Stanford students work with East Palo Alto officials to evaluate a clean energy plan

Andy Karsner, left, with some of the students in the course Energy Transformation Collaborative, fall 2015. Clockwise from upper left: Tha Zin, Perry Simmons, Ryan Coakly, Ina Quimosing, Mia Bernardino and Laurel Mills. (Credit: Mark Shwartz)
Andy Karsner, left, with some of the students in the course Energy Transformation Collaborative, fall 2015. Clockwise from upper left: Tha Zin, Perry Simmons, Ryan Coakly, Ina Quimosing, Mia Bernardino and Laurel Mills. (Credit: Mark Shwartz)

When the East Palo Alto City Council took the final step toward joining a community choice energy program last week, it had the benefit of collaboration with Stanford graduate students behind its decision.

The graduate students worked with East Palo Alto staff to evaluate the possible benefits and risks of joining the nonprofit Peninsula Clean Energy (PCE). Programs like PCE allow local governments to pool the electricity demands of their communities, purchasing power with higher renewable content and reinvesting in local infrastructure.

The Stanford students were enrolled in a course last fall titled The Energy Transformation, taught by ANDY KARSNER, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and STEFAN HECK, a consulting professor with the Precourt Institute for Energy. They presented their analysis and a recommendation in favor of joining PCE to the East Palo Alto City Council in December. PCE hopes to supply San Mateo County residents and businesses with cleaner electricity at likely lower rates than PG&E.

“I think we were inclined to join, but it wasn’t certain. There were many doubts, questions and valid concerns,” said East Palo Alto City Manager CARLOS MARTINEZ. “The students clarified many of those questions and assessed multiple risks of joining. This work facilitated the city council’s decision to join.”

The four first-year graduate students on the class’s energy team – all studying civil and environmental engineering – faced a tight deadline. Cities in San Mateo County must join Peninsula Clean Energy by Feb. 29 to become founding members, which offers some advantages. By California law, cities must take several steps to join. And first the students had to convince East Palo Alto staff to take them seriously, gather and assess much information, and make a recommendation to city administrators and the City Council.

“We realized pretty quickly that Peninsula Clean Energy is going to happen,” said one of the students, PERRY SIMMONS, who is pursuing a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering. “Founding members get a seat on the board of directors, so East Palo Alto faced the opportunity from implementation to prioritize rate savings on behalf of low-income customers and later to advocate for solar power projects to be built in East Palo Alto.”

But while PCE promises electricity produced more renewably and at slightly lower cost than PG&E, the upstart cannot guarantee lower prices for years to come. That concerned East Palo Alto staff.

“We think that the risk of electricity costs rising is very, very small,” Martinez said. “I don’t know yet what the balance of lower prices and increased renewables will be, but we are confident that whatever they propose at the beginning will be lower. Otherwise, we have the option of bowing out.”

Simmons added that the students examined the risks and benefits of joining the program, while city officials were occupied with more immediate concerns. “They have so much to deal with every day to just make the city run. My eyes were opened throughout, and we all came to really care about the community,” he said.

East Palo Alto managers were skeptical that PCE could secure a better price than PG&E for the next 10 to 15 years, given the utility’s decades of experience managing risks. Today’s low prices for natural gas, which is used to generate a lot of electricity, make risk management seem easy.

“I was impressed that these engineers heard and addressed our financial and policy concerns,” said BRENDA OLWIN, the city’s finance director, who added that the students were creative about contacting industry experts to gather policy information.

The students stayed behind after the fall term ended to make their presentation to the city council. Perry and fellow students LAUREN SHWISBERG, TERRA WEEKS and THA ZIN, as well as teaching assistant ROB BEST, continue to work with East Palo Alto to implement other clean energy recommendations as volunteers.

DANIEL ARVIZU, consulting professor and former director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is teaching the Energy Transformation Collaborative during winter and spring quarters. The course is supported by philanthropic sponsors, the Stanford President’s Fund, the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, and the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Read the full announcement on the Precourt Institute website.