SANTA CRUZ – Santa Cruz County governments are exploring the possibility of setting up a local joint powers authority that would allow residents to buy more green energy, and could be a vehicle toward the county’s future energy independence.
With similar agencies operating in Marin County and being explored by a handful of other California regions, the nonprofit would replace PG&E as the supplier of its customers’ electricity. The company could pursue its own sources of wind, solar and other energy, perhaps one day even setting up its own green energy projects.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Gine Johnson, a member of the county’s Commission on the Environment and a former executive director of the Santa Cruz nonprofit Ecology Action.
“From a regional perspective, we could all work together to reach renewable portfolio objectives more quickly,” said commission chair Ross Clark, who also serves as the city of Santa Cruz’s climate action coordinator.
So-called community choice aggregation plans have been allowed under state law for a decade. Marin Clean Energy has been in operation since 2010, San Francisco’s is about to go live and others are exploring the idea.
Set up as joint powers authorities, the nonprofits give local power customers a choice – they could ditch PG&E as their power supplier, though PG&E still handles billing and maintains ownership of the electricity
But the San Francisco-based utility is no fan of community power, which threatens its customer base. In 2010, PG&E spent $46 million on an unsuccessful initiative that would have stifled community power agencies, though a spokeswoman said the company respects community choice aggregation and continues to cooperate with communities trying to implement them.
Setting one up is a key component of the county’s draft climate action plan and the city of Santa Cruz plan. Johnson said it makes greenhouse gas reduction and other goals reachable within a decade. The county’s Commission on the Environment will hear a presentation on the idea Wednesday.
Commission member Dan Haifley, executive director of the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, said it’s an intriguing idea but he’s not sure it would work. While a proponent of green energy, Haifley said he wants some questions answered first.
“It’s a complicated idea,” Haifley said. “I want to look at it more closely.”
Community power nonprofits make local governments players in volatile wholesale energy markets, a risk backers acknowledge. But they can also keep ratepayer dollars local, and foster job growth if the agency pursues local wind or solar projects.
“It has a huge economic multiplier effect for our community,” Johnson said.
The Environmental Protection Agency sees community power agencies as a way to not only reduce greenhouse gases but to save customers money, though that depends on the supply contracts the nonprofit pursues. They are allowed in just six states: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Rhode Island.
Dawn Weisz, executive officer of Marin Clean Energy, said her community created the nonprofit for environmental reasons.
“Really it was about greenhouse gas reduction and access to renewable energy,” Weisz said. “We saw a CCA program as a way to create an entity that could buy renewable energy.”
Marin Clean Energy serves 90,000 customers, and is set to jump the bay and begin offering services in Richmond. Weisz said that while the nonprofit does not owns its own power sources, new projects are being built as a result of a Marin Clean Energy contract, and the agency has options to buy those facilities down the road.
“We have buyout options on many of our contracts,” Weisz said.
Wednesday’s presentation will come from Shawn Marshall, a Mill Valley City Councilwoman and founder of LEAN Energy US, which works to expand local clean-energy programs.
Others also are exploring the idea. San Francisco has established an agency that intends to offer 100 percent renewable energy, which would likely come at a premium over PG&E rates.
Sonoma County also is weighing the idea, which appears to have the strong backing of the community. A survey completed earlier this year found that four in five respondents favored a locally controlled energy portfolio.
Johnson said the first step for Santa Cruz is completing its own feasibility study, which should clarify the viability of a locally owned power company.
“It’s actually a pretty exciting opportunity for our community,” Johnson said.