A Lesson in Stakeholder Engagement And How It’s Creating Resilience in Southern California

Change often requires disruption of the status quo. In 2017, Craig Lewis, founder of the Clean Coalition, set out to fundamentally transform Southern California’s outdated energy system in the Santa Barbara region of California, which from an electricity grid standpoint is known as the Goleta Load Pocket (GLP). To do so, he had to invest extensive effort in policy innovations and program implementations. All of this required extensive stakeholder engagement. Supported by his Clean Coalition team of experts, Lewis pursued resilience in communities that had been crippled by grid bottlenecks and vulnerabilities. This is the story of how the Clean Coalition used stakeholder engagement to stage resilient energy systems in the GLP. 

The Goleta Load Pocket

The GLP spans 70 miles of Southern California coastline from Point Conception to Lake Casitas. It encompasses the cities of Goleta, Santa Barbara (including Montecito), and Carpinteria. Most of the power for the region travels through a substation that is the only juncture connecting the entire area to the transmission system, meaning all of the electricity that the Goleta Substation receives is sourced from a single pair of transmission lines.

Those transmission lines are 40 miles long and routed through a geographic area heavily susceptible to wildfires, landslides, and earthquakes. Southern California Edison (SCE), the utility that serves the GLP, has clearly communicated in the past that the transmission lines will go down – and they could be down for weeks or even months at a time.

Goleta Load Pocket (GLP) stretching from northwest of Gaviota to southeast of Carpinteria

The region’s vulnerability was recently demonstrated in back-to-back extreme weather events that occurred over a two-month period. In December of 2017, the month-long Thomas Fire, fueled by powerful Santa Ana winds and extremely dry conditions, ran rampant through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. A month later, the same region was hit with heavy rainfall. The dry and unstable soil conditions from the fire caused substantial flooding that led to a deadly mudslide. These disasters destroyed hundreds of homes and killed 23 people – and tens of thousands of homes experienced intermittent electricity and gas service. Alarmingly, especially to anyone misled into believing that natural gas is a resilience solution, at least one gas pipeline explosion destroyed several homes. While emergency shelters were available, none were configured with the indefinite power backup capabilities that can only be achieved through Solar Microgrids and Community Microgrids. 

Taking a Stand for Resilience

In the year prior to these extreme weather events, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) had considered a 30-year refurbishment of the 54-megawatt, natural-gas-fired Ellwood peaker plant in Goleta. With the critical vulnerability of the GLP in mind, one of the core issues the CPUC considered was electricity reliability for the cities within the GLP: Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Carpinteria.

The Clean Coalition team had completed robust technical and economic analyses of a solar-driven Community Microgrid alternative to the Ellwood gas peaker plant to prove that the Community Microgrid was superior in every way, including in the form of economic, environmental, and resilience benefits to the GLP. Prior to the CPUC voting on the proposed Ellwood refurbishment, the Clean Coalition submitted its analyses to the CPUC and helped ensure that the Ellwood refurbishment proposal was denied.

Based on effective analyses that effectively debunked utility posturing, the CPUC unanimously rejected the proposed refurbishment of the Ellwood Peaker Plant in October 2017.

Community Microgrid Takes Hold

The monumental win gave Lewis momentum toward establishing renewables-driven resilience for the Santa Barbara region. The Clean Coalition embarked on a study to size a solar-driven Community Microgrid for the GLP. A Community Microgrid, Lewis explained, “serves an entire community, including via Solar Microgrids at critical community facilities, by providing an unparalleled trifecta of economic, environmental, and resilience benefits.” However, implementing Community Microgrids is never an easy feat, largely due to utility resistance. Implementing a renewables-driven, community-based energy distribution system would require a multi-layer strategic approach in a region that includes multiple municipalities, school districts, businesses, and a major university. In a recent interview with Energy Services Media, Lewis stated,

“You can’t go from 0 to 60 instantaneously. We began looking for small configurations of communities where we could implement Solar Microgrids at critical community facilities, and then expand from there. Solar Microgrids are dedicated to specific facilities with solar and energy storage sited behind the meter to provide solar-driven resilience and economic benefits. The first building block we focused on was the Montecito Community Microgrid. That building block was at the center of the community that was hardest hit by the natural disasters in late 2017 and early 2018. We started with their fire district, emergency shelter facilities such as at schools, and the water systems. The water systems are prioritized resources when there’s a fire because wells and pumps need to operate 24×7 to get water up the hill, from which it is then gravity-fed to everywhere it is needed.”

As the Clean Coalition began to outline the strategy and planning, they needed to address the most critical piece of the puzzle, stakeholder engagement. To the Clean Coalition team, this is known as stakeholder facilitation, and when done successfully, it even aligns utilities so they are collaborators.

Establish the Vision

Before any outreach to potential stakeholders occurred, Lewis recognized the need to create a vision he could easily articulate.

