The Future of Clean Energy

Editor's Note: The “Future of Clean Energy,” the cover story in the May/June issue of Electric Perspectives is written by our President Scott Drury. In this article, he lays out what SDG&E has done and will do in the future to advance renewable energy integration, zero-emission transportation, energy storage, wildfire safety, and energy reliability. Drury was invited to write the cover article by the Edison Electric Institute, which publishes the magazine. Please see the full article below. 

The Future of Clean Energy

Our industry has been in a perpetual state of transformation over the last two decades, driven in recent years by clean energy and technology innovations. In California, the spotlight has been on increasing renewable energy to meet climate goals. Now, having made substantial progress in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the state has begun focusing on California’s largest emissions sector: transportation. We embrace clean energy and clean transportation.

At San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), we come to work every day focused on improving the lives and communities we serve and on becoming the cleanest, safest, and most reliable energy company in America. We tackle this aspirational vision one step at a time. We are reducing our carbon footprint by integrating renewable energy and advancing clean transportation; we are improving safety with the latest tools and technologies that help to increase situational awareness and to inform operational decisions; and we are enhancing reliability through investments to modernize our energy infrastructure and to build new projects such as energy storage. 

By modernizing our infrastructure through smart grid advancements, SDG&E is leading the way to smart cities. We built the foundation for a smart grid by fully deploying smart meters a decade ago. This two-way communication allows customers and cities to manage their energy use, and it allows SDG&E to integrate clean transportation and renewable energy into the energy grid. Today, SDG&E is supplying around 45 percent renewable energy to every customer, up from just 1 percent nearly two decades ago. The national average is about 8 percent. Nearly 9 percent of our customers have installed private rooftop solar—many with the help of a patented device invented by SDG&E employees that makes installing private solar safer, faster, and more affordable.

We are aggressively implementing a number of transportation electrification initiatives that span all segments of the market: residential, commercial, and industrial. We are home to one of America’s largest lithium-ion battery energy storage facilities. And, through every clean energy advancement, we have maintained our “best in the west” reliability status for 12 consecutive years.

Laying the Foundation

Bold leadership, innovation, collaboration, and customer-first thinking have propelled energy efficiency and clean  energy forward. California has been on the “less is more” path for decades when it comes to reducing energy use. And, due in part to the state’s high efficiency standards, per capita electricity use has remained flat over the last 40 years.

The rapid expansion of solar and wind energy has led state leaders, regulators, renewable energy advocates, energy companies, and other stakeholders to consider new clean energy goals.

For us, expanding clean energy is more than attaining a number or meeting a goal. Clean energy extends into all facets of our customers’ lives—their transportation choices, how much energy they use and when they use it, access to new products and services, and, perhaps most important, how we are improving the energy grid to ensure reliability in response to the changing climate.

We are seizing opportunities to expand clean transportation and electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, to leverage energy storage technologies, and to enhance efficiencies for the benefit of our customers. We are working with technology and EV charging manufacturers to increase the use of their product on our grid and to position these companies for growth.

This holistic approach aims to reduce GHGs, improve the environment, create new growth opportunities, and ensure we remain committed to our most important mission—delivering clean, safe, and reliable energy to our 3.6 million customers at an affordable cost. 

The Impact of Clean Energy Today

SDG&E was the first investor-owned electric company in California to source 33 percent of its energy from renewable resources—well ahead of the 2020 mandate. And, our company is on track to deliver 50 percent by 2030, as required by law. 

Renewable generation connected to SDG&E’s system reaches as high as 75 percent of our energy demand in the early afternoon, and it frequently exceeds 50 percent of energy demand during the spring when demand is lighter. These levels of renewable generation would have been impossible to accommodate were it not for the construction of a 117-mile transmission line that carries renewable energy from inland valleys to San Diego, benefiting our customers and supporting a cleaner, more reliable energy grid. 

Our company also is adding synchronous condensers, innovative machines that control sudden increases or decreases in energy as resources change and that provide voltage support to stabilize the grid and to ensure a steady flow of energy is delivered to our customers. Six synchronous condensers have been installed so far; one additional project is under construction and is scheduled to come online by mid-2018.

Beyond investing in large-scale renewable energy systems, we also are providing programs and services to individual customers seeking to expand the use of renewable energy in their homes or businesses. We offer a 100-percent renewable energy option to virtually any customer who wants it. We have more than 1,800 customers signed up, including many businesses that are household names. 

Nearly 9 percent of our customers have installed private solar or wind, collectively producing 880 megawatts (MW). Our employees invented the renewable meter adaptor, which simplifies the interconnection process and allows customers to avoid electric service panel upgrades that often are required to support private solar systems. This device has allowed customers to eliminate the hassle and cost associated with construction of walls, stucco, and landscaping, collectively saving SDG&E customers nearly $8 million.

Connecting Transportation to a Cleaner Grid

With all of this clean energy flowing through our energy grid, there has never been a better time to increase clean transportation. Earlier this year, during his state of the state address, Governor Jerry Brown announced a new goal for clean transportation—5 million EVs on California’s roadways by 2030. The Governor’s announcement comes at a time when the transportation sector is the single largest producer of GHGs in the state, and, in San Diego, it accounts for nearly 50 percent of all harmful emissions.

For San Diego to meet the Governor’s clean vehicle goal, we will need approximately 500,000 EVs on the road by 2030. Currently, about 28,000 EVs are on the road in San Diego and south Orange Counties.

