SLO County supervisors hit new low with rejection of Community Choice Energy

Community Energy Choice programs typically get much of their power from clean energy sources, such as wind and solar. This 2008 file photo shows an array of wind turbines near Palm Springs.
Community Energy Choice programs typically get much of their power from clean energy sources, such as wind and solar. This 2008 file photo shows an array of wind turbines near Palm Springs. AP

On Tuesday, county supervisors voted to file and forget a feasibility study on the establishment of a Community Choice Energy program.

In so doing, the board majority set a high bar: They are going to have to work hard for the rest of the year to come up with a vote that can wrestle away the prize for their most inexplicable, indefensible and reactionary vote of 2018.

It was a vote that exposed this board’s biggest problem — which is not a lack of harmony, comity, tactfulness or etiquette. It’s the sharp divide over serious policy issues of critical importance to all residents of the county, and, time after time, the failure of three supervisors to grasp those issues, choosing instead to adopt “status quo” as the answer to every question.

But even with the record they have created, the “no action” Community Choice vote by Supervisors Lynn Compton, Debbie Arnold and John Peschong stands out as a failure to address looming problems, out of step with the rest of the state and marking an accelerating slide into the past.

As SLO Clean Energy succinctly put it in a Tribune Viewpoint the day before the board met: “Localizing control of energy purchasing decisions and energy-related revenue reinvestment decisions via CCE is one of the single most impactful actions county supervisors can take at this moment.” It would be “proactive, practical, and frankly, obvious.”

Diablo Canyon is going to close. The local economy is in urgent need of diversification and a source of new revenue, and fast. Community Choice is it.

Supervisors Gibson and Hill pointed out that their colleagues’ vote was ideologically motivated, but did not penetrate to the heart of the mystery. Both marveled at the ideology that could accommodate the whiplash-inducing, anti-competitive, anti-free market, anti-local control, monopoly-defending positions staked out by the board majority while proclaiming they were doing the opposite.

Let us count the rationales, and appropriate responses:

▪ A Community Choice Energy program is too financially risky.

Here’s the Local Energy Aggregation Network, a non-profit organization that works with local governments to assure the formational and operational success of Community Choice Energy Programs based on the state’s Community Choice Aggregation law: “California’s first CCA, Marin Clean Energy, was launched in 2010 to serve customers in parts of Marin County. The program that was once branded as a ‘risky scheme’ has proven to be economically viable and has expanded its service territory and its roster of programs and services.”

▪  It’s too new.

Supervisor Peschong said he understood that “a few groups are trying to make this work.” Supervisor Compton said “If this takes off, I’m willing to re-take a look at it.” Both pretended this is 2009. They know better: In addition to Marin County’s seven-year track record, Community Choice Energy programs are up and running in Sonoma, Mendocino, San Mateo and Humboldt counties, and in Lancaster and San Francisco. By the end of this year, eight more will launch, covering the cities of Davis, Solana Beach and San Jose, and Contra Costa, Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz, Placer and Yolo counties.

Fourteen more local governments from San Diego to Butte County, including the city of San Luis Obispo, are in the process of exploring how to set up their own CCAs. (The day before the board meeting, the city of SLO invited the county to partner with them. Invitation declined.)

▪ A study said it wouldn’t work here.

A feasibility study found Community Choice to be economically infeasible as a tri-county program encompassing San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties because this would straddle the service areas of two utilities.

But the feasibility study also found a CCA to be very likely feasible, and very much worth further exploration, within PG&E’s service area, i.e. San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara Counties.

▪  CCE programs are structured with an “opt out” option instead of an “opt in” option.

The horror!

Nobody ever had the choice of “opting in” to PG&E, right? Or the option to do anything else?

▪ A CCE program represents government control of energy.

It would mean oversight by local elected local government officials, as opposed to the current control of energy by unelected utility executives in San Francisco, and state-appointed officials of the California Public Utilities Commission — the folks who denied SLO County’s hoped-for $85 million in mitigation funds for Diablo’s closure. Just saying.

That was the gist of the arguments by the board majority, on their way to “no.”

Supervisors Gibson and Hill pointed out that the issue before the board was not whether to establish a CCE program for the county, but whether to direct staff to further explore the fiscal specifics of doing so. Both were incredulous that Compton, Arnold and Peschong were essentially telling county staff “We don’t want to get more information,” and telling the citizens of this county “We don’t want you to have a choice.”

We share that incredulity. So should we all.

Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

What is Community Choice Energy?

A state law passed on 2002 gave California cities and counties the ability to buy and sell electricity. Community Choice Energy (also referred to as Community Choice Aggregation) allows local governments to leverage the purchasing power of their residents and businesses to buy and/or generate power for their communities.

When a CCE program is formed, the provider purchases the electricity, which often includes renewables like wind and solar power, and sets the rates. The existing utility company continues to deliver electricity purchased by the CCE provider over its power lines and provides metering, billing and other customer services.

Source: San Luis Obispo County staff report