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Two reasons to trust Community Choice agencies – they are not monopolies and they are local

In November, private utility Southern California Edison (SCE) published a document titled “The Clean Power and Electrification Pathway.” It is essentially SCE’s integrated blueprint for California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution via electrification of everything. The utility envisions seven million electric cars on the road, thirty percent of heating systems in homes and businesses being powered by electricity, and 80 percent of California’s electricity being generated by climate-friendly power sources like solar, wind, and water. The paper also mentions customer choice. However, the most groundbreaking phenomenon in one hundred years of regulated monopoly utilities in California – Community Choice Energy – is not mentioned at all. Given that Community Choice is on track to be the dominant player on the generation side of the electricity equation by 2020, one would think it would merit mention.

A Desert Sun article points out the degree to which such plans are self serving to an electric utility’s profitability prospects, and understandably so. But decentralized energy system opens up possibilities for local communities and electricity customers to benefit in new ways, but that is only if the utilities do not continue to control decision-making and channel profits in their direction.

It is true that the utilities are being required to develop plans for local resource development aimed at reducing greenhouse gases because of 2015’s SB 350 integrated resource plans and an ongoing distribution resource planning due to 2013’s AB 327. So PG&E and SDG&E are also very much involved in efforts to define their role in the changing energy landscape. My question is: are the big utilities the best to lead on something that is inherently local when they are inherently non-local?

Community Choice agencies are intrinsically local and closely tied to the communities they serve. They are local governments in single-jurisdiction cases or are very close to the local governments they serve in, “Joint Powers Authorities.” This affords them the opportunity to work with other local agencies, cities, and counties using a wide variety of tools at their disposal such as land-use permitting, code enforcement, and local transportation panning. This new vehicle – Community Choice Energy – is a good means of leading the way on local energy resource development.

Competition is good. We like competition. And after 100 years of regulated electricity monopolies in California, and largely due to the rise of Community Choice Energy, those monopolies are now slowly lumbering into the realization that they now need to compete. But that is really only if they feel the need to be players in the electricity generation and retail service side of the equation. Do they?

Back in 2013 one of our colleagues attended a community meeting in the East Bay where a PG&E representative was present. The meeting was not about Community Choice energy, but the PG&E rep mentioned it and stated that because of the presence of Community Choice PG&E is looking for ways to compete. We Community Choice advocates are happy to take credit for that.

In late November the Center submitted comments to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in reference to an October CPUC workshop on Customer Choice. In our comments, we stated that Community Choice agencies are best suited to lead the way into a decentralized energy future because they themselves are, well, decentralized.

One of the Commissioners discounted choice for choice’ sake. However, our market surveys in both the North SF Bay and the Central Valley show that supermajorities want choice in their energy. In fact, choice was a top priority among survey takers. In addition, isn’t choice something that is an essential quality of our societal culture and tradition? Give customers a choice about their energy future, and give Community Choice Agencies a fair shot at leading this pathfinding endeavor.