JUICE: Power Revolution

By Published On: December 11, 2009

Information is said to be power. A model released last week could put power in the hands of the public, specifically over San Diego Gas & Electric. The model, debuted in SDG&E’s backyard, takes the form of a computer spreadsheet. It gives anybody capable of puttering with Excel the chance to try their hand at optimizing the future of SDG&E’s power system. It may not have the interface of the popular SimCity, but the model released by the University of San Diego’s Energy Policy Initiatives Center (EPIC) portends a potential public participation revolution in energy policy. (SimCity involves building virtual cities and watching what happens, for instance, whether traffic becomes gridlocked). That’s because the model puts an incredible amount of information at the fingertips of anybody interested in energy, economics, and the environment. In so doing, it promises not only to widen public participation in energy policy, but also substantially increase the quality of the information and arguments the public brings to the policy table. For example, if you don’t like the Sunrise Powerlink transmission project, use the model to design a better alternative. SDG&E says the approved line is needed to bring green energy from the desert into its territory. Concerned about nuclear safety? Close down the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and see how it affects your climate and pocketbook. Then try to mitigate those impacts. Put together by the firm E3 and other leading energy industry consultants with financial support from the Utility Consumers’ Action Network and NRG, the model allows users to change policy and economic assumptions at will. Then it gives them a glimpse of what is likely to happen in the future. “The results will be of interest to anyone in the region concerned about future rates,” said Scott Anders, EPIC executive director, in unveiling the tool. Users can change assumptions about the standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency, the price of natural gas, the penetration of photovoltaic panels, the use of non-solar distributed generation technologies like fuel cells, cogeneration, demand-response, the market price of carbon emissions, and the number of electric vehicles to name but a few of the variables. The possibilities and permutations seem almost endless. Change the future assumptions and the spreadsheet projects the effect on rates by customer class and greenhouse gas emissions from the SDG&E system. If widely used, just imagine what the public might envision for the region’s energy future. Unfettered by the weights of vested interests and organizational history and culture, the results could be surprising. But people have to use the model and that may take a little help. To that end, the California Public Utilities Commission should strongly consider supporting its use by a variety of grassroots groups. How about a contest in which high school and college teams use the model to design the optimal energy system--one with the least impact on the environment for the lowest cost? How about encouraging consumer groups to use the model to help formulate and argue their positions in rate cases or other proceedings pending before the California Public Utilities Commission? Why not support city staffs in analyzing the broader ramifications of paving reservoir, recreation center, and library rooftops with solar panels. Might it help reduce the power bills of their residents? That may be a powerful sales point before otherwise skeptical city councils. To facilitate such efforts, the commission should provide grants to different groups to wrestle with intricacies of energy policy by using the model. The commission also should routinely allow groups to recover intervenor fees for their time in using the model in specific proceedings. Just think, the California Energy Commission could hear more-informed grassroots input for its Integrated Energy Policy Report. To that end, how about a CEC grant or two? The California Air Resources Board could provide support to grassroots groups to use the model in their participation in climate change policy. Maybe they’ll come up with a better idea than a carbon cap-and-trade market. Think about the issue of locating new power plants next to already polluted communities. The model could help environmental justice groups devise positive and specific alternatives rather than just saying not in my backyard. After a little experience in San Diego, more models could be built--say one for each utility. Eventually the models could be unified into a statewide model that would cover the whole grid and enable broader and more informed public participation in the often close knit and arcane world of energy policy. Such a model might even become a fulcrum for fostering public consensus, or at least public understanding, related to energy, economics, and the environment. Meanwhile, hats off to the folks at the University of San Diego, E3, NRG, and Utility Consumers’ Action Network who put the San Diego model into the public domain. May their efforts become a model for a brighter and cleaner future.

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