County Supervisors wait on community choice energy study

County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar
County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar
(Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Despite many public comments in support, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors opted not to go forward with a feasibility study on community choice aggregation (CCA), instead voting to wait a year and see how other cities’ and jurisdictions’ studies progress. Currently the cities of San Diego and Solana Beach are conducting studies on CCA and the cities of Del Mar, Encinitas and Oceanside are also considering community choice energy.

A CCA program allows local governments to buy and sell electricity generated by renewable resources while the utility continues to deliver power through the grid, maintain the grid and provide other customer services. Entities who have CCAs in operation include Marin County, Sonoma County, Lancaster and San Francisco.

The study was estimated to cost $200,000.

In choosing not to support the study, Vice Chair Kristin Gaspar said none of the supervisors are against the concept of cleaner energy and competitive energy rates.

“There are many jurisdictions in the feasibility process stage. There are fewer jurisdictions that actually have implemented and have a CCA operational, so in my view the CCA is still in its infancy compared to where it will be over the next few years,” Gaspar said. “What’s the rush? Let’s get it right and not rushed.”

Gaspar said there are times when being a trailblazer is of clear value but there could also be value in waiting. By waiting, she said the county will be able to learn from the studies performed by neighbors and capitalize on advancements made in the fast-moving renewable energy market.

“Patience allows us to evaluate the outcomes of jurisdictions who’ve moved forward with CCAs,” Gaspar said. “I want to confidently look at our residents and say we’re providing them with cleaner power and lower rates.”

Chair Dianne Jacob made a motion to approve the CCA feasibility study but it was not seconded.

“I feel pretty strongly that doing a feasibility study is the next step in at least seeing if this works or not. I don’t know what the fear is,” Jacob said. “If it’s the $200,000 I think there’s a way to address that issue.”

During public comment, many residents advocated for the feasibility study, saying community choice is the most-cost effective way to accelerate energy independence and is good for the economy as well as the environment, creating more local jobs.

“We are beyond disappointed that the county chose to keep its families in the dark, away from energy freedom and choice, and dependent on a monopoly to provide its power — the opposite of the American way,” said Climate Action Campaign Executive Director Nicole Capretz, who was one of 20 public speakers at the meeting. “We will not give up our quest for energy freedom and clean air.”

Van Collinsworth, director of Preserve Wild Santee, said the county has delayed far too long on CCAs and should instead aim to be a leader in this effort. He said there is no question that greenhouse gas emissions are increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, which can be costly for lives, property and infrastructure.

“We have no choice other than to respond with the most aggressive greenhouse gas reductions feasible while there is still opportunity to mitigate damage being done daily to climatic systems,” Collinsworth said. “The most effective tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a community choice program.”

Public comment also included a few skeptics who had concerns about the viability of CCAs and the county’s financial risk.

Frank Urtasun, representing Sempra Services Corporation, said the county should consider and study all alternatives, not just community choice, to find which gives the county the greatest return on investment.

“CCAs are actually discouraging investments in renewable projects,” Urtasun said. “This is because utilities enter into long-term contracts that result in new construction of renewable projects while CCA providers typically enter into shorter term contracts with the existing resource.”

While they did not approve moving forward with the CCA study, the supervisors did approve several next steps in its Comprehensive Renewable Energy Plan.

The county’s Comprehensive Renewable Energy Plan (CREP) and Climate Action Plan are separate but related projects. The CREP provides review of renewable energy opportunities in the unincorporated county while the Climate Action Plan addresses the county’s approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including energy.

The Climate Action Plan was adopted in 2012 and was challenged in court—litigation concluded in 2015 and development of the new plan begun. The board is expected to consider the new Climate Action Plan in winter 2018.

The comprehensive renewable energy plan has been in development since 2013. The Planning Commission reviewed recommendations from county consultants in October 2016 and supported 11 of their 17 options.

Eight of the 11 consultant recommendations supported by the Planning Commission required no additional costs and the board of supervisors approved seven of those — including forming a sustainability task force; tracking community solar and initiatives; increasing renewable energy generation, transmission, use and storage; developing strategies that address barriers to alternative fuel deployment; promoting vetted renewable energy finance mechanisms; and developing and implementing public outreach strategies.

These steps will go along with sustainability efforts the county has already implemented: The Alpine and Imperial Beach libraries are zero net energy facilities, they have installed 37 electric vehicle charging stations at 10 county sites and the county participates in direct access purchasing of energy, of which 25 percent is renewable energy. The county also has designed a green building incentive program and amended the building code to promote renewable energy and expedite permit processing.

Instead of the feasibility study, District 1 Supervisor Greg Cox said he would rather focus on getting the county’s Climate Action Plan completed in a more expeditious manner than winter 2018.

“Frankly that’s not acceptable,” Cox said. “We’ve got a need to have a Climate Action Plan done in a much shorter time frame instead of pursuing feasibility studies… To me that’s the higher priority right now and I’m more than willing to sit back and allow the city of San Diego and Solana Beach and Del Mar and perhaps others to finish their studies and have the benefit of evaluating those studies before we bring up the question of are we going to pursue a CCA for the unincorporated area or the entire county.”