Local Leadership in a Statewide Shift: Santa Barbara’s Renewable Energy Path

Local Leadership in a Statewide Shift: Santa Barbara’s Renewable Energy Path

 

 Photo credit: iStock.com/akrassel

Photo credit: iStock.com/akrassel

California’s journey towards a clean energy future is a story of bold statewide initiatives and the remarkable rise of solar power. As the state steps forward with its ambitious energy goals, set into motion by landmark legislation Senate Bill 100, there is an inspiring local narrative unfolding too. This blog highlights Santa Barbara’s proactive approach to sustainability, showcasing how local initiatives are enhancing California’s drive towards renewable and carbon-free energy. We invite you to discover how Santa Barbara is contributing to and reinforcing California’s clean energy transition, through a combination of strategic alignment with state policies and innovative local actions.

Solar Energy in California

California has taken bold legislative steps in response to climate change, particularly with the enactment of Senate Bill 100 (SB 100) in 2018. This groundbreaking law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown, commits the state to transforming its electricity generation to 100% renewable and carbon-free sources by 2045. This initiative positions California as a leader in the United States for ambitious renewable energy goals and climate action.

Central to this vision is the impressive growth of the solar energy sector. With California’s abundant sunshine, solar energy has been a significant contributor to the state’s electricity. Extensive solar farms, notably in sun-rich areas like the Mojave Desert, have become integral to the state’s power grid. As reported by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), California boasted a striking 43,244 megawatts of installed solar capacity across all sectors (residential, commercial, and utility-scale) by the third quarter of 2023. This capacity is sufficient to power approximately 12.6 million homes, or over 86% of all homes in the state. 

The growth in solar energy production has been substantial, increasing from 27,265 Gigawatt Hours (GWh) in 2018 to 40,494 GWh in 2022—a 48.5% rise in utility-scale solar production. In 2022, combining both utility-scale and small-scale (less than 1 Megawatt) solar projects, solar energy accounted for 27% of California’s total electricity generation. Notably, small-scale solar projects, encompassing residential and commercial installations, make a substantial contribution, not just in California, but across the United States, representing more than one-third of the nation’s total solar capacity. This blend of utility and small-scale initiatives highlights California’s robust commitment to utilizing solar power.

As we look at this statewide commitment to clean energy, it’s crucial to focus on how local communities, particularly Santa Barbara, are aligning with and even exceeding these state goals through their own innovative initiatives.

Santa Barbara’s Energy Goal

In 2017, the City of Santa Barbara set a clear and ambitious goal to transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2030. This target is part of the city’s broader strategy to address climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote sustainability. By setting this energy goal a year before the enactment of SB100, Santa Barbara has taken a much more aggressive stance than the state-wide goal of achieving 100% renewable and carbon-free electricity by 2045. This commitment reflects Santa Barbara’s proactive approach to environmental stewardship and its dedication to leading in sustainable practices.

Santa Barbara Utilities

In Santa Barbara County, the energy landscape is significantly shaped by two major utilities: Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which serves North County, and Southern California Edison (SCE), responsible for South County. As key players in energy distribution, their decisions significantly impact various aspects of our local energy system. Both PG&E and SCE are tasked with procuring the energy that powers homes and businesses, including making critical decisions about the mix of energy sources – such as natural gas, renewables like solar and wind, and others. These choices play an important role in determining the overall sustainability and carbon footprint of the region’s energy supply. Additionally, these utilities manage and maintain essential infrastructure, including power lines and substations, crucial for the reliability and efficiency of electricity distribution in Santa Barbara.

Guided by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which sets regulations and guidelines, these utilities’ strategies are significantly shaped. The CPUC, through mechanisms like the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), mandates that utilities procure a specific percentage of their energy from renewable sources. This directive is a key driver in steering SCE and PG&E towards incorporating more solar, wind, and other renewable energies into their energy mix. Additionally, the CPUC is responsible for reviewing and approving the rates that utilities can charge their customers, ensuring they reflect the true cost of providing electrical service.

An analysis of the CPUC’s RPS annual reports from 2020, 2021, and 2022 reveals varying trends in renewable energy procurement: PG&E increased its share from 31% to 34%, and then to 54% each consecutive year, while SCE’s share fluctuated from 38%, followed by 34%, and then 36%. Despite these varying percentages, the report indicates that both PG&E and SCE are on course to meet the RPS mandate of 60% renewable and 40% carbon-free energy procurement by 2030.

 Photo credit: iStock.com/24K-Production

Photo credit: iStock.com/24K-Production

Santa Barbara’s Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) programs

CCAs are local initiatives that allow cities, counties, or groups of local governments to purchase and supply electricity for their residents and businesses. This model gives communities more control over their energy sources, often enabling them to choose clean power options, while the existing utility company continues to manage power distribution and billing. CCAs are designed to provide local communities with more energy options. 

Santa Barbara has been proactive in addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Implementing CCAs is a strategic move to achieve these environmental goals by increasing the share of renewable energy in their energy mix. CCAs also keep energy revenue local, which can be reinvested in community projects or local renewable energy developments. CCAs foster greater community involvement in energy decisions and can support local energy programs tailored to the specific needs and values of the community.

In Santa Barbara, there are two significant CCA programs: Central Coast Community Energy (3CE) and Santa Barbara Clean Energy (SBCE). 3CE started serving Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito Counties in 2018 and extended its services to broader Central Coast communities, including parts of Santa Barbara County since 2021. While comparing 3CE’s 2021 and 2022 power content labels, we can observe that the program has been steadily purchasing for its 3CPrime customers 50% solar energy and 50% wind energy, directly contributing to the city’s 100% renewable energy goal by 2030. 

