Greener power for Arcata? City would be first in county to join program seeking alternative energy deals
Arcata City Councilman Michael Winkler, also an energy analyst for Redwood Energy, explained that when residents opt into a CCA renewable energy program, they're not guaranteeing that their light bulbs and appliances are actually being powered by those renewable “green” electrons that they paid for. Rather, “you have certification that those green electrons are going into the (electricity) grid,” he said. Karen Diemer, Arcata deputy director of environmental services, explained there are two components of renewable energy. There's the actual energy itself, produced by something like a wind or solar farm. Then there are renewable energy credits, or certificates, that are paired with that power. They are like a “premium pricing” deal, she said, which encourages renewable energy production growth.
The eco-conscious city of Arcata is looking to latch onto a growing state and national trend called community choice aggregation, which seeks to broaden the energy choices available to local consumers.
”The drive is to get greener electricity, for hopefully about the same price,” said Jim Zoellick, who serves on the Arcata Energy Committee and is a research engineer at Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center.
If the effort succeeds, Arcata would be the first municipality in Humboldt County to implement such a program. In California, CCAs, as they are known, are mostly being run as countywide projects. Marin is the only county in the state with a CCA, but Sonoma, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obisbo, San Francisco and Monterey counties are all in the process of creating similar programs.
Outside California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and Rhode Island have municipalities with CCAs. Illinois has 237 CCAs alone.
The CCA system in California was enabled by Assembly Bill 117 in 2002. It allowed local governments to buy electricity for residents and businesses from wholesale markets – and it required PG&E to continue delivering the electricity over its existing distribution system. PG&E also must continue providing services like metering and billing. Customers have the choice to buy electricity from PG&E or the CCA.
”It’s a way for the community to have more choice for where their power comes from,”
He said the city has discussed it for “quite a few years,” and that Arcata had wanted to see how CCAs took shape elsewhere.
How it works
Arcata City Councilman Michael Winkler, also an energy analyst for Redwood Energy, explained that when residents opt into a CCA renewable energy program, they’re not guaranteeing that their light bulbs and appliances are actually being powered by those renewable “green” electrons that they paid for. Rather, “you have certification that those green electrons are going into the (electricity) grid,” he said.
Karen Diemer, Arcata deputy director of environmental services, explained there are two components of renewable energy. There’s the actual energy itself, produced by something like a wind or solar farm. Then there are renewable energy credits, or certificates, that are paired with that power. They are like a “premium pricing” deal, she said, which encourages renewable energy production growth.
The renewable energy credit, or REC, also provides proof for the customer – like the city of Arcata – that they bought the energy from a renewable producer like a wind farm. The credits can be bought and traded separate of the energy itself – another tactic used to encourage more renewable energy growth.
”You could either physically contract with a wind farm and buy that power,” Zoellick said. Or, a municipality could buy energy locally, renewable or not, and buy the renewable credits from somewhere else.
Diemer has mostly headed up the effort locally to create an Arcata CCA. She said there are several different ways the city could put into place such a program.
Arcata could team up with the already-existing CCA in Marin County. Customers there can already choose between a 50 percent renewable electricity program, which costs about the same as PG&E, or a 100 percent renewable program, which costs $5 to $7 more than normal PG&E rates, Diemer said.
They could also join a soon-to-be created Sonoma County CCA, which will at least initially offer a lower “renewable portfolio” to customers – about 33 percent. Arcata would piggyback on Marin or Sonoma’s existing infrastructure, which would make the CCA here easier to get off the ground, according to Diemer. The process of joining could take 12 to 18 months, she said, and could make purchasing energy cheaper.
One longer-term option is to create an independent CCA in Humboldt County. Diemer said she’d also like to exhaust any possibility of working with other local jurisdictions to create an independent CCA before Arcata makes the commitment to join either Marin or Sonoma. But even if the city did join the southern counties’ CCAs, Arcata could opt out eventually and integrate with a local CCA effort, once it got off the ground in five years or so, Diemer said.
The Redwood Coast Energy Authority has discussed the possibility of a CCA with Arcata for several years, she said. But she added that a countywide, independent CCA is likely to remain quite a ways off.
Finally, the city – with the help of a California-based company called Local Power, which helps cities develop local renewable energy sources – could opt for building a CCA gradually. The city could look at a neighborhood’s energy demands, for example, and install solar panels on roofs to meet the demand for alternative energies, Diemer said.
One possibility not yet being considered, she said, is for Arcata to create its own independent CCA as a city, by buying its own renewable power from elsewhere.
”It’s too large of a venture” for such a small community, Diemer said.
Arcata moves forward
Joining the Marin or Sonoma CCA seems to be the most realistic short-term option, both Diemer and Zoellick said. City council members also voiced support for those two options at the Dec. 19 meeting. Arcata Mayor Shane Brinton said he wants the program to be a priority in 2013.
Diemer said the city council’s goal is to have Arcata “CCA-ready” soon, so they could jump on board with Marin or Sonoma. If they do the pre-work, the city could “shop this with different CCAs.”
The pre-work that needs to be done includes measuring Arcata’s electricity “load” – things like how many customers might opt for the program, how much power is used on an hourly basis in the city and the city’s base and peak energy needs.
Adopting a CCA is popular among Arcata residents, Diemer said. “From all the meetings the energy committee has had, there is a lot of support,” she said.
Joining CCAs in Marin or Sonoma might not come without hiccups, though, she said.
”Would they allow Arcata to leave at a certain point in time?” Diemer said. If infrastructure is eventually put in place for Humboldt County itself to create its own independent CCA, she said, Arcata would naturally want to join that. And due to various longer-term energy contracts, it could be challenging to pull away from those deals.
A contract with either Sonoma or Marin counties would likely last a minimum of five years, she said.
”Someone’s got to step out in the lead (locally),” Zoellick said. “I applaud Arcata for looking at it as closely as they’re doing.”
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