When Will We Go Green? 

Some Bay Area communities are forming public-power networks to buy and build renewable energy, but East Bay cities have been slow to join the green revolution. Is that about to change?

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PG&E also had a hand in killing CCA in the East Bay. "The council was lobbied heavily by PG&E against CCA, and that had some success in stifling interest," Nadel said. Her efforts to revive talks and clear up misconceptions failed, as did the pleas of activists with the Local Clean Energy Alliance, a coalition of green energy and labor advocates that includes some of the most knowledgeable experts on CCA. By 2010, Community Choice Aggregation was dead in Oakland, and set back considerably in Berkeley, Emeryville, and Richmond.

Paul Fenn of Local Power Inc., a consulting group that helps local governments establish CCAs, said that the Navigant study also harmed East Bay efforts to create a regional energy aggregator. "Navigant kind of poisoned CCA in the East Bay," he said. "The key problem is that they used these pre-existing rate models, but CCA is a new structure." And by using old models, and assuming other risks faced by traditional municipal utilities, Navigant's study ended up confusing Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley officials, causing them to think the risks were enormous while the savings were minimal, or even negative, Fenn said.

While most East Bay cities had given up, something else was brewing that would eventually revive the potential for renewable energy to kickstart the local economy. The East Bay Municipal Utility District was busy conducting its own in-house studies to figure out how it could replace PG&E as the supplier of energy for its massive water service area. Meanwhile, officials in Richmond weren't quite ready to throw in the towel, even after their assumed partners dropped out. Eager to erase their city's image as an oil company town, Richmond officials closely tracked CCA in Marin County, where it was succeeding. At the same time, efforts in San Francisco were advancing, propelled largely by activists who confronted both PG&E's attempts to kill the nascent CleanPowerSF, and city officials who were trying to gut the CCA of its jobs-generating potential. Up in Sonoma County, another CCA was beginning to take shape.

Marin Energy Authority, California's first operational CCA, launched in 2009 despite PG&E's efforts to snuff it out with an aggressive marketing campaign. In its short existence, Marin Energy Authority has proven that CCA works, and that the fears of Oakland's City Council, and other East Bay officials were unfounded. Energy rates paid by Marin County residents are just slightly higher than what PG&E charges, and the mix of power delivered is the greenest in the state, far exceeding what is delivered by corporate utilities. Come this July, the Marin Energy Authority will be serving 95,000 customers, nearly all of Marin County.

Shawn Marshall, the founder and director of LEAN Energy US, a San Rafael-based company that helps local governments transition from corporate utilities to CCAs, calls Marin Energy Authority "an economically and environmentally robust agency." Despite the obstacles, and lack of understanding for what CCA requires of local governments, "MEA is doing a great job of demonstrating the operational viability and local benefits of CCA. It's always hard to be the first," Marshall said.

As of May 15, plans for the authority just got a lot bigger, too. In a widely anticipated decision, the Richmond City Council voted to fold the city into Marin Energy Authority, a move that will bring tens of thousands more ratepayers. "We've been at this a year," said Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay about the effort to join the authority. Lindsay and Richmond's leaders believe that abandoning PG&E for the city's energy production and purchasing needs will not only advance its progressive climate goals, but can also serve to transform the local industrial base, and place Richmond among leaders in solar development. "We think that there is potential to have this be an economic boost for Richmond," Lindsay said. "The one thing we feel we have is our ability to sell power to MEA through the feed-in tariff. We have a lot of rooftops for solar. We think it provides good possibilities down the road." Lindsay pointed to the Port of Richmond as an ideal site for massive rooftop solar development.

The feed-in tariff, the process by which locally generated renewable energy — such as rooftop solar — is fed into a utility's electric grid, is another existing policy that could, if reasonably applied, enable the mass development of renewable energy sources. Conceptually, feed-in tariffs are perfect tools for a CCA program. However, just like CCA, the feed-in tariff has yet to live up to its promise, due mostly to the equivocation of state and local politicians who have sent confusing signals to potential developers. California's feed-in tariffs are poorly designed, according to Paul Gipe, an internationally recognized expert on the subject. At a recent energy conference in Oakland, Gipe characterized California's feed-in tariff laws as "timid" and "lacking vision."

Current state law seeks to promote the development of 480 megawatts of renewable energy sources statewide via feed-in tariffs. Within PG&E's service area, any customer may participate. Thus, anyone who builds a renewable energy generating source — like a backyard wind turbine — can sell the power generated to PG&E for a fixed price. But Gipe points out that 480 megawatts is a tiny commitment for an energy market as massive as California's, and that there's a cap on the size of a contributing power plant. The cap seriously undermines the incentive for developers because it effectively prohibits taking advantage of economies of scale. Currently, an independent energy developer using the feed-in tariff may not contribute more than 1.5 megawatts to the grid. Furthermore, PG&E's payments for electricity are relatively low compared to other buyers such as Marin Energy Authority. There is no single, simple, and fair feed-in tariff for Californians to benefit from. Instead, there is a complicated and half-hearted array of tariffs that apply in different services areas.

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