Interview with Lori Bilella, Ava Community Energy | CCAs, $4.5M Zero Emissions Trucking Project & LGBTQ ChallengesInterview with

Interview with Lori Bilella, Ava Community Energy | CCAs, $4.5M Zero Emissions Trucking Project & LGBTQ Challenges

From a $4.5M zero emissions trucking project with Forum Mobility, to virtual power plants, to contracting with Clearway Energy Group on a solar project involving Wartsila & NEXTracker, Ava Community Energy continues to track toward 100% carbon-free power by 2030. In fact, NREL recently named Ava, a community choice aggregator, one of the top green power providers in the U.S. In this Green Light episode, Catherine spoke with Lori Bilella, Director of Clean Energy Services at Ava, about the recent initiatives their team is working on, Lori’s prior experience at Soltage & Black & Veatch, as well as some of the challenges of navigating a career in clean energy as someone who identifies as LGBTQIA+.


Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me. They are the Director of Clean Energy Services at Ava in Northern California.

Lori: That’s right. Bay Area.

Catherine: Bay Area. Awesome. So thank you for joining me today. First, congrats on your new role at Ava Community Energy formerly East Bay Community Energy. Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your current role?

Lori: Sure. Thanks, Catherine. Thank you so much for having me here. It’s so exciting to talk with you about Ava today. So yeah, I’ve recently joined Ava at the end of last year. I’m, as you said, the Director of Clean Energy Services, which is such an exciting opportunity we’re doing such innovative things at Ava as a local Community Choice aggregator for Alameda County and now we’re moving into San Joaquin County. We’re doing incredibly impactful work right at the local level. And it’s really a dream of mine to be a part of this team. I’m overseeing a group of folks within Ava that are bringing innovative business models, if you will, to our customers, which might be a little surprising to hear that coming from a public nonprofit. But I think that really speaks to the innovative mentality that we have at Eva. We certainly offer traditional utility programs that you see in other utilities like incentive programs and other ways that we support our customers. Of course, our core business is we provide electricity to Alameda County and parts of San Joaquin County, but because we’re nonprofit, any excess proceeds that we generate, we can reinvest into the community to create benefits. And we do that in a lot of different ways. And I’m excited to talk to you about that today. My team specifically though, we’re really focusing on trying to help our customers electrify everything, which is a strategy to combat climate change and so we’re developing all sorts of innovative offerings around transportation electrification, renewable energy, battery storage, resiliency. And yeah, as I said, it’s a real dream to be leading this team.

Catherine: So you double majored in Mechanical Engineering and Science, Technology and Society. I’ve never heard of that degree. It sounds so interesting. With a focus in product development, I believe you then began working in solar sales and technical design right out of college. Did you always know that you wanted to work in clean energy like how did you make your way into the industry?

Lori: Yeah, for sure. I will say my undergrad degrees is kind of a blast from the past at this point, because at this point, I’ve been working in the solar energy industry for 20 years. I got into it while still in school and actually started working on some wind projects in undergrad. When I was in school, or the classes I took in science, technology and society. I first learned about the severity of climate change, which was kind of shocking in the early 2000s. It still hadn’t really made an impression on me until I got this class but really hearing about the work we had to do to really course correct all the work that’s been the damage that’s been done over the last Industrial Revolution. It became very clear to me that my life’s work and my purpose is to help with the fight for climate change. And so I was originally from New Jersey and after I graduated school, I wanted to go back to where I was from and believe it or not, at the time in the early 2000s, New Jersey had the second largest solar energy industry second to California, largely because of the renewable portfolio standard, which is the common very important mechanism that states use to create solar industries. And so when I graduated, I contacted all the solar energy industry, all the solar energy companies rather that I could get a hold of and offer my newly achieved engineering degree, and asked for a chance to learn about this important field. And thankfully, I got connected with a great small firm AE Solar, Dan Lickman, my first manager, boss and mentor, which I’ve been so grateful and lucky to have wonderful mentors throughout my career. And he really showed me the way and yes I started out in residential sales, going to people’s homes and putting up ladders and climbing on the roofs. And measuring them out and see what kind of solar we could put up there. This was actually one of my most rewarding jobs because then I could come down the ladder and sit at the kitchen table with my clients and explain to them how this stuff works and how it’s going to create benefits. For them and why they should care. Really shepherd them through the process. And I would say that really shaped the way I approached talking about this stuff and contributing to this field throughout my career because never have I thought of it as sales. Anything. I’ve been like a solar evangelist.