“We knew that our vision should capture people’s imaginations, and we put a lot of work into it upfront. We began by using the scientific method: coming up with a hypothesis, testing it internally, and then reaching out to stakeholders to confirm its value. With the Goleta Load Pocket Community Microgrid, we focused on developing a Community Microgrid that would eliminate the need for the gas peaker plant via solar-driven resilience for the GLP. Once we had identified this priority, we solved for the ‘magic numbers’ that are required to ensure the GLP has 100% resilience to the worrisome transmission-grid vulnerability.”

The “magic numbers” represented the megawatts of solar generation and megawatt-hours of energy storage that are needed to ensure full resilience extended transmission-grid outages. After critical review, the team determined that the GLP needs 200 megawatts of new solar generation and 400 megawatt-hours of new energy storage to achieve the 100% resilience target. With these magic numbers in hand, Lewis could properly scope the vision of the GLP Community Microgrid.

The Collateral

The complexity of the Goleta Load Pocket Community Microgrid project required that communication with stakeholders be informative, readily available, and easy to understand. The Clean Coalition created extensive collateral material in the form of presentation materials as well as information available on the Clean Coalition website in order to facilitate stakeholder engagement. Visitors to the website can find numerous resources including several webinars, in-depth information on numerous building block projects, and several quick and easy documents to print and share, such as a two-page GLP Community Microgrid overview. This information has been critical in providing the information people need to interact with and support the initiative, and Lewis attributes much of the project’s success to the transparency that the collateral provides.

Understanding the Stakeholders

Stakeholders include individuals from all walks of life, and their engagement and the weight that each opinion carries can vary substantially. As Lewis and his team prepared for stakeholder facilitation, they divided potential stakeholders into eight groups, listed in the Community Microgrid key stakeholder graphic. Lewis explained the purpose behind each group,

“When you think about the different stakeholders, you should picture an archery target. Your outer ring is the community members. The inner ring consists of key influencers, those who are leaders in the community; for example, a key influencer could be a non-profit that is influential in the region. The bullseye includes core individuals such as property owners and municipal leadership who govern the area, as well as executives at the energy utility.”

The Clean Coalition uses different forms of outreach for each type of stakeholder. For the general public and community members, the Clean Coalition solicits as much media coverage as possible for general information and runs public webinars to cover more specific details, all of which are subsequently available on their website. To pull in key influencers the team conducts and attend events, strategically building targeted relationships. All of this helps them develop a foundation to conduct one-on-one meetings with core individuals.

Lewis shared a story of a conversation he had with a key influencer during one such event. He brought up his interest in working with the Santa Barbara Unified School District and explained some of the hurdles he had encountered. The key influencer was able to connect Lewis directly to the Superintendent (the core stakeholder), and that meeting led to the school district developing a massive microgrid project of their own.

The Formula Breaks Barriers

Aside from utility resistance, Lewis believes the biggest barrier to executing a microgrid project is the lack of understanding of how to value resilience. Another barrier is the complexity of microgrid contracts. Over the course of GLP Community Microgrid efforts, the Clean Coalition team has repeatedly run into these barriers. The team works with the full gamut of stakeholders, however, to remove the barriers.

To increase the understanding of valuing resilience, the Clean Coalition established a VOR123 methodology and then conducted substantial stakeholder outreach. The outreach efforts follow the Clean Coalition’s standard approach of doing the work to establish a vision, creating informational material (collateral), and then engaging the stakeholders. This approach has put the Goleta Load Pocket Community Microgrid on a fast track to success. Importantly, Community Microgrids and Solar Microgrids can be scaled and replicated to fit opportunities big and small. The Clean Coalition ensures that its projects are supported by transparent information that can be utilized by others to efficiently proliferate renewables-driven solutions.

Just a few years after the work began in the GLP, the Clean Coalition has partnered with numerous community organizations. Each milestone has stimulated increasingly large waves of interest. Since 2017 the Clean Coalition has successfully facilitated resilient renewable efforts at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), Montecito upper village, the Santa Barbara Unified School District, the Vallecito neighborhood in Carpinteria, and at numerous homes throughout the GLP. The impact extends well beyond the GLP with recent examples being with the City of Camarillo and the Los Angeles Community College District.

Craig Lewis

Craig Lewis, Founder and Executive Director of the Clean Coalition

Craig Lewis founded the Clean Coalition in 2009. The Clean Coalition is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to accelerate the transition to renewable energy and a modern grid through technical, policy, and project development expertise. Lewis and his team are on the front lines of driving change through creating fair, transparent, and effective policies and programs. After witnessing the destruction caused by wildfires and mudslides in his hometown community of Santa Barbara, Lewis moved his family there from Menlo Park in 2018. “That was my calling to bring my family back to Santa Barbara. I grew up in the area and moved away 35 years ago for college and career, and then realized I needed to return and take the lead on what became the Goleta Load Pocket Community Microgrid.”

The Clean Coalition Team

The Clean Coalition has had a significant positive impact on shaping policies and programs that enable the deployment of clean local energy for numerous communities. These projects address climate change and secure economic, environmental, and resilience benefits. Through cutting-edge programs, policies, and initiatives, they have helped to bring nearly three gigawatts of clean local energy online, which is enough to provide peak power to nearly three million American homes.