Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

They'd rather not discuss it



Community choice energy is about consumer choice, renewable energy, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and local energy generation instead of the utility model of coal, gas, and nuclear-generated electricity from afar. It means municipalities can fund building retrofits, transportation electrification, and energy efficiency programs. And all of that means local economic development.

Almost all the cities in SLO County have seen the light and signed up to provide a community choice program for their residents via Monterey Bay Community Power (MBCP). Those programs will go online in 2020 and 2021.

But not in Atascadero or the unincorporated areas of SLO County.

As New Times reported, both the county supervisors and the city of Atascadero declined to agendize a vote to join MBCP on July 9 ("Atascadero, SLO County won't join Monterey Bay Community Power," July 11).

"I feel like I need more information," Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi said.

This was also the ostensible reason why the council majority felt the need to delay agendizing discussion from the council's June 25 meeting to July 9, allowing for more time to research the issue—beyond the reams of information MBCP had already provided, and more reams the council could have solicited from the six cities in the county that have already studied the issue and elected to join, or from the 20 community choice agencies statewide that are serving more than 3 million customers.

It wasn't the county's first go-round with community choice evasion, either. The same supervisors who just declined to discuss joining MBCP terminated any exploration of the feasibility of a local community choice program last year.

Atascadero Councilwoman Fonzi also cited "developments at Clean Power Alliance in Ventura County where some high electricity demand customers are seeing increasing rates, putting participating cities/counties on their heels."

If the councilwoman needed "more information" on that, she could have asked Gina Goodhill, policy director for Clean Power Alliance (CPA).

"SCE [Southern California Edison] changed its rates three times between March and June," Goodhill said. "Unfortunately, this coincided exactly with CPA's start-up period."

Everybody's spidey sense should tingle whenever public officials give explanations that don't quite match up with their actions, so let's stress this point: Atascadero and the county did not debate the pros and cons of community choice, hear from the public, deliberate on the matter, and then vote against joining the regional program. They declined to even put it on an agenda, i.e., the means by which one would get more information. They voted to ensure that a vote could not be taken.

Our Sierra Club chapter has been banging the gong for community choice for more than a decade. Community choice programs have been up and running for years. Less than a year after starting in 2010, Marin Clean Energy customers were reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 70,000 tons—the equivalent of removing nearly 12,000 cars from the road each year—and 27 percent of all their energy was coming from renewable resources. Sonoma Clean Power saved its residents and businesses $13.6 million in its first year of operation. PG&E explained its decision to close Diablo Canyon this way: "There are several contributing factors, including ... the potential increases in the departure of PG&E's retail load customers to community choice aggregation."

That was three years ago. Local elected officials who bemoan Diablo's pending closure but still haven't gotten the memo on community choice energy and are actively refusing to put it on an agenda have made their communities into outliers as the rest of the state moves toward locally controlled renewable energy. That kind of demonstrated inability to read the handwriting on the wall raises a question: If you refuse to lead, should you be in a leadership position?

There are consequences when municipalities choose to sit on their hands when effective, proven measures to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable power are placed before them. (The Tribune recently spelled out one such local consequence: A looming era of extreme heat.) An elected body invoking a need for "more information" on community choice while making no move to obtain it is, in the words of the recently departed Ross Perot, just sad.

As New Times reported regarding Atascadero's stall, "Councilmembers Susan Funk and Charles Bourbeau ... wanted to see the issue agendized in August for a decision. 'Not to do so, it says we're not willing to do the homework that we were elected to do to make decisions for our city. That's going to be tough to defend,' Funk said."

Yes, that is a tough one. But it's a problem that can be fixed by a new City Council majority in Atascadero and a new board majority at the County Government Center. Δ

Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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