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Can communities drive energy innovation?

To accelerate the fight against climate change, cross-sector partnerships are crucial

When you think of an innovative organization, what’s the first to come to mind? A hot Silicon Valley start-up? Or one of the local tech giants?

For most, it’s unlikely to be a government agency. However, when it comes to addressing climate change, we believe community choice energy agencies like Silicon Valley Clean Energy are well-positioned to partner with the private sector and drive the advancement of low-carbon solutions.

A community choice energy program is a public agency formed by one or more local governments to procure power on behalf of their residents and businesses. These agencies allow local control over the sources of power a community uses, tailoring of programs to the community, and greater transparency and accountability. Currently, 19 such agencies serve over 10 million customers across the state.

SVCE, the community choice energy agency serving most of Santa Clara County, was established in 2016 to take bold action on climate change. We were formed to be innovative, because the traditional institutions and ways of thinking were insufficient to address the climate crisis we are facing.

Since forming, we’ve accelerated the transition to clean electricity by bringing new wind, solar and geothermal projects online. We’ve also launched a portfolio of innovative programs to help our community use this clean electricity to reduce carbon emissions from buildings and transportation.

Although we’ve made tangible progress, there’s a long road ahead to achieve deep cuts to carbon output, and we don’t know how exactly we’re going to get there.

What we do know is that we need unprecedented levels of innovation, spanning technological advancement, from battery storage and electric vehicles to heat pump appliances and machine learning, as well as “softer” applications such as new business models, financing mechanisms, and policies. All these types of innovation will be instrumental in fighting climate change, and we need strong cross-sector partnerships to cultivate and scale new solutions to ensure we’re making timely progress.

SVCE is using its position to drive innovation in three primary ways:

  1. Create a local policy environment where low-carbon solutions will flourish. SVCE has been working closely with our member agencies on the development of model building codes that favor all-electric buildings and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

These so-called “reach codes” are local amendments to the building code that go above and beyond state requirements to accelerate the work to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. At the time of writing, seven of our 13 member agencies adopted reach codes that ban or significantly limit natural gas in new construction and require higher deployment of electric vehicle chargers, and five other member agencies are in the final stages of review.

By creating a local policy environment where low-carbon solutions can flourish, our communities are sending a clear signal that we require clean technologies in our homes and buildings.

  1. Promote our mission to take action on climate change, and convey our community perspective to innovators.

On Jan 31, SVCE organized GridShift, a 24-hour hackathon that brought together software developers, energy enthusiasts, and those passionate about addressing climate change to come up with solutions to accelerate the transformation to a smart, clean and equitable grid of the future.

One hundred participants across 15 teams came up with solutions to help customers understand their energy and emissions, adopt electric vehicles, and enhance their resilience in the wake of power shut-offs, with a focus on supporting low-income customers and those living in disadvantaged communities.

By organizing and sponsoring hackathons and similar innovation challenge events, we can promote our decarbonization mission and convey our community’s perspective directly to entrepreneurs and innovators, to help guide the development of new products and services that address the most pressing challenges our communities face.

  1. Engage industry to rapidly test and demonstrate new solutions.

Compared to many traditional utilities and government institutions, SVCE is a nimble and fast-moving agency that can more easily partner with start-ups to rapidly test and demonstrate new products and services.

In spring 2019, SVCE launched Innovation Onramp to provide small grants to do exactly that. SVCE’s flagship pilot with UtilityAPI provides free, authorized access to standardized and automated energy usage data to help accelerate the deployment of clean energy projects. The pilot is currently in beta testing and scheduled for a full launch in March 2020.

Through this pilot and others launched through Innovation Onramp, SVCE is keeping an open door for innovators and the best new solutions to help us and the community decrease carbon emissions.

Although innovation is sometimes regarded as a private sector activity, both private and public sectors have crucial roles to play.

SVCE is still in its early stages, but we are wasting no time in leveraging our position to drive innovation in support of our mission. We look forward to being an active partner with the private sector to drive innovation to address the climate crisis.


Author: Aimee Gotway Bailey