Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

Use the force

California's climate and energy goals vs. the California Public Utilities Commission



On Nov. 7, six members of the public attended the inaugural meeting of the board of directors of Central Coast Community Energy at San Luis Obispo City Hall.

You should've been there. The four-member board, in the course of a quietly undramatic one-hour meeting, saved from oblivion what will likely prove to be the most consequential regional program since the Nacimiento Pipeline.

Specifically, they took fast action to put their fledgling Community Choice Energy program under the larger, established umbrella of Monterey Bay Community Power. Without that umbrella, the newborn SLO program would wash away in a storm, courtesy of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Few stories of grassroots action succeeding against overwhelming corporate odds are as inspiring as the saga of Community Choice Energy in California. From a single spark—Assembly Bill 117, which in 2002 gave any city or county the authority "to aggregate the electrical load of interested electricity consumers" and "become administrators for cost-effective energy efficiency and conservation programs"—there have now arisen 20 such programs statewide.

AB 117 also called for a fair and competitive playing field for Community Choice programs, Community Choice advocates fought off toxic bills, terrible ballot initiatives, and the bottomless spending and unfair business practices of private utilities seeking to preserve their 100-year grip on the way energy is produced and distributed.

Fighting back has been imperative because, as San Francisco organizer Eric Brooks puts it, "Community Choice is by far the most powerful mechanism for rapid renewable energy adoption in California, and most California cities, when enacting their clean energy goals, have stated clearly that they cannot reach those goals without Community Choice."

Early on, like Mr. Skywalker and his friends, Community Choice advocates managed to stay one step ahead of the imperial fleet of the private energy utilities and their allies in the state Legislature who sought to crush the rebels. Whenever the first stirrings of a Community Choice program appeared on the radar anywhere in the state, the empire would rain down a saturation campaign of fear to eradicate any hint of rebellion.

This wasn't a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; it's still happening, right here, right now. The direct industry attacks on Community Choice have shifted to the arena of the California Public Utilities Commission, which many governors have spent decades stacking with fossil fuel and utility-friendly commissioners. Now that Community Choice is working and providing lower rates, more subtlety is required. Instead of monopoly utilities trying to strangle the baby, the CPUC is attempting to suck its blood with the judicious application of leeches.

In December 2017, the commission tried to stall the formation of new Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) programs. Last month, it approved an alternate proposed decision (APD) for a power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA). In English, this means that investor-owned utilities paid too much for energy contracts back in the day and now want departing Community Choice ratepayers to help make them whole through excessive catch-up charges. Upshot: CCA becomes infeasible for many residential customers. The added cost to San Francisco's program is expected to be $50 million.

"Because the PCIA ratchets up over future years and utilities get absolved for contract mismanagement in perpetuity, PCIA poses definite threats to CCA financial competitiveness and institutional viability," says Ed Mainland of Sierra Club California's Energy/Climate Committee.

Some good news: Monterey Bay Community Power (MBCP) has stated, "The alternate proposed decision voted in by the CPUC will increase costs for MBCP, not for customers. MBCP is dedicated to never cost more than PG&E. MBCP's customers will receive their 3 percent savings rebate on electricity generation for 2018, and an expected 3.3 percent savings for 2019."

On Dec. 5, Monterey Bay Community Power's policy board will vote on whether to offer SLO and Morro Bay (for starters) safe harbor and swear them in as new members. Fingers crossed.

The existential threat to California's plans for clean energy and reduced carbon emissions is the CPUC, which has become the Death Star for Community Choice. Legislative remedies are needed. There have been noises made about reforming the CPUC in recent years, mostly in response to the extreme coziness between the commission and PG&E exposed by the San Bruno pipeline explosion. But no amount of commission presidents booted and replaced will change the corporate culture of the CPUC as an agency that currently exists to make life easy for California's utilities and very hard for any entity that has the temerity to compete with them.

If Sacramento's new legislators are looking for a good cause, here it is.

(Help us, Gavin-wan. You're our only hope.) Δ

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

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