An energy revolution is breaking out in California and a few other states, one that could radically increase the amount of renewable energy available to citizens and end the tyranny of foot-dragging utilities. Outside of the rapidly falling costs of solar power, it’s just about my main source of domestic optimism these days.
I’m talking about community choice, or, in the horrid legalese, “community choice aggregation.” I’ve discussed it before in passing, but it’s starting to seriously catch on, so I want to take a closer look.
Say a town, city, or county is dissatisfied with the power it gets from its utility — it’s too expensive, or too dirty. One option would be for each municipality to leave its utility and form its own “municipal utility.” That has its advantages, but it’s a pretty huge step, since the municipality would have to take over not only power procurement but grid operation and maintenance, billing, customer service, etc. In many smaller towns, it’s not practical.
The other, emerging option is community choice aggregation, whereby a county or municipality takes over only the job of buying and selling power, leaving grid management and billing to the utility. It aggregates customers from every participating city, town, and county and uses their collective purchasing power to procure exactly the kind of electricity it wants.
The two main motivations to opt for CCA are cheaper power and cleaner power. At least to date, those two goals have not come into conflict. In most cases, CCAs get power that’s cheaper and cleaner than what they were getting from their utility. (Whether those goals conflict in the future will be of keen interest.)
CCA must be enabled by legislation and it has been in six states: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island. According to the website Local Power, which tracks these things:
Today, 5% of the U.S. population is under CCA service for electricity in 1300 municipalities, including well-known population centers like City of Chicago, Cincinnati, Cape Cod, Sonoma County as well as hundreds of less known small towns and rural counties. CCA formation by municipal ordinance or local election is allowed and provided for under state laws governing 25% of the U.S. electricity market.
California has been particularly on the ball. Marin County started the state’s first CCA program — it now serves 125,000 customers. Sonoma County has followed suit. San Mateo County is considering it; county supervisors just voted to do a study of the proposal. The mayor of San Francisco, who’s running for reelection this year, has reversed his previous opposition to the city joining a CCA. Now he says his only objection was that there wasn’t enough local power required!
Perhaps the most interesting battle is happening in San Diego. Whereas San Francisco represents only about 5 percent of utility giant PG&E’s customer base, San Diego represents over 40 percent of San Diego Gas & Electric’s. That’s a big chunk to lose!
CCA is a key part of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan, which among other things commits the city to a legally binding target of 100 percent renewables by 2035. There is effectively no way for it to hit that target if it has to accept whatever power SDG&E sees fit to buy for it.
There have been various efforts to kill CCA at the state level, some supported by the state chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), many of whose members work for utilities. The local San Diego chapter of IBEW, however, supports the city’s 100 percent renewables target. The fate of the San Diego’s climate plan, or at least CCA’s place in the plan, remains uncertain. It if did go through, it would represent something of a watershed for the CCA movement.