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Richmonders will get rebates for backup power during shutoffs

on October 29, 2019

Richmond residents who lost power during the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) to prevent wildfires earlier this fall may soon be eligible for rebates for backup power equipment they buy to keep the lights on in future shutoffs.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved a $100 million budget last month for a program to help keep electricity flowing during power shutoffs like the one that darkened neighborhoods across the Bay Area earlier this month.

The program will provide rebates to critical facilities — like fire and police departments — and households in low-income communities that purchase energy storage units to be used during shutoffs scheduled during the hot, dry, windy seasons of high wildfire risk.

Applications for energy storage rebates may be filed with utilities around the program’s scheduled launch date of April 1, 2020, the CPUC said.  However, some Richmond officials said the new program won’t necessarily help agencies with backup systems already installed.

“Power shutoffs won’t affect fire stations here. We have generators in place,” said Richmond Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard. “We make sure we have enough propane and the capacity to run for a minimum of seven days.”

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) carried out its first wide-scale shutoff to reduce the risk of wildfire in Northern California two weeks ago. More than 800,000 customers were left without power for up to four consecutive days.

Under the new CPUC program, called the Equity Resiliency Budget, qualifying customers will receive rebates for technology they buy or install to keep the power on. Rebate amounts will depend on the technology purchased, PG&E Spokesperson Ari Vanrenen said in an email.

Qualifying renewable and waste-energy recovery technologies include wind turbines, biogas, pressure reduction turbines and fuel cells. Qualifying nonrenewable technologies include internal combustion engines, microturbines and gas turbines.

Residents who depend on electricity for life support will also be eligible for the rebates.

Those who apply for the program must be located in CPUC’s Tier 2 or Tier 3 districts, which the commission defines as areas with an elevated or extreme wildfire threat. In Richmond, the threatened areas include Alvarado Park, Wildcat Creek Trail and East Richmond Heights.

During this month’s shutoff, May Valley, Carriage Hills North and South, Greenbriar and Greenridge Heights, which are Tier 2 districts, were among the Richmond neighborhoods affected, with a little over 1,000 residents losing power.

While the new program doesn’t require customers to use clean energy, Vanrenen said the company “prioritizes energy storage project applications that are paired with a renewable generator like solar, wind or a fuel cell running 100 percent on biogas.”

Solar units won’t necessarily keep the power on, however, as solar panels are still connected to power grids.

“It’s not going to help you without a battery,” said CalMatters senior editor Dan Morain, whose daily newsletter covers climate change in California, in a livestreamed conversation about wildfires and PG&E’s shutoff.

The new Equity Resiliency Budget comes from a reallocation of funds from the 2001 Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), which provided rebates for customers who installed distributed energy systems on their utility meters to redistribute energy generated by, for example, rooftop solar panels.

That program “has in the past fallen short of its goals to help bring energy storage to vulnerable and disadvantaged communities,” said CPUC Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves in a press release.

The new program is designed to address the shortcoming. But it will still be up to individuals to buy the technology and apply for the rebates.

“It’s up to residents to have backup power,” said Genevieve Pastor-Cohen, emergency service manager at Richmond City Council.

Pastor-Cohen said that CPUC has not yet informed city council of the new program. Once they do, she said, the council will work on making residents aware, “especially those in high fire threat area zones.”

The Office of Richmond’s Mayor declined comment pending official notification of the rebate program.

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