Sempra Services Lobbyists Met With San Diego Elected Officials, Potentially Violating State Ban

State officials say lobbyists for Sempra Energy’s new marketing division, Sempra Services, may have violated state law by meeting with some San Diego elected officials.

That’s because Sempra Services has not received full approval from the state agency that oversees utilities, the California Public Utilities Commission.

The California Public Utilities Commission has confirmed it is investigating Sempra and its utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, for beginning to lobby before receiving full approval.

But the utility argues it is doing no such thing.

RELATED: State Commission Investigating SDG&E For Lobbying Against Community Energy Program

The dispute centers around an alternative energy program called community choice, which would allow cities and counties to bypass SDG&E and decide on their own where to buy energy, which could allow them to choose more renewable energy sources.

State law prevents utilities from marketing or lobbying on community choice aggregation unless they set up an independent organization that is not funded by ratepayers.

That’s what Sempra Energy did by establishing Sempra Services, but that organization has not been completely approved by the state.

However, people working for Sempra Services have been meeting with San Diego elected officials anyway. They also spