Community Choice Aggregation gives local energy a chance
Come June, the public will be let in on a secret. It's the secret to buying and selling renewable energy at a competitive price.
Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) is a local government-run electricity program that operates as a nonprofit entity, according to the Santa Cruz County Commission on the Environment. CCA agencies can aggregate local, renewable resources generated in a consortium of counties and cities and sell it back to these districts, which form a joint powers authority.
Currently, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has a virtual monopoly on energy distribution, as well as generation, in California. A CCA brings a new player into the marketplace, tailored to local resources and needs. This empowers local renewable projects to start up; they otherwise could not do so while remaining economically competitive.
This means, for example, a business could install solar panels and sell any excess power produced back to the CCA for credit, and essentially profit from the transaction. The CCA agency would sell the energy it buys from largely, but not exclusively, local producers to the communities of the consortium. PG&E does not currently subsidize projects like this.
When first initiated, community members are automatically signed on with the CCA agency, and have four chances to opt out of the program.
"It's the only way it will work," says Ross Clark, climate change action coordinator of the City of Santa Cruz, which could be part of a potential Monterey Bay CCA along with the rest of the county. "A small CCA doesn't have the marketing and advertising capacity to draw customers in ... I think that's a fair way to do it. It's not mandating that you are part of it, but for people that don't care, they become part of the district."
June marks the month when Gine Johnson, leader of the Project Development Advisory Committee (PDAC) for the Monterey Bay CCA—also the former executive director of Ecology Action—will invite the community into the conversation with the first public meeting, which may become a monthly event. There, she and the PDAC, which has been around informally for about a year and consists entirely of volunteers, will go over what the Monterey Bay CCA proposal is, answer questions, and finally gauge whether or not the community is interested.
It's a conversation that began almost a decade ago but has never made it to the public stages. According to Santa Cruz Councilmember Cynthia Mathews, the idea for a CCA was brought to the city council once before, about eight years ago, when she was also a councilmember.
"At that time there were not successfully functioning examples in other communities and we felt, for a variety of reasons, that the city didn't have the resources to be the beta version, to develop it all on our own," Mathews says. "We expressed interest at that time, saying that we wanted to revisit it when the idea was further along ... That time has clearly come."
California originally voted up CCA in 2002, and in 2010 Marin County became the first CCA in the nation "committed to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and increased use of renewables," according to the Local Energy Aggregation Network Energy U.S.'s website.
PG&E is, of course, less than excited about the multiple studies into CCA that have sprouted across California—not to mention the five other states that have passed legislation legalizing CCA—because CCA detracts from their core functioning as a generator, and brings them in solely as a partner for distribution—or transmission—purposes.
"We've got to continually keep the dialogue open with PG&E as we go through this process because, yes, this will impact their bottom line in this community if we were to move forward," Johnson says. "We want them to be our partner.”
But PG&E is less than cooperative. Although Marin is still the only fully functioning CCA in California, the company foresees many more on the horizon and does not plan on handing the power over without a fight. In 2010, the utility company backed Proposition 16, which would have made it harder for CCAs to develop. Under the proposition, which lost at the ballot by a 52.2 percent margin, development of a CCA agency would have required a two-thirds majority vote in any one agency's area.
"It would be helpful to have them as a partner opposed to an entity that we have to negotiate [with] on less than partnership terms," Clark says.
According to Marin Energy Authority, the CCA agency formed in Marin, more than 80 percent of their community now chooses local power over PG&E. "Marin has shown it is feasible," Clark says. "What we're looking at is how we can make it work for our residents and businesses."
But before it can be implemented, it must be studied. CCAs are still a relatively uncharted area, and a feasibility study must be done for the Monterey Bay region in order to assess local needs and goals.
Johnson says the Monterey Bay CCA feasibility study will be under way once she and PDAC receive enough funding through donations made to the Community Foundation, although no funds have been raised as of yet. She is hoping the business community will have enough interest in the project to donate. Her goal is $150,000, a tall order given that she hopes to see the tangible study by 2014.
Clark says one potential obstacle to the formation of an agency is that the proposed Monterey Bay CCA not only includes Santa Cruz County, which has shown full support, but also San Benito and Monterey counties, which largely have not signed on. While a CCA formation would benefit from a larger participating region to keep rates competitive—the more people involved and the more projects created, the higher the likelihood that a customer’s bill won’t be much higher with the CCA than it would with PG&E—the proposed tri-county area means there are different needs, industries and populations to reckon with, says Clark.
"It's a hurdle that's not unsurpassable but it's something that needs to be recognized," Clark says.
The feasibility study will look at risks, mitigations for possible risks, and potential opportunities for energy generation locally.
Clark says there is significant economic growth potential with green jobs, infrastructure jobs, and simply saving on transporting energy from farther away, and he hopes the fundraising amount currently set out will be achievable.
But this is not the only expense on the horizon. Once the feasibility study comes to fruition, and if it deems Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties to be a viable place to have a CCA agency, areas that have already signaled support may be asked to help fund further steps.
Since January, CCA has made its way to meeting agendas in local governments. Johnson and PDAC have sought and received written support from all local governments in Santa Cruz County and the county itself.
"They're expensive steps," Johnson says. "But we don't know what the startup costs are until we've done the study."
The future is murky, but for Johnson, it is exciting as well.
"We are studying something and don't have all the answers, but it's a really great opportunity for our community to figure it out. Someone's done it and they've done it successfully," Johnson says. "Let's see if we can do that for ourselves."
For information on the first public meeting, to be held Thursday, June 6 at the Santa Cruz County Office, visit montereybaycca.org.
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