Catherine: You know, a true salesperson is though, like it’s just come natural, you know?

Lori: And we’re all in this together. And I think we continue to have that mentality within Ava to really combat climate change and course correct the way we need to, we all have to pitch in and do our part and you know, different organizations can provide different mistakes, help us collectively move along and I think at Eva we see ourselves or we want to become a trusted adviser to our customers to help them along this journey because our customers have to make decisions in their homes and their lives to support you know, the kind of tech and transformation we need to see, to combat climate change. And that’s, that’s a big ask. And so we are really uniquely positioned to help our customers along this journey and we really hope to build trust with our customers. To help them find the most useful way possible and the most fun way possible support this transition.

Catherine: Throughout your career, have there been any barriers you faced, like in it? And if so, like how did you overcome them?

Lori: No, thanks for that Catherine. I mean, I think coming up within my career, like any young professional I was always asking myself, How do I show up? How am I going to be professional, Lori? I think as a queer, non binary person, I had other elements of my identity that are more marginalized and I have less role modeling there that I definitely struggled with, how do I bring those pieces? I think I really attribute I said it previously, where I’ve been able to achieve what I have and get to where I have in large part because of wonderful mentors that I’ve had throughout my career that really invited me to bring my full self and to integrate all the parts of my life into just one Lori and bring that Lori to work because that’s the best Lori and that version of me really can provide the most value to anything I’m working on. And so while I do think that was a challenge, it’s become like one of the most rewarding challenges of my life because I’ve really learned how to weave all the parts of me into one person that whether I’m at work or home in the community with my friends, I’m the same Laurie and now being in a position where I’m leading a team. I’m a senior leader within an organization, I get the humble, valuable, rewarding opportunity to then offer that same invitation to those around me. And I can tell you from firsthand experience, I bring my best when I’m not distracted by all of these different pieces and parts of what’s allowed and what isn’t when I can just show up and focus on this incredible challenge that is solving climate change. I bring my best work and I want my team to do the same whether it’s you know, their their men or women or queer or people of color, it really doesn’t matter what it is, if there’s parts of them, that they haven’t been that there hasn’t been representation and they haven’t been invited to bring into work. I want to invite that all because that’s where we are right, and we need all of our parts to bring our best work. And so I’m very grateful for this challenge that I’ve had.

Catherine: Yeah, I think that’s really well said. You’ve previously worked for several solar companies, including Soltage, you also worked for Black Beach. Why did you decide to switch to Ava community energy like, which is a Community Choice Aggregator for people who don’t know like outside of California and like, what are you most excited about working on Ava this year?

Lori: Oh, no. Thanks, Catherine. Yeah, I’ve had such a rewarding career. I’ve really worked in all aspects of the solar energy industry. As I said, I started in residential. I moved into the commercial, industrial. When I was at Black Beach, I worked on some of the largest solar projects throughout the world. I’ve been able to work on commercializing and developing new technologies and products. I’ve traveled around auditing manufacturing facilities. I’ve really had such an interesting career and I’m so grateful to the solar energy industry. And I’m proud to say when I first got into it 20 years ago, it needed so much help. You know, we were really legitimizing a new technology. years ago, people didn’t think this was going to be able to solar was not going to be able to be a legit renewable energy generation source and now it’s growing and becoming one of the largest and it’s going to be it’s critical to the future of our energy, makeup. And so I guess, I felt like I kind of did the job that I set out to do. And yet, we’re still so far behind on achieving our climate change targets, right and so when I looked at what needs help now it became really apparent to me that electrifying everything is really a critical strategy that is kind of far behind. And you know, you can think about electrifying the transportation sector, which is you know, electric vehicles are just day to day cars, medium heavy duty trucks, to them, electrifying the built environment from like gas furnaces to heat pumps and induction cooktops instead of gas though that’s very controversial. People love their gas though.

Catherine: I switched to an EV last year.

Lori: Congratulations. They’re so fun to drive.

Catherine: And I do love my gas stove.

