The utility industry is going through a period of intense change—some would say upheaval—that makes planning more important than ever and well worth the time involved. Just ask Jim Steffens of the City of Banning, California, Electric Utility. “I like that the integrated resource plan (IRP) touches on so many areas of the utility,” said the Electric Utility Power Resources and Revenue Administrator. “The process made us think about how all the different parts, like the distribution system, play into delivering electricity.”
California’s Public Benefits Charge of 2.85 percent of retail sales make the municipal utility eligible to file a minimum investment report instead of an IRP. Yet the city opted to do the full IRP process for Banning’s 2015 report. “Historically, our five-year IRPs were very simple and didn’t change much because not much had changed since we last did a full IRP,” explained Steffens. “Then over the last few years, due to legislative and regulatory mandates, everything started changing fast and we really needed the comprehensive picture you get from an IRP.”
Banning Electric gets the majority of its electricity supply through contracts with the Southern California Public Power Authority for coal, nuclear and hydropower. Because California law does not permit electric utilities to invest in coal-fired power, SCPPA will be divesting its part ownership of the San Juan Unit 3 coal plant in New Mexico in 2017. “So there goes 20 megawatts (MW) of baseload power, which is a big deal for Banning,” said Steffen, adding, “Yes, we are a tiny utility.”
Some of that power will be replaced by 9.6 MW of landfill gas power from the Puente Hills facility built by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. A utility-scale solar farm on the border of Kern and Los Angeles counties will provide another 8 MW. In other words, Banning is looking down the road at a whole new resource mix by 2018.
Being located in a state on the cutting edge of transforming the power supply means that the city of 30,000 will have to look for ways to innovate, and that is where planning comes in. California’s carbon cap-and-trade program gives utilities allowances for compliance that can be auctioned. The IRP helped Steffens figure out how much of the auction proceeds Banning can bank to help cover the cost of prematurely getting rid of the San Juan plant.
Steffens also used the plan to track the city’s progress meeting the state’s aggressive renewable portfolio standard. “It showed that we may come up slightly short in one particular year, so we can start planning for that year now,” he said. “However, we are very proud of the fact that the utility power supply will be more than 70 percent renewable by 2018.”
Like the power supply, Banning’s load is also starting to change after decades of relative stability. Electricity demand dropped during the recession and has not yet fully recovered, but signs point in different directions.
In an economically challenged area, Banning residents have not adopted rooftop solar systems or electric vehicles (EVs) at the same rate as in other parts of the state. But both of these technologies are becoming more common and more affordable, so the city has to be ready. EVs could bring load growth, even as distributed generation reduces the utility’s load. Such uncertainties make the annual IRP progress report that much more important.
Population growth is putting more pressure on Banning too, with two large housing developments scheduled to start construction soon after 2020. “The past 10 years have been a real lesson in how quickly things we used to take for granted can change,” observed Steffens.
Plan points way
Efficiency is also included in Banning’s plan for the future. “A good portion of our Public Benefits funding covers the low-income Banning Electric Alternative Rate, or BEAR, but we also fund rebates,” noted Steffens. “Efficiency programs are an important part of customer service.”
Residential and commercial rebates are available for Energy Star appliances, air conditioner replacements, shade trees, weatherization, low-flush toilets, new construction, renewable systems and refrigerator and freezer recycling. The utility just launched a new commercial efficiency plan, the Business Energy Efficiency Fund, or “The BEEF, developed specifically for our small and mid-sized business community,” said Steffens.
Most of the businesses in Banning are small mom-and-pop operations that often don’t have extra capital for upgrades but could benefit greatly from lower utility bills.
Participants receive a free walk-through energy assessment to identify potential energy-saving upgrades to lighting, heating and cooling, water heating, motors and refrigeration. The businesses can then select the retrofit that best meets their needs and the utility pays up to $2,750 for the project.
When asked what percentage of Banning customers were commercial, Steffens checked his IRP. “Twenty-seven percent,” he replied. “The great thing about the IRP is that I have the answer to questions like that right in front of me.”
Steffens pointed out that the benefits of the IRP go well beyond just getting information in one place. “When things are changing as much as they are for Banning, you need to see the big picture and dive deep into the details,” he said. “We didn’t have to do the full IRP, but it is a great exercise to show you where you are going.”