A small California city aims to break its dependence on PG&E
By Joe Matthews
February 16, 2021 — Gonzales, CA
(Photo above: The Salinas River flowing high and brown just outside Gonzales, a city of 9,000 seeking to have energy independence. Credit: Vern Fisher)
If California is lucky, our energy future could look like a small town in the rural Salinas Valley.
The town in question is Gonzales, the California municipal version of the Little Engine That Could. Its small, working-class population of just 9,000 has ingeniously solved tricky problems, from broadband to health care access to child development.
Now Gonzales is tackling one of our state’s most stubborn challenges: how to develop local sources of cleaner, cheaper and more reliable power as our aging energy grid falters.
Tiny Gonzales’s solution? Creating the largest multi-customer microgrid in California. At $70 million, it’s also the most expensive public works project in the city’s history, dwarfing a $5 million street re-do. In essence, Gonzales is building its own electricity island to guarantee uninterrupted power for the agricultural and industrial businesses that provide the tax base to support its ambitious local programs.
The idea of microgrids — local power grids, either separate or connected to the larger grid — is not new. In California, they 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.
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.