Community Choice Agencies are doing more than keeping the lights on

Things to consider as Fresno and Stockton assess the feasibility of community choice energy

The capacity of local governments to protect their residents and businesses in times of crisis is being tested all over California. Elected officials are now tasked with addressing each rippling impact COVID-19 is having on their communities. Beyond the public health crisis itself, shelter-in-place orders have left millions of people applying for unemployment and businesses struggling to, quite literally, keep the lights on.

For most counties and cities in California that have established community choice agencies (CCAs) – where local governments can purchase clean power at competitive rates on behalf of their residents and businesses – residential and commercial customers have been offered flexible payment plans, with assurance that the power won’t be shut off for nonpayment. CCAs work in partnership with the larger investor-owned utilities in the state that still own the lines that those electrons travel through. Impressively, these locally controlled, not-for-profit agencies have already been able to make a difference supporting the most vulnerable members of their communities at the most critical times.

East Bay Community Energy (EBCE) has earmarked an astonishing $1 million for community relief efforts in response to COVID-19 for the 12 East Bay communities it serves, along with $300,000 in grants for local community-based organizations. The agency also gave $70,000 to the Alameda County Food Bank and Meals on Wheels program, and has been soliciting donations from its largest customers with the goal of increasing that amount to more than $1 million by the end of April. “This is clearly a crisis time for residents and local businesses, and if EBCE has any resources available to help, then by all means that is what we’re going to do, and we’re doing it immediately,” said EBCE’s CEO, Nick Chaset. 

Valley Clean Energy (VCE), a joint powers authority between the City of Davis and Yolo County, has donated $2,500 to the Yolo Food Bank in the hopes that others will contribute as well. “VCE was created to support our customers and give back to the community,” said Mitch Sears, VCE’s interim general manager. “That mission is even more important as we go through times of crisis like the COVID pandemic.”

Silicon Valley Clean Energy is committing $10 million in COVID-19 relief funds to support lower-income customers; pay for resiliency improvements at community and emergency facilities; and launch training programs for electrical, plumbing and mechanical workers impacted by shelter-in-place orders. The agency is also lowering electric generation rates to 4% below those of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which will result in an annual savings of $18 million to its customers.

Roughly 30,000 low-income customers in San Mateo County are receiving a $100 credit from their CCA, Peninsula Clean Energy. “In these unprecedented times, this credit will help those most at risk of losing their paychecks and financial stability, particularly our most vulnerable low-wage earners,” East Palo Alto Vice-Mayor Carlos Romero said.

Several Central Valley communities are considering implementing a CCA program. What a CCA in Fresno or Stockton looks like will be determined by local elected officials and community members, but it could pitch in to relief efforts in the community it serves. For example, the agency could support the boots on the ground delivering food to isolated elderly residents and helping homeless individuals move to safer locations. In constant contact with its customers, the provider could serve as a communications outlet to relay and receive critical information in emergency situations. 

Beyond supporting short-term relief measures, this new Central Valley public electricity provider could mold to the needs of the community through targeted programs in the months and years following the crisis. Case in point: after the devastating 2017 wine country fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties, Sonoma Clean Power offered its customers huge incentives for rebuilding their homes with safer, cleaner, and more resilient, energy-efficient building materials. 

As Fresno and Stockton assess the feasibility of community choice energy, it’s worth considering the 30,000-foot view. The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that we ignore climate science at our own peril and early action saves lives. Establishing a CCA is one of many solutions for California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2022 and become carbon-negative by 2030, as outlined in the Climate Center’s Climate-Safe California campaign. With a recession almost certainly lingering, now is the time for local reinvestment and innovation, which is what CCA is all about. Forming a CCA would spur local job growth in an emerging renewable energy industry, retain local dollars in the local economy and return power to people to decide how their energy is produced. Let’s help make it happen.

Special Editor’s Note: For more on what CCAs are doing to respond to the public health crisis, please register for our May 19 webinar on this topic HERE

Taking a spin on an electric tractor

With a view of the future?

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit the ranch of Steve Heckeroth, architect, legendary clean energy pioneer, inventor, former contributing editor for Mother Earth News, and in this instance, creator of the Solectrac electric drive tractor. Steve’s ranch, and e-tractor manufacturing operation, is located along the Mendocino Coast near Albion, California, about two hours northwest of where I live.

My interest in electric tractors is partly personal. After moving to a rural area in Sonoma County in 2009 and finding that perfect place at the end of the lane away from the road noise, we woke up the first few mornings to realize we had not thought about tractor noise. Duh. Being surrounded by small farms, what did we expect? But perhaps with electric tractors now becoming reality, there may be hope for quieter mornings – and assuming they are plugging in to cleaner power, less-polluting farms.

So the first thing I noticed about the e-tractor is how quiet it is. Barely even a buzz or hum. The other thing I noticed immediately was how clean and simple it looked. No black oil, grease, or soot stains as one typically sees on diesel tractors.

One of the interesting things Steve demonstrated was the fact that you can set the tractor to move at a constant, very slow speed, which allows for an excellent seed spreading process. This is something that is difficult for diesels to do. He also explained how electric tractors have an enormous amount of torque, enabling them to tow or push many times their own weight.

