By Dominique De Wit, GridX Energy Advisor
Across Northern California, a growing number of rooftop solar panels are sparkling in the sun. They’re connected to PG&E’s distribution system, but households’ electricity is often procured by a third party – a Community Choice Aggregator.
When people in Santa Cruz (where I live) hear that I work as a GridX Energy Advisor and customer service representative for Central Coast Community Energy (3CE), I often get questions about what the difference is between 3CE and PG&E, what service they (as a 3CE customer) receive, and what changes we will see on our grid going forward.
Within the next few years, we will see big changes happening at grid edge – there where electricity is consumed. And software and data management companies like GridX – frequently the invisible middle-man – will play a big role in moving us toward greater sustainability and grid reliability. This blog entry will shed some light on our changing electricity system, and how that impacts you as a consumer.
First things first: what exactly is 3CE?
3CE is a Community Choice Aggregator; a load serving entity (or energy supplier) with no ownership or control of the distribution grid.
Instead, 3CE procures electricity from Power Purchasing Agreements (basically contracts) with energy suppliers or purchases power on the wholesale market. This power is delivered via PG&E’s transmission and distribution lines to your house.
A key difference with 3CE or PG&E procuring your electricity is the generation mix: 3CE gets 31% of electricity from renewable energy, and the remainder comes from hydroelectric – so all carbon free sources. In comparison, PG&E gets 29% from renewables, procures less energy from hydroelectric sources (27%) and gets almost half of its overall mix from nuclear energy (44%).
3CE is one of 20 Community Choice Aggregators in California – a public and not-for-profit entity – serving around 10 million customers. Under California law, all residents are automatically enrolled (or “opted in”) under a new CCA program.
What am I paying for as a 3CE customer?
As you turn on the lights at your house, run your washer or dryer, grab food out of your refrigerator, or charge your electric vehicle, you use electricity. A Smart Meter outside your house (and each other electricity consumer’s home in California) measures how much kilowatt per hour (kWh) of electricity you use.
If you have solar, these Smart Meters also capture how much solar your panel(s) produced during these same time periods. For now, for solar customers without storage, this solar is sent back into the grid – otherwise known as net-metering – and your electricity charges are calculated by offsetting the net-metering against your usage.
GridX works for 3CE and analyzes this granular data from PG&E’s Smart Meters to, among other things, create the electricity generation charges for your household. GridX receives hundreds of thousands of “usage” data points from PG&E daily – the average Californian household uses around 550 kWh of electricity per month, and as of Fall 2020, 3CE has around 330k customers.
For each customer, the kWh consumed are then multiplied by the pre-set rates for electricity generation, and these charges are visible – typically on the third page – on your PG&E bill.
The applied generation rate is adopted by the 3CE board of directors at public hearings and may change over time. Generation charges under 3CE are, on average, around 2% lower than they would be under PG&E, factoring in a franchise fee surcharge and the PCIA (a politically contentious financial charge paid to PG&E).
For the average residential customer, the generation charges make up less than 35% of your overall electricity bill. The remainder are transmission and distribution costs paid to PG&E for maintaining the grid. This 100-year old approach of creating residential bills with a heavy focus on payback on transmission and distribution costs may eventually evolve to incorporate different rate structures as a greater number of customers start relying on home control systems, batteries, and solar, argues Dan Seif in Greentechmedia.
What’s the future of all this “Smart Meter” data?
Greater utilization of granular data from Smart Meters can provide a new level of understanding on electricity consumption patterns, energy efficiency and grid planning.
For one, it can provide greater individual understanding of your home energy consumption by visualizing Smart Meter data on a smartphone app or your utility or CCA’s website. Efforts to allow customers to see their energy usage are preliminary, but underway: in response to the White House’s Green Button initiative in 2012, PG&E developed an energy portal showing customers their electricity and natural gas usage on hourly intervals.
But growing complexity leads to questions: many customers call 3CE asking for elaboration on their household energy consumption, including patterns of energy use throughout the day, the cost of electricity, and the value of any solar or electric vehicles. Our Energy Advisors draw from various data points visible in graphs such as the one below to assist customers, and a GridX team is developing a portal to display customer cost savings under various scenarios.
Thinking more long-term, many opportunities exist in the industry to further develop this information into more fine-tuned customer energy portals and smart-phone apps, and a growing number of studies explore the relationship between visualizing household energy data and reducing energy consumption to reduce your environmental impact.
Second, your electricity bill could become more of an “itemized receipt” and could help understand how much electricity the appliances in your house use. Energy geeks refer to this as “energy load disaggregation,” and it could help you make more informed decisions about whether to replace that old refrigerator with a newer, more energy efficient one whose purchasing cost would be offset over time by your electricity cost savings.
Yet, this may lead to a sustainability consideration, or life cycle assessment also: does the environmental impact that includes the extraction of raw materials, assemblage, and production of a new refrigerator and the waste of the old one outweigh keeping the less energy efficient appliance you have right now?
Thirdly, greater utilization of granular data could help develop demand response programs, where you could even be paid (say $50-$100) by PG&E, a CCA or a third party to shut off your electricity for a few hours in the middle of the day. Why? To balance the grid: if a large number of customers shut off their power for a few hours in the middle of the day, this will drop electricity demand and may balance the grid at a time of low (anticipated) supply. The approach holds potential as a higher tech solution to rotating outages where the utility shuts off its customers’ power as happened during the heat waves and drop in electricity supply in August.
Stay tuned… for a system that has been largely unchanged for a consumer like me and you, things could change rapidly in the not too distant future!
 This means that decisions on shutting off power for customers is beyond the scope of control of 3CE. The Utility Distribution Company (for us in Northern California this is PG&E) makes the decision on the Public Safety Power Shutoff and the California Independent System Operator calls on the utility for a rotating outage when foreseeing a grid imbalance.
 You even have the option of getting 100% of your electricity from solar and wind at an added 0.008cent per kilowatt hour of electricity (or an additional $3-$7 a month for the average residential customer consuming between 300-500 kWh of electricity) .