The Future of Community Choice Energy in Santa Barbara

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Hannah Maerowitz

A recent study found that a Community Choice Energy (CCE) plan would not be economically worthwhile in Santa Barbara county. However, the Board of Supervisors and groups like Santa Barbara County Energy Choice and Central Coast Power remain committed to making such a plan work.

“I am not ready to throw in the towel,” said Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf at a Board of Supervisors meeting. “I don’t want us to stop the movement. CCE is good thing. It’s great for the community and the environment.”

Despite the results of a study that deems Community Choice Energy economically impractical in Santa Barbara County, its proponents argue that CCE would create jobs and allow consumers to choose greener energy. Furthermore, supporters claim that CCE plans do not increase residential utility bills.

Instead, the community choice model involves a tentative partnership between electricity companies and clean energy organizations. Community Choice Energy nonprofits claim to offer renewable energy prices that are competitive with what people are currently paying for their power. Subsidized by electricity bills consumers already pay, Community Choice Energy nonprofits do not use taxpayer money.

Nonetheless, many municipalities are skeptical and not ready to abandon their current power sources. Despite some healthy skepticism, CCE nonprofits currently serve approximately 5 percent of the American population, including nine other counties in California. Ten more municipalities are charted to launch programs in 2018.

Legislation passed in Santa Barbara makes it clear that renewable energy is a priority. Earlier this year, the city of Santa Barbara voted to work towards 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Still, the methodology of how to acquire and implement green energy in the city is far from definitive. With 28 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources, Santa Barbara is doing far better than the U.S. national average of 10 percent of energy consumed falling in the renewable category. However, the city still has a long way to go to reach carbon neutrality.

The community choice model is a relatively new option for consumers, with California’s first program being launched in 2010 in Marin County. Though the impact of a CCE option depends on the community it’s implemented in, Marin County has no complaints about the program’s economic viability.

In Marin County, one choice available to consumers is a clean energy package that promises itself to be 55 percent renewable and is slightly cheaper than Pacific Gas & Electric’s 33 percent renewable package. Since Pacific Gas & Electric still delivers the energy generated by clean energy nonprofits, they charge an extra fee for the energy generated by CCE organizations. Despite this extra fee, the 55 percent renewable energy package boasts a cheaper price tag than PG&E’s default package due to the reduced cost of electricity generation.

In Marin County, the 100 percent renewably-sourced Marin Clean Energy package is only slightly more expensive than PG&E’s default package, largely due to the added fee that PG&E charges. Marin County doesn’t seem to be an outlier in experiencing economic viability with CCE. Sonoma County, another early community choice energy implementer, has seen similar economic feasibility with the community choice model. Katie Davis, the chair of the Sierra Club, believes that CCE is “happening everywhere and Santa Barbara shouldn’t be left behind because of one faulty study.”

If Santa Barbara could achieve similar results, an implementation of a community choice energy model would substantially increase the likelihood of the city reaching its 100 percent renewable goal on target.

The model may be somewhat complicated by the fact that Santa Barbara County has two significant utility providers — Southern California Edison and Pacific Electric and Gas  —rather than just one. This could affect the pricing of power, which is an issue currently being explored in a feasibility report that will analyze the practicality of CCE in Santa Barbara County.

The city of Santa Barbara is partnering with Monterey Community Power and L.A. County, two other cities that have implemented CCE plans, to get a clear picture of what implementation might look like.

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