California ‘community choice’ energy program takes a hit

The community choice aggregation (CCA) movement has built considerable momentum in California in recent years. In CCA programs, groups of local government agencies team up to take over decision-making on what sources of power to use in the local electric grid – with utilities continuing to hold responsibility for maintaining the grid. 

CCA advocates contend that not only will this lead to use of more environment-friendly types of energy, it will bring down rates for businesses and households by creating competition for utility companies that often have no rivals. Critics say decisions on what types of energy are used are already mostly dictated by state laws requiring a long-term shift to cleaner renewable energy sources. They also question whether local governments have the necessary expertise for the responsibilities they are taking on.

But since the state’s first CCA, Marin Clean Energy, was launched in Marin County in 2010, the programs have proven popular and kept expanding. Nineteen programs serving 10 million of the state’s 40 million residents have been established.

Last week, however, saw the first major bad news for CCAs in years. The Ventura County Star reported some of the local governments in California’s largest CCA – the Clean Power Alliance – were unhappy enough with the cost of power for street, highway and outdoor lighting that they had opted to return to Southern California Edison to provide that power.

The backlash is limited. The alliance includes Los Angeles County, Ventura County and 30 local cities. The cities of Ventura, Camarillo, Moorpark, Oxnard and Thousand Oaks have taken steps to limit their reliance on the alliance, and at least two other cities are considering the same step. They must give six months notice. 

Edison blamed for defections from Clean Power Alliance

Most member agencies are satisfied, with many choosing to use the 100 percent clean energy option provided by the alliance even if it carries a cost premium of 7 percent to 9 percent. 

Alliance leaders blame the defections on pricing decisions by Edison that they say were attempts to punish their CCA’s members. Edison said all its decisions had been ratified by the state Public Utilities Commission in a transparent process and challenged claims that the utility subsidized some customers at the expense of others.

But as cities are squeezed by the cost of pensions and look to save money wherever they can, the decisions made by Ventura, Camarillo, Moorpark, Oxnard and Thousand Oaks could be copied by other local governments. And while the cities are retaining use of the Ventura-L.A. CCA for most of their energy accounts, the street, highway and outdoor lighting accounts are among the biggest of all in terms of total bills, and thus most coveted by CCAs. 

Nevertheless, the news continues to be mostly bright for CCAs. In February, the San Diego City Council voted to begin negotiating on establishing a CCA with other local governments. San Diego would be the largest city in the nation with a CCA. The cities of Carlsbad, Chula Vista, Del Mar, Encinitas, La Mesa and Oceanside have expressed interest in joining the regional initiative.

Large utilities split on how to deal with CCAs

The decision was made easier by the surprising decision of the giant investor-owned San Diego Gas & Electric utility to welcome a new era in which it runs the regional grid but others choose energy sources. The utility disclosed in November that it hoped for state legislation “that would allow us to begin planning a glide path out the energy procurement space.” Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have been far cooler to the CCA movement.

In another sign of CCAs’ acceptance as part of the California energy landscape, in May, Moody’s gave Peninsula Clean Energy aninvestment-grade credit rating. Peninsula serves 300,000 accounts in the Bay Area.

Only one other CCA has such a high rating from Moody’s: the Marin program that launched the movement in 2010. It has about 255,000 customers.