Supervisors vote to look into alternative energy sources for SLO County

San Luis Obispo County will work with Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as well as the city of San Luis Obispo to find ways to create more energy sources and possibly drive down electricity costs for ratepayers.

San Luis Obispo County supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to explore the feasibility of creating a Community Choice Aggregation program in the three counties. Under such programs, local governments buy electricity from a variety of sources and resell it to customers.

The vote followed a now-familiar split on the board. Supervisors Bruce Gibson, Adam Hill and Frank Mecham voted in favor of the program while supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton voted against it.

Consumers often save money because an aggregation program sells the energy to customers without the markups charged by traditional utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which currently has a monopoly in San Luis Obispo County, said Rob Fitzroy, county supervising planner.

“CCA programs expand the free market for energy by allowing jurisdictions to purchase energy from suppliers they choose,” he said.

Three aggregation programs are already in place in California in Sonoma and Marin counties and the city of Lancaster. Some 20 other jurisdictions are considering them, including Morro Bay.

The San Luis Obispo City Council gave its unanimous endorsement of working with the county to develop an aggregation plan in March. The council favored the concept as a way to possibly lower electricity rates and also to increase the amount of renewable energy the city can buy.

In voting for the program, supervisors agreed to spend $50,000 to pay for its share of the cost of performing a feasibility study to develop the details of the CCA program as well as analyzing its advantages and disadvantages. Gibson said the study would supply the board the information it needs to decide if it wants to officially move ahead with the program.

“I look at this as a good thing all around,” he said. “We have evidence on the table that a CCA is beneficial everyone in the community.”

Compton and Arnold cited several reasons for voting “no.” Compton objected to the fact that all residents of the county would be enrolled in the program whether they wanted it or not. Anyone wanting out of the program would have to request that. Compton wanted it the other way around.

Arnold said she needed more information before making a decision. She favored first working with San Luis Obispo to do a prefeasibility study that would not cost any money.

“To me this is not about not exploring choices; I am absolutely willing to do that,” she said. “I am really interested in that first prefeasibility baby step.”

The discussion drew nearly 30 public speakers, all but four of whom favored the aggregation program. They said aggregation gives energy customers more market choices with the competition driving down costs.

“Every Tea Party conservative should support this as much as every screaming liberal,” said Bruce Severance of Arroyo Grande.

Opponents objected to the creation of another government program and that ratepayers would be stuck with any unanticipated cost overruns.

“My feeling is that if something isn’t broke don’t fix it,” said Leslie Halls of San Luis Obispo. “This is kind of uncharted territory.”

For its part, PG&E is neutral on the subject and did not participate in Tuesday’s hearing. Spokesman Blair Jones said the utility would continue serving everyone in the county.

“At the same time, we respect the energy choices that are available to our customers and will continue to cooperate with local governments as they consider pursuing or developing a CCA program,” he said.

County planners estimate it could take until early 2017 to complete feasibility study.