To support the rapid adoption of clean transportation, employees in our Power Your Drive program have begun to install up to 3,000 EV charging stations at apartments, condos, businesses, and in economically disadvantaged or underserved communities. This will provide access to charging where few, if any, charging stations exist. The program also features special electricity pricing to maximize the use of renewable energy to charge cars. With an abundance of solar energy produced in the middle of the day, our customers can save money and help to clean the air. 

To build on the passenger vehicle success of Power Your Drive, we are broadening our clean transportation scope to focus on heavy-duty vehicles as well. Under a proposal submitted to our state regulators earlier this year, we are seeking approval to build charging infrastructure to enable about 3,000 medium- or heavy-duty vehicles to go electric. If approved, the new proposal would enable a much wider deployment of charging stations in the region, which is home to more than 103,000 Class 2 through Class 8 commercial vehicles, including trucks that operate around the congested ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. In California, Class 2–8 vehicles produce more particulate matter than all of the state’s power plants combined, which can cause or worsen asthma and other health conditions.

Our proposal came on the heels of SDG&E receiving unanimous support and approval from state regulators to proceed with several pilot projects to install charging stations at the Port of San Diego, San Diego International Airport, Park & Ride lots, shuttle hubs, and delivery fleet hubs. 

We also have taken significant strides to green our own fleet. All of our fleet passenger vehicles, as well as 55 electric hybrid bucket trucks, run on clean alternative fuel. The trucks have an on-board battery system that eliminates the need for engine idling when crews are called out for repairs and reduces emissions and noise in neighborhoods. We also have made investments to add charging infrastructure to support our employees who drive EVs. We have more than 250 charging stations at our facilities— and more than 450 employees driving clean as part of our Race to 500 by 2020. 

The nexus between a cleaner energy grid and California’s roadways is growing stronger. Adding more EVs to our roadways is critical to achieving the state’s climate goals. We need more charging stations in key destinations and places of work to eliminate range anxiety, and we need better outreach and education for people looking to purchase a new car.

We also must highlight the connection between the choice to drive an EV and supporting a clean environment. Imagine an EV charging during the day with an abundance of solar energy, or at night with wind energy, and recharging with renewables dispatched from gridscale energy storage. As technology advances, that scenario is right around the corner. At SDG&E, part of our holistic approach is creating these connections to improve our customers’ lives and to increase their energy choices.

Soaking Up the Sun

It’s no secret that there is an abundance of renewable energy in California. But when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, we need solutions to harness renewable energy and to deliver it to our customers to meet their demands. 

Energy storage technologies have come a long way over the past few years, and we have taken advantage of the trend to benefit our customers. Over the past decade, we have been perfecting one of the first large, large-scale microgrids in America—the Borrego Springs microgrid—located in a desert community about 90 miles northeast of San Diego. This microgrid is connected to the nearby 26-MW Borrego solar project and two backup generators. This combination of resources, along with on-site battery storage, means the microgrid can disconnect from the energy grid and operate independently if necessary.

The microgrid has enhanced energy reliability for the community, and more renewable energy helps to reduce the community’s carbon footprint.

Early last year, we deployed a 30 MW/ 120-megawatt-hour (MWh) lithium-ion battery facility in our service territory, which at the time was the world’s largest. The battery can power the equivalent of 20,000 homes for up to four hours. 

Today we have more than 100 MWs of energy storage in our service territory, which increases reliability for our customers. We can use energy storage as “shock absorbers” to stabilize the grid when solar and wind production falls off in early evening, just as energy demand rises as people get home from work. Increasing grid resiliency helps us to meet customer demand and to expand the use of renewables. 

Energy storage also can support our region’s critical public-sector infrastructure, such as fire stations, emergency operation centers, and police stations. Earlier this year, we submitted a proposal to our regulators for up to 166 MW of additional energy storage to improve grid resiliency and to provide backup power for the infrastructure and facilities that serve public safety. SDG&E developed these innovative projects in partnership with local leaders to increase the resiliency of critical public-sector infrastructure. Providing energy storage to public-sector facilities helps to ensure the power stays on for our first responders, which is critical to their ability to maintain operations and to protect public safety.

Beyond lithium-ion battery storage technologies, SDG&E is piloting a vanadium redox flow battery project at a company substation. These rechargeable flow batteries employ vanadium ions in different oxidation states to store chemical potential energy. The 2-MW/8-MWh battery storage facility adds capacity to maximize the use of renewable energy on the system and provides enough energy to power approximately 1,000 homes for roughly four hours. The project was placed strategically near a circuit with a high penetration of private rooftop solar systems so it could be integrated during a system interruption.

As technologies advance, we will continue to explore new ways to implement energy storage to support renewable integration and to improve the environment.

Pricing Signals and Incentives

Increasing renewable energy and distributed energy resources have created a challenging regulatory framework. Progress continues to appropriately value and compensate for these types of resources on the energy grid, particularly as technologies mature and adoption increases.

While this important valuation work continues, most SDG&E customers are moving to time-of-use pricing plans in 2019. These pricing plans are based on how much and when our customers use energy, and they will offer more choices to better manage and control energy costs. This will bring us one step closer to providing accurate price signals to customers regarding the cost of electricity and the cost of using the energy grid for the services they receive. It also can help us to better integrate renewable energy and clean technologies like electric transportation and energy storage.

The Journey Continues

Our industry has much to be proud of. What we do every day matters. EEI member companies enable the lives and businesses of more than 220 million Americans. We continually drive innovation, advance the economy, and improve communities.

At SDG&E, we are inspired by the opportunity to improve lives and communities, and we aspire to build the cleanest, safest, and most reliable electric company in America.

In many ways, our journey to power a clean future has only just begun.