There are two main models to choose from, the eUtility and the eFarmer. According to the Solectrac website, the eUtility tractor is designed for vineyards, equestrian centers, livestock operations, hobby farms, etc. It has a 20 kWh onboard battery pack that provides three to eight hours of run time depending on loads. It uses level two (240v) charging and takes about three hours to reach 80% charge, so having two battery packs and switching them out is the way to keep working all day. It accommodates a wide variety of implements on the rear hitch and uses linear electric actuators that replace inefficient hydraulic implements.

Steve Heckeroth on the eFarmer tractor.

The eFarmer is designed for row crop farms and operates at a fraction of the lifetime cost of diesel tractors. Both tractors are zero-emission and quiet with no diesel fuel, hydraulic fluid, engine noise, or exhaust fumes.

Now, yes, clearly these tractors are designed for smaller operations, but the principle is demonstrated successfully and scaling up is a matter of investment. No technological breakthroughs are required.

Another key part of my interest revolves around our work in Community Choice Energy and in the Central Valley. E-tractors will not address the air quality issues of dust kicked up by agricultural activities, but the particulate matter and other toxic air contaminants that result from diesel combustion by farm equipment, an extremely harmful part of the poor air quality in the Central Valley, is indeed something that may be mitigated by this kind of technology. We look forward to helping advance electric farm equipment as we do passenger EVs.

And how might Community Choice agencies (CCAs) play a role? CCAs have successfully demonstrated that they can design a buy-down program for passenger electric vehicles. For CCAs with significant agricultural activity in their service territories, why not do the same for electric farm equipment?

Several other manufacturers including John Deere and Fendt have recently introduced electric tractors, but given that they have a huge market base of long-time diesel customers, it is not clear that they will do much to support their successful adoption.

For more information about the Solectrac electric tractors manufactured right here in California, eager to sell, visit Solactrac.com.

Burning Sun by law keven

A Hot Issue: Fresno’s Getting Warmer …But We Could Change That.

by Erik Cherkaski

July marks the first full month of summer. Here in Fresno, the seventh month of the year is the peak of the area’s grueling high temperatures during the season. This summer presented Fresno’s unyielding heat waves slightly earlier than normal, and will continue on until early fall. Just a few days after the summer started, Fresno experienced a record-breaking heatwave. Whereas normal days in the beginning of the season hover around the mid-nineties, parts of Fresno County hit highs closer to 110 degrees, forcing some communities to open cooling centers during the day. It should come as no surprise that the National Weather Service encourages people to stay indoors during hours of blistering temperature highs.

When the summer heat becomes unbearable, people rely on their homes to keep cool. Utility customer’s consumption of electricity goes up during summer months, particularly in areas with significant heat. Such a high demand during these periods not only raises electricity rates but also increases fossil fuel consumption used to produce the electricity, and the use of fossil fuels has a direct link to rising global temperatures.

Climate Change continues to impact the San Joaquin Valley with temperatures steadily rising over the past decades. Studies show an average of 1°C increase during the first half of the century and then a 2°C increase by the second half, combined with a significant decrease in precipitation. One particular concern is the increase of the temperature of daily low temperatures. The Central Valley is noted for experiencing a wide range of high and low temperatures throughout a 24-hour period. But according to studies, this phenomenon is declining as Valley morning and nightly low temperatures are beginning to rise, marking longer stretches of intense heat during summer months. Such elongated temperature highs during the day contribute to rising use of energy consumption throughout a 24-hour period in the season of sunshine. An additional concern about higher than normal overnight temperatures is that many fruit and nut trees grown in the Central Valley require a certain number of “chill hours” in order to produce a crop.

Although California’s investor owned utilities (IOUs) have made promises to expand usage of clean energy, fossil fuels are still a large source in generating power for homes and businesses. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the country generated four trillion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2015. Close to 67% of that electricity came from fossil fuel sources (coal, natural gas and petroleum) while only 13% came from cleaner, renewable sources such as hydropower, solar and wind. According to the IOUs maintaining the grid and expanding the use of renewable energy comes at an ever-increasing price. This month, the California Public Utilities Commission held public hearings in several Central Valley cities to discuss the area’s utility provider rate increase, with the company arguing it is needed for further investment in grid maintenance and clean energy sources.

So, Fresno and its surrounding areas get very hot during the summer, heat waves seem to be getting more intense due to climate change, and the direct culprit behind climate change, fossil energy, is still a major source for powering our electricity to cool us down: sounds like one vicious cycle, right?

Well, first, let’s take a look at that IOU claim that renewable energy costs more. The fact is that solar and wind power prices have dropped dramatically over the past six years. So much so that solar and wind are now at or near “grid parity” in many markets meaning that they are equivalent or lower in cost than conventional power sources. But who will take advantage of this fact and pursue this cleaner, cheaper power on our community’s behalf?

One answer is Community Choice Energy. Community Choice Energy is a program, enabled by state law passed in 2002, that has the power to buy, and may even generate, electricity for its residents and businesses via a not-for-profit public entity; created by the people, for the people. The program offers several economic and environmental benefits such as providing consumer choice, competition in the monopolized utility market, offering lower rates, strengthening the local economy, and utilizing alternative energy sources. The four existing Community Choice agencies in California have proven the concept. Perhaps, more than ever, now is the time to explore a program that emphasizes cleaner, renewable energy sources for its residents at competitive rates. After all, it certainly isn’t getting any cooler over here.