Executives with community choice aggregators say their focus on "community" has been tested and demonstrated as their organizations respond to public-safety power shut-offs and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Girish Balachandran, CEO of Silicon Valley Clean Energy, and Nick Chaset, CEO of East Bay Community Energy, explained the challenges their respective organizations have faced since mid-March and how they have adapted to best help their customers and communities.

Their remarks were provided as part of "CCAs and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impacts and Responses," a May 19 webcast sponsored by The Climate Center and Clean Power Exchange.

 "How CCAs respond to community needs . . . that crystallized after the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County in 2017," Woody Hastings, energy program manager for The Climate Center and the panel's host, said. That choice and local control are inherent aspects of CCAs makes them "able to respond to any kind of calamity," he said, adding that CCAs are now offering a wide array of new programs as part of their COVID-19 response, including bill deferments, credits for California Alternate Rates for Energy and Family Electric Rate Assistance customers, and donations to local community-based organizations.

Balachandran said when CCAs offer relief, they need to balance multiple goals and be "mission-aligned." SVCE's $10-million Customer Relief and Community Resiliency fund is designed to support the needs of its CARE and FERA customers, local small businesses, contractor workforce and member communities.

In addition to preparing for PSPS events through energy resilience, the funds will be allocated for specific assistance in response to the pandemic. This includes $3.5 million in customer bill assistance for residential and small business customers; $1.5 million for contractor training, which also includes incentives for installing electrical appliances in workplaces to support SVCE's decarbonization efforts; $1 million for community resiliency planning grants; and $4 million for capital support of those plans. Another $2 million is set aside for contingency funding so changes can be made to the programs as needed, Balachandran said.

EBCE was able to redirect $1.5 million in funds immediately to community needs, Chaset said. Some of the funding was freed through canceled marketing and outreach programs, including an induction-cooking demonstration series in local restaurants. The funds were allocated "in four different ways," he said. These included investments in clean energy and infrastructure and continued job creation as well as $1.1 million in donations to EBCE's 12 member jurisdictions' relief efforts.

The CCA also made $110,000 in grant funds available to purchase personal protective equipment for first responders and front-line workers, and was able to secure matching donations from partners for Meals on Wheels and area food banks. It also made grants to area organizations through funds secured through provisions in a power-purchase agreement with Clearway (see related story).

Both executives gave their assessments of how COVID-19 has affected demand.

Balachandran said SVCE has seen load-decrease patterns similar to those across California—residential demand up, small business and commercial demand down. "But these impacts are tough to forecast," he said, adding that he anticipates disruptions may "last between one to two years before we're back to a normal demand shape."

He added that SVCE expects to see some financial issues related to not disconnecting customer accounts for nonpayment, "but fortunately we have very strong reserves."

Chaset said he thinks experts have been "overstating the [demand] reduction." Many of the assessments to date have not accounted for weather. "We had a mild end of March," he said. "When the data is normalized, the drop in demand is not as significant."

Chaset said "some of the load changes are now reverting to the normal range. You have to ask yourself, 'Is it some change of behavior or is it behavior and weather?' Weather is the driver of how much energy people use in the short term."

With the next fiscal year's budget for EBCE forthcoming, "one of the big challenges is how do we account for lots of load uncertainty?" Chaset said he expects a 5- to 6-percent "persistent load decrease," but as businesses start reopening, there will likely be a load increase. "We, for one, have taken a very conservative approach," which he said is "a theme with a lot of CCAs."

Both executives reiterated that the CCA model allows each organization the ability to listen to the priorities of local governments and respond to those different priorities and needs. That CCAs are "close to their communities and agile" provides consumers with a targeted and focused value very different from "the one-size model of a few years ago," Balachandran said.