SBCE is Santa Barbara’s own CCA initiative that further tailors this approach to the specific needs of the city’s residents and businesses. It was voted by the City Council in 2019 and started serving customers in 2021. SBCE’s 2021 power content label reveals that the program purchased for its 100% green rate plan customers 83.9% renewable energy (small hydroelectric and wind energy) and 16.1% carbon-free energy (large hydroelectric). In 2022, the program provided 50.2% renewable energy (small hydroelectric, solar, and wind energy) and 49.8% carbon-free energy (large hydroelectric).

Both programs empower local decision-making in energy procurement, emphasize sustainability, and support the city’s goals to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. Together 3CE and SBCE represent a collaborative effort between public initiatives and community participation, leading the change towards a more sustainable and resilient energy future in Santa Barbara.

 Photo credit: iStock.com/Sakorn Sukkasemsakorn

Photo credit: iStock.com/Sakorn Sukkasemsakorn

If I am on a 3CE or SBCE rate plan, does it mean that my home is powered by renewable energy?

The short answer is no. The grid, in its complexity, can’t distinguish between an electron generated by a wind turbine and one produced by a coal plant. The grid is a vast network of interconnected sources and consumers. However, what the 3CPrime and 100% Green plans mean is that for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) consumed by a customer, 3CE and SBCE purchase on their behalf the equivalent of renewable energy and add it to the grid. In essence, while the exact electron powering your reading lamp might not be from clean energy, your consumption is balanced out with an equal amount of renewable energy in the grid. Similarly, customers enrolled in the 3CChoice and Green Start plans have 50% of their consumption balanced out with renewable energy. The purchased renewable energy is produced from active renewable energy projects (such as solar and wind farms) either located in California or directly routed to the state. 

In addition to balancing out their consumption, 3CE and SBCE customers are helping invest in more renewable energy projects. In fact, 90% of the revenue generated from customers’ premiums is used to fund and develop new projects. 3CE’s goal is to offer 100% consumption offset to all of their customers by 2030 (as opposed to only 3CPrime customers currently).

What are the additional advantages of a solar system?

While supporting 3CE and SBCE is an excellent way for residents to contribute to Santa Barbara’s energy goals, owning a solar system presents additional advantages:

> Predictable rates and cost savings

With a solar system, you essentially lock in more predictable and affordable energy rates. Solar panels, once installed, produce energy at a fixed cost giving you more control over your bills and shielding you from the volatility of energy prices. Over time, as energy costs potentially rise, solar system owners will see substantial savings and easily predict their monthly electricity bills, making solar not only an environmental investment but a financial one as well. 3CE and SBCE rates are still subject to increases, thus relying solely on this means residents don’t have as much control over their electricity costs as they would with a solar system on their roof.

> Energy independence

Owning a solar system means you’re producing energy right where you consume it. This gives you a level of autonomy and reduces your reliance on external providers. You are able to choose where your energy comes from and rely on the grid when it makes sense for you. 

> Property value boost

Homes equipped with solar often see an increase in property value. Studies have shown that a house with solar sells twice as fast as a regular home.

> Environmental impact

While 3CE and SCBE invest and produce more green energy, producing your own solar energy further reduces the need for any non-renewable energy powering your home in real-time, directly contributing to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. It also reduces the need for transportation of energy to your home.

The Role of Energy Storage

As Santa Barbara and the rest of California increasingly rely on renewable and carbon-free energy sources, the importance of energy storage cannot be overstated. The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow, but our energy needs remain. This is where battery storage steps in. These batteries store excess energy during peak production times. This stored energy can then be used during periods of low energy production, ensuring a consistent and affordable energy supply.

However, having a battery storage system at home means more than just constant power – it’s also about independence and resilience. When the grid goes down, a home with a backup battery can still run important appliances, keeping one’s home comfortable during grid outages. This independence also means savings. By using stored energy during peak times (when the grid’s electricity is more expensive), homeowners can optimize their costs. But energy storage systems do more than just store energy; they make the most out of your solar panels. Excess solar energy isn’t wasted but stored for later use, ensuring that homes use more clean energy, reducing reliance on the grid and helping our environment.

And there is a bigger picture too. As Santa Barbara embraces programs like 3CE and SBCE for clean energy, home battery systems help stabilize our local energy supply. They reduce the strain on the grid during high-demand times, lessening the need for carbonated energy sources. In short, battery storage is a game-changer. It’s not just about having backup power; it’s a step towards a more sustainable, self-sufficient home. For Santa Barbara residents, this means joining a community-wide effort toward a cleaner future.

Takeaways

Santa Barbara is on an exciting energy journey that is both promising and multifaceted. From embracing solar and wind power to the nuanced workings of 3CE and SBCE, every element contributes to a more sustainable tomorrow. While the transition to renewable energy sources is a complex process, we have the power to make impactful decisions and work toward our collective goals – whether it’s choosing a green energy plan, installing solar panels on our home, or exploring battery storage options. We invite you to join this journey of transformation. Start by assessing your energy choices, talk to local energy experts, or join community discussions on renewable initiatives. Together, we are laying the groundwork for an environmentally conscious community.

Sources:

A special thank you to Sophia Schwirzke, Customer Accounts Manager at 3CE, Alelia Parenteau, the City of Santa Barbara’s Sustainability and Resilience Director, and Ashley Watkins, the County of Santa Barbara’s Division Chief of Sustainability and Libraries for their insights and expertise that greatly informed this blog.