Last month, Solana Beach announced the hunt for a service provider to help launch the county’s first local power program, which aims to curb greenhouse gases. This month, a war on community choice aggregation, as it’s called, could begin.
“San Diego Gas & Electric has decided it wishes to lobby or market against [community choice aggregation]” is how the California Public Utilities Commission puts it. On July 14, after a long review, the commission decided to delay the decision for one month in order to review concerns raised by opponents of the proposal.
If approved, SDG&E would be the first utility to form an independent marketing division to campaign against community choice plans. The cities of Del Mar, Solana Beach, and San Diego, all considering a local energy program, sent letters to the CPUC protesting it.
Under community choice, utility companies still deliver electricity and collect fees, but cities or counties set rates and buy the energy, which can mean more renewables, such as solar, wind, and hydropower, on the menu. And savings, too.
Before proceeding, Solana Beach completed a technical study based on load data received from SDG&E. It found the city can do better than SDG&E’s current 35 percent renewables and also cut costs, says Solana Beach city councilmember, Lesa Heebner.
“The most important finding is that it is feasible to provide 50 to 75 percent clean energy to our community at a discounted price to current SDG&E rates, as well as an economic benefit to the city,” she says.
According to the study, if Solana Beach surpassed SDG&E’s renewable offerings, raising it to between 50 and 100 percent, it would be like “removing the equivalent of 1,900 to 7,700 passenger cars a year.”
Statewide, there are now four regional energy programs, and they’ve been shown to reduce rates and boost renewables.
But as other cities weigh the costs and benefits, they may be swayed against it. Utility companies have years of experience managing the grid. The City of San Diego, with its large customer base and sky-high goal for carbon-cutting — to get all of their power from renewable sources by 2035 — has a study underway.
“Solana Beach is creating the template for other cities in our region to offer this same opportunity,” says Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign, who helped write a draft of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan, including the goal for 100 percent renewables.
Heebner says their own 100 percent renewable option would not be at a discount to SDG&E, but customers could be given the option “for a monthly fee if they so desire.” Solana Beach is one to two years ahead of other North County cities now considering a local energy program, Heebner says, but they could eventually form a joint-powers authority.
“We asked those who submit proposals to include an option to add others into our [community choice aggregation] or morph it into a [joint-powers authority]” in the future. The group they select would make the energy purchases. “The council will most likely set some parameters before we sign a contract,” she says. “And the council will have independent experts advising them “all along the process.”
But the new program still faces uncertainty as it takes shape.
“Solana Beach is a very small city in the region, with a small total load, but they may still target us,” Heebner says of the utility’s independent marketing unit. “We will be moving forward slowly and carefully, weighing all factors before making this decision.”
The next step would be community workshops to inform homeowners and businesses and take their input, she says. “Our approach will be to educate our community and let them choose.”
In its application to the commission, SDG&E cites a similar goal, saying they only want to provide customers with all the options and views on community choice. The utility told the state public utilities commission it doesn’t know what form the marketing will take — that will be up to the marketers at Sempra Services Corporation, who won’t be allowed to discuss the plans with them.
Since utilities are barred from using ratepayer dollars to lobby against public energy programs, SDG&E, owned by Sempra Energy, will rely on shareholder funding for its marketing arm.
Capretz sees it as an unequal playing field.
“There is no way cities or families have the resources to compete against the unlimited dollars of a Wall Street corporation.”
(corrected 7/15, 5:20 p.m.)