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March 10, 2021  

How a Small California Town is Charting Its Own Course to Energy Resilience

March 10, 2021

Recent winter storms in Texas and elsewhere around the United States are just the latest example of how vulnerable cities and residents are to sudden shocks to their electrical grids. Last summer, about half-a-million homes in Californians experienced rolling blackouts. Wildfire concerns last year also prompted Pacific Gas & Electric—or PG&E, which provides electricity and gas to 16 million Californians—to make “preemptive power shutoffs.” This was in response to lessons learned from the 2018 Camp Fire, which was ignited by PG&E power lines, and which killed at least 86 people.

Big utility companies like PG&E have a near-monopoly in their respective regions. What alternatives do cities have—if any—to providing safe, reliable electricity to residents and businesses? The farming town of Gonzales, California (pop. 9,000) is finding a way. As described in a recent story on KCRW, Gonzales is creating California’s largest multi-customer microgrid. Microgrids are local power grids that can be either separate from, or connected to, the larger grid. “In California,” says KCRW contributor Joe Mathews, “[microgrids] are seen as tools to make electricity service more resilient and to better integrate renewable energy sources, like solar and wind. But efforts to establish microgrids face complex obstacles, including scarce financing, regulatory barriers, and utility opposition.” He continues:

What distinguishes Gonzales is how the town is bringing together different entities—a technologically advanced microgrid developer, agricultural businesses, and a municipal energy authority—to surmount those obstacles. If the microgrid launches successfully next year, Gonzales could provide a model for other communities, especially those in outlying areas poorly served by the existing grid.

In this episode of the Upzoned podcast, host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, talk about why cities and residents are looking for resilient alternatives to the big utility companies. They discuss the history of how electric power went from something managed locally to the more centralized systems we have today. And they talk about the disconnect between the producers of electricity and the users of electricity, whether more cities should pursue the course being charted by Gonzales, and the role individual producers—for example, folks with their own solar panels—play in energy resilience.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck describes a book he’s reading by a former insider at the Federal Reserve. And Abby talks about binge-watching a show considered to be one of TV’s best ever.

Additional Show Notes