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Posted on June 21, 2017

When It Comes to Innovation, EPRI Honors PG&E Rock Stars

By Jennifer Robison

Tasked with helping to keep PG&E at the cutting edge of an evolving energy industry, four employees rose to the challenge and earned nationwide honors for their efforts.

Jana Corey, J Henderson, Jason Pretzlaf and Jon Eric Thalman recently won Technology Transfer Awards from the Electric Power Research Institute, a Palo Alto-based trade group.

The four show how all PG&E employees could help transform the nation’s power system. To see how, start with their work.

Jana Corey and her team developed a plan to bring 7,500 EV chargers, similar to those at PG&E’s San Francisco offices, to locations across the company’s service area. (Photo by Jennifer Robison.)

Corey, director of Customer Care’s clean energy programs, earned recognition for her team’s work on plans to build charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

A separate award for advances in integrating energy storage into the grid went to Henderson, a supervising chemical engineer in Applied Technology Services; Pretzlaf, a senior consulting mechanical engineer in the San Ramon Technology Center; and Thalman, a strategic analyst in grid strategy and analytics.

EPRI’s Technology Transfer Awards recognize “power system leaders and innovators who have helped their companies deliver safe, affordable, reliable and environmentally responsible electricity” through research and development.

“The 2016 Technology Transfer Award winners have taken EPRI R&D to new levels in order to shape a sustainable energy system,” said Arshad Mansoor, senior vice president of R&D at EPRI. “Working in a collaborative environment, their advancements benefit their utility and the entire industry, because we all have a stake in power system transformation.”

For PG&E’s winners, the transformational focus was on clean energy.

Building EV infrastructure

For Corey and her team, the goal was to accelerate electric vehicle adoption and help California cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Nearly half of all emissions in the state come from transportation – whether it’s cars, buses or trucks – so promoting EVs could make a huge difference.

But EVs face two big barriers: high cost and limited charging stations. While the state is bringing vehicle costs down through rebates, California looked to energy companies including PG&E, whose service area is home to roughly 20 percent of the nation’s EVs, to figure out charging.

“After a while, you have to stop swinging wildly from one great idea to another and lock onto a specific plan,” Corey said. “We got to a point where we decided to pick one idea as our anchor. Once you have a stake in the ground, you can build around it, or even adjust it.”

What emerged was a turnkey approach to reduce the cost and complexity for site hosts to install EV charging. Under the proposal, PG&E would pay for the construction of charging stations and maintain the stations for 10 years. Businesses would only pay for charging equipment costs, and in return attract tenants and employees looking for a place to charge.

“We had to tell them, ‘This is why you want this, and we will manage everything,’” Corey said.

The team decided to focus on workplaces and multifamily dwellings — two segments where EV infrastructure has been slow to develop, but where access to charging is critical to growing EV markets. To determine program scope, PG&E leveraged EPRI modeling to gauge market demand for chargers in its service area.

PG&E also committed to building stations in disadvantaged communities — a market segment other developers might overlook – to boost access to affordable EVs in areas with high environmental or economic burdens.

Developing PG&E’s approach to deploying EV infrastructure required a diverse skillset, which meant tapping experts in financial modeling and charging technologies, as well as strategic thinkers, communicators and strong decision makers.

The teamwork and creativity paid off: Groundbreaking is scheduled later this year on the first of 7,500 charging stations built by PG&E that the California Public Utilities Commission approved in December. The groundbreaking will launch the nation’s single-biggest deployment of EV charging stations by a utility.

That huge commitment is partly why the EPRI took note, Corey said.

“PG&E was recognized for being very forward in the industry,” she said. “We are absolutely a model. Utilities from around the world call us about our proposal and how we will integrate our charging stations into the grid.”

But integration isn’t just for charging stations.

Storage complements renewable sources

California officials want half of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2030. PG&E aims even higher, looking to clean energy for 55 percent of its generation portfolio by then.

The key obstacle to meeting those standards is intermittency. Solar power is available only when the sun shines. Wind turbines spin only on breezy days. The answer is to find ways to store renewables for later use.

PG&E's J Henderson, Jason Pretzlaf and Jon Eric Thalman were recognized for advances in integrating energy storage into the grid (pictured: the Vaca-Dixon battery energy storage system in Vacaville).

Enter Henderson, Pretzlaf and Thalman.

PG&E wanted to develop battery storage. But making it work would require a new regulatory structure, changes in the marketplace and nonexistent information technology.

“There were a lot of uncertainties,” Thalman said. “How do you get regulatory approvals? Also, battery storage isn’t a passive device, so you need to develop communications systems.”

The team addressed those issues with PG&E’s two-megawatt Vaca-Dixon battery energy storage system in Vacaville, and the four-megawatt Yerba Buena system in San Jose.

They worked with the California Independent System Operator, which oversees most of California’s grid, to change minimum thresholds for power purchases from 30 megawatts to the far smaller capacities of battery storage.

On the IT side, the team had to find ways to allow two-way communication between battery system and grid while maintaining cybersecurity. The goal was to give CAISO electronic access to a resource residing within the physical and electronic security perimeter of the Vaca-Dixon substation and fully automate its market participation – a notion that met with early resistance.

Pretzlaf recalled bringing together teams from transmission, distribution, IT and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) to find a “scalable and sustainable solution.”

Today, the battery systems are active grid contributors. And as with EV charging stations, PG&E’s efforts are guiding other utilities.

“Without these projects, development of battery energy storage systems would be a lot slower,” Henderson said. “We can help pave the way, work out the bugs and help vendors understand our needs better so that adoption is faster and more consistent within the energy industry.”

To achieve such goals, innovation must be part of a team’s culture, Thalman said.

“A lot of people’s initial reaction is, ‘I don’t want to do that. It’s going to be a headache.’ You have to work with people to help them see a vision of what is possible. If you have a common goal you can show them, they will want to work with you. It’s really easy for people to put up obstacles. When they do, don’t accept it. Just keep asking, ‘What will it take to get it done?’”

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