Lori: I do. Well, we’re gonna get everyone there a little and we can talk about some cool stuff we’re doing with induction cooktop stoves. But I think that so when I really wanted to focus in on electrification, I thought, who’s who’s really in a unique position to move the needle there and I felt that utilities really weren’t right because where utilities are sort of at the intersection of energy generation and energy procurement and really driving the demand for renewable energy. But then we’re also interacting with customers, right? And so we can use that relationship to help move our customers along the journey as well. And in particular, as I’ve said several times, is doing this work in a very, very innovative thought leadership type of way. Residential Alameda County. We wanted to work locally, I had the great benefit to work on a solar and battery storage policy for Alameda County, at my previous company at Soltage and I really got involved in what the public process looks like. And it’s hard and it needs people to jump in and be creative and try to bring solutions to the table and you know, ever being a public nonprofit that serves Alameda County and San Joaquin County. That is a utility. It was sort of the perfect place for me. A really exciting next step for me and my career.

Catherine: For those who aren’t familiar, can you explain what a Community Choice Aggregator is and why they’re important? And then also, I’d be interested to know more about the projects and programs that you’re taking into account in underserved communities within remit?

Lori: Absolutely. So Community Choice Aggregator as CCA is a local, nonprofit public agency that’s responsible for electricity generation within their service territory, essentially a public alternative to here in California investor owned utilities. That creates a lot of value for customers because our motivation is to maximize value for our customers, not maximize profits. And so with that we get to do all kinds of interesting things that directly benefit our customers, for example, are bright choice, renewable energy, or bright choice electricity product rather, that our customers can subscribe to? It consists of 50% renewable energy, and traditionally Historically, it’s been about 5% cheaper than PG&E, lectures, electricity products for our customers, and our product has a much higher component of renewable energy that is 30% compared to 50% in our product. We also have a renewable 100 product which 100% of the electricity is pure with that product. It consists of wind and solar. It’s marginally more expensive than the base rate of PF&E, but it’s an option for our customers. And that’s really I think one of the powers of CCA is we get to make these choices around the kind of energy we’re going to procure, that can be in more alignment with our customers values. They take that first and foremost. Another thing that we get to do as a CPA is any surplus profits from our operation we can put directly back into our customers and we’ve done that by directly sending them checks at the end of the year. And we just said many checks to our customers. I believe our care customers got around $50 checks at the end of the year, which was just us taking our profits and giving it to some of our most marginalized communities who need the most support.

Catherine: If my power company ever sent me a check. I would be so confused, right.

Lori: And I think our customers still are and you know that this conversation that we’re in constant development with our customers, like Who are we and why do we matter to you? And again, it’s building that trust and so I can tell you, it’s an ethos of Ava to create customer benefits and maximize the benefits to our customers. And I think the work that my group is doing is another example of the kind of benefits we provide our customers. So on the one hand, we have a team within the local development group, which is what my team is a part of, right ? We do incentives just like other utilities, right? We weren’t good. If you apply, we can send you checks to subsidize the costs of hot water heater or an E bike by example. And you know, we have energy efficiency programs at no cost to our commercial customers that we can go in and we can audit your facilities and come up with roadmaps for our customers to optimize their operations. I think that’s pretty typical of utilities. But then we’re doing really interesting things that my group is leading around the innovative business model perspective, or an innovative delivery model is probably the better word for it. Like our DC fast charging network, which is a really exciting project that we are spearheading with an Ava it’s been under development for several years, and we’ve come to a very exciting moment where we’re actually starting to develop out public DC fast chargers with our first one coming online later this year, and several more coming on throughout next year and the year beyond. And the theory behind that or the thesis of that was 40% of Alameda County residents are renters, about 37% of Alameda County housing is multifamily housing. And in both sectors, less than 10% of the people that live in those settings are registered EV drivers. So disconnect there. So through our research, obviously, the cost of electric vehicles are higher than gas vehicles and that’s not something that Ava can necessarily solve right now. But the second reason that people have a hard time adopting electric vehicles is access to charging. If you own a single family home, you could put a charger in your home and you could charge at home and then you get rid of that risk, but for residents of multifamily housing, which a big chunk of those are renters, they can’t just install that infrastructure. They have to rely on the building owner to do it, or the HOA to approve it, which is clearly not happening. Or they have to go out in the world and charge and if you look at you know, the current available public charging infrastructure, great. It’s low, it often doesn’t work. And then what do you do when you run out of charge? Gonna buy an electric vehicle in those circumstances. And so that problem is that that’s something we could help solve. So we entered into a very, very interesting, innovative agreement. It’s called a tolling agreement with private sector partners that are actually going to hear the equipment, develop our sites, install them and operate them on our behalf. And the sites are actually in our municipal customers, like public parking lots, and we’ve cited these sites in multifamily hotspots, if you will. So all of our chargers are going to be walkable to multifamily housing, or within one minute drivable to multifamily housing, and they’re surrounded by all sorts of amenities, local businesses, and they’re going to be well lit and they’re going to be safe. Within the contract we have other private developers, they’re going to be available most of the time. That means they’re going to be working when you go. And then at the nonprofit, the cost of electricity at the pumps, if you will, are going to be cheaper, because we don’t have to make a profit. We need to help people adopt electric vehicles. That’s our role. And so we’re actively developing this project. I’m super proud of this project. It’s first of its kind, and it’s a blueprint for other municipalities, utilities, any organization to follow, to help deploy this infrastructure faster and in a way that’s more reliable, that customers can trust and actually adopt EVs, which is really at the that’s a that’s our fundamental goal to help drive.

Catherine: I want to switch down to talking a little bit about NREL. So Ava continues to track toward 100% carbon free power by 2030. NREL was also named as one of the top green power producers in the whole country. Was Ava able to achieve this, what can other providers learn from you?

Lori: It’s a top priority for Ava to provide cost efficient, renewable power to our customers. You know, we actually have a target. That’s way, way more accelerated in terms of achieving 100% renewable energy than at the state level by 2030 to be 100% renewable energy that really speaks to our mission as an organization and again, alignment with our customers’ value. I mean, we represent East Bay, we represent San Joaquin County, these are areas where on some hands, it’s progressive thought leadership around adoption of renewable energy. It’s also areas that are exposed to incredibly dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. Within our service territory we have the Port of Oakland and the port of Stockton. And so we have all sorts of emissions. That creates risks for customers, right. And so we see this in two ways, right? We want to electrify everything, which is good for our customers’ health. It’s ultimately going to be lower costs, and we want to power all of those electrical devices with renewable energy, locally, where we can and more broadly, where we care. But because we are sort of at the current stage of things and also interacting with our customers. We can really provide turnkey solutions that provide maximum benefits to our customers and really have significant positive impacts around combating climate change.

Catherine: I wanna talk next about forum ability partnership? April recently provided four and a half million dollars in financing to Forum Mobility which is the zero emission trucks solution provider to support development. I mean, the electric truck charging depot in Livermore, California. Can you talk a bit more about this partnership? No new rules in California requiring zero fleets by 2035.

Lori: Absolutely. Thanks for asking this question. There’s some really interesting rules that have been passed in the state of California that’s going to heavily influence transportation electrification. The California Air Resources Board and August 2022 approved this landmark plan to end the sale of gasoline-only passenger cars and trucks in the state by 2035. So there’s also been the passage of the advanced Clean Fleets regulation, which basically means California needs to install Biblical amounts of charging infrastructure. Just one stat there is an average of 53 medium to heavy duty charges a day every day will need to be installed to meet this and after that. The average goes up to 200 a day for the next 15 years. This is something that just hasn’t been done before. And in some ways we get to pull on the lessons we learned in commercializing new technologies like the solar energy industry now here with electric vehicles. And so specifically with the forum, a lot of new technology that that requires.

Catherine: What I think of when you say that the first thing that pops into my head: Jobs!

Lori: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that’s a given right and I appreciate you raising it because there are a lot of jobs with electrifying everything. I think with Forum Mobility, one of the problems we were trying to solve there was helping to de-risk the new technology that was to be installed. We could do that through a very low interest loan, by reducing the cost of the capital. The assumptions on how the equipment is going to get used to recoup the investment don’t have to be as aggressive. That removes a barrier for developers to actually put up the capital, put up the effort and build these projects. One of the things that happens in a project like this, it’s kind of a build it and they will come mentality, the wait for medium heavy duty trucks, zero emission vehicles could be two years. So to meet the charging infrastructure that’s needed for those vehicles. We have to start building projects now even though there isn’t the vehicles aren’t on the road. For traditional investors that’s a scary scenario that most private sector investors are not going to want to put their money into. And Eva, being a community organization, one that wants to leverage our position within all of this to create safer, cleaner communities for our customers. We thought it was a really good use of the money we’re making for a project like this. That’s going to lead to playing lots of zero emission vehicles on highway corridors coming to and from the ports of Oakland and the port of Stockton. And that track was right through our communities, largely disadvantaged communities, marginalized communities that just because of where they live, they’re having a disproportionate higher exposure to these emissions. There’s so many levels of benefit by doing this. And it really is a great example of how Ava can uniquely contribute to solving some of these problems and accelerating the adoption of these technologies.

Catherine: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about – remiss that’s a word I use. Thank you, Lisa – I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the resource adequacy RA, which is quite a hot topic. Can you explain what RA is, some of the challenges CCA faced and meeting RA requirements and how Ava was addressing these?

Lori: So Resource Adequacy is essentially a tool that’s used to ensure that energy demands are met and how they’re needed. Ava has a whole energy procurement team that focuses on procuring our solar and wind and other resources to meet our customer loads and demands. And within that team, we have people specifically focused on resource adequacy. That’s additional utility, day to day operations. We have compliance requirements, we meet those requirements. We have year end planning and it’s pretty traditional stuff. I think what’s interesting to bring up with you, Catherine is that a lot of times resource adequacy is tied to peak demand, right? And if you look at the generation resources that are needed, or that are traditionally used to meet those demands, they’re some of the worst greenhouse gas emitting ones All fuel combined cycle, gas plants they operate in a particular way that you can turn them on, you could turn them off and they’re mostly sitting there other than meeting these demand moments. With the new technologies, especially with electrifying everything, and other innovations, such as virtual power plants, which I could talk a little bit about, are actually in a place right now where we can move away from that we can move towards a real scenario where we can power our grid with 100% renewable energy, especially here in California, where we just have an abundance of solar energy. What the challenge when it comes to resource adequacy is when we have the surplus generation of solar, it’s not at the same time of day when we have these peak demands. And so, one strategy that’s been used today is deploying bulk battery storage, right? You generate the solar energy, you don’t need it at that moment. You dump them into a battery and then at night when everybody comes home from work, you draw a battery and that’s how you can power this whole state with solar energy. Thing is, batteries are expensive to deploy just for this purpose. It’s really not any more efficient than deploying a combined cycle gas pump. And when we electrify everything, and we control it with Smart Controls, we don’t actually have to do that anymore. And so if you think about it, there’s a battery electric vehicle. We can actually use the batteries in electric vehicles to meet resource adequacy needs, and that is something that Ava is currently in the process of testing out. This is one of our most exciting initiatives. We recently had a bid out or distributed energy resource management platform and a managed charging provider specifically and that speaks to the electric vehicles. And basically what that system is going to do and it’s something we’re going to be testing out over the next couple of years and rolling out to scale ideally, over time, is every electric vehicle driver within our service territory, can opt into a program with us pay them do that, by registering in our program, we can send them a check every month or every year for their participation. To participate in the program. We’re going to ask them if they charge their car at particular times of the day that they don’t think or that they don’t write. In fact, we’re actually saying just click Print and we’ll handle the charging for you. When we can do that, you can actually put the batteries in these electric vehicles to absorb surplus solar generator of the day. And when people come home and they plug them back into the grid, we can take that battery storage and meet peak demands at night and then everybody goes to bed. You can charge those batteries back up with super cheap electricity and that is the the core components of what we would call a virtual power plant, and aggregate all of these different electric resources through control systems to buy the same function but in a very efficient and in a way that creates benefits for customers and they get paid to do it. And so it’s very exciting. You could take it a step further and you could also send signals of when to operate and we’re not operate with electrified so any kind of heat pump technology, smart thermostat, and we’re actively starting to work on that and Ava, which is really exciting. And again, it provides a blueprint to other utilities that we’re happy to share. So we can accelerate the adoption of these innovative technologies really speaking, to like the core of the things we need to do to combat climate change.

Catherine: Thank you so much for sharing all this with us. We really appreciate all the work that you’re doing within the industry, it’s fantastic.

Lori: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you highlighting all the great work that we’re doing in the field as well. Thanks for having me on the podcast today.