Don’t buy the EBCE marketing… our electricity is far from 100% renewable.

We’re not 100% renewable – it’s an accounting trick.

Berkeley, where I live, has lately been trumpeting a big climate achievement: we’ve switched our city to a ‘100% wind and solar’ renewable energy plan, provided by our energy buying co-op, East Bay Community Energy (EBCE).

Problem is, it isn’t true.

Rather, it’s an unfortunate misrepresentation, a misleading accounting trick. And it’s slowing Berkeley’s climate progress, by convincing residents that we’re more virtuous than we are, and providing political cover for foot-dragging on investments in local distributed energy resources (rooftop solar, storage and microgrids).

How is this possible?

Here’s how. EBCE buys bulk solar power when it’s cheap mid-day, and wind power when the wind is blowing. But EBCE doesn’t have anywhere near the batteries to store it til after sunset, which is when we mostly use it.

So their product is more like an ‘offset’ to our actual carbon emissions – we can say we’re buying 400 Gigawatt hours (or whatever) a year of renewables, and that Berkeley uses 400 Gigawatt hours a year of electricity. But because of the time-of-day mismatch, much of the actual electricity we use In Berkeley (from the same grid as everyone else, still only 35% renewable) comes from dirty gas-fired power plants in places like Hayward, Pittsburg, and San Jose. Especially after sunset… see the real time data for yourself.

Accelerating local solar+storage is the path to true climate leadership.

Don’t hold your breath for EBCE actually making us 100% renewable anytime soon, we have to do it ourselves. They’re good people, just not incented to truly decarbonize Berkeley, but rather to ‘buy clean energy’: a 2016 mission out of sync with the needs of 2023. What’s more, they’re lagging their innovative peers, like Peninsula Clean Energy, which is making investments to match renewable purchases to local hourly consumption round the clock. For details, listen to this great interview with Peninsula Clean Energy’s Jan Pepper.

The problems with buying bulk clean energy from far away sources are many:

  • It’s more expensive, because you have to pay for all that transmission infrastructure.
  • There’s not enough available, because political opposition has stalled many California projects.
  • Transmission losses cut into efficiency.
  • There’s no resiliency: when the grid goes down, we go down.
  • There’s little transparency; none of these providers disclose their actual power purchase contracts.

What the solution? It’s to go faster on producing as much of our own electricity right here in Berkeley as possible, and using it much more efficiently.

For example:

Scaling up local rooftop solar, storage, and microgrids: By putting solar on city rooftops and parking lots, with storage, we can move toward being truly 100% renewable much faster. And in the bargain, we’ll make these facilities resilient – able to provide shelter, heat and cooling to people in an emergency, for example if the grid goes down due to an earthquake or whatever. How many of Berkeley’s municipal buildings or parking lots have solar panels today? Almost none.

Decarbonizing buildings and transportation. How much of Berkeley’s $700+ million annual budget (city plus BUSD) do we spend on decarbonizing our existing municipal buildings and vehicles? I think not much at all.

Changing how and when we consume energy: If we charge our cars mid-day, we’re mostly consuming from a grid flush with solar. But after 4pm and before 10am, we’re pulling from the gas powered grid, emitting tons of methane and carbon. The list of meaningful things like this goes on and on… but it’s all hard work, and not so much on the city’s radar.

Solar panels on the roof of Berkeley Bowl West. If the Bowl can do it, why can’t the city?

Cheaper than ever… let’s do this.

Right now our city leaders are putting too many eggs in EBCE’s basket. There’s a few pilot projects in the works like putting solar panel on fire stations, but it’s way too slow, because this isn’t fundamentally what EBCE does.

The great news is that with the passage of Inflation Reduction Act last year, there’s tons more subsidy and tax credit money available and it’s cheaper than ever for cities to deploy all these distributed energy resources, rooftop and parking lot solar, storage, microgrids etc.

So let’s stop kidding ourselves about already being ‘100% renewable,’ and get on with doing it!

Yeah… not yet.