab another 34 brands — including Svedka vodka, Ravenswood, Manischewitz and Cook’s sparkling wines — in a $1.7 billion deal with its rival, Constellation Brands.

The Modesto Bee reported it’s one of the biggest acquisitions for a Central Valley company in recent history.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported the move comes amid broader industry shifts. Cheers to “premiumization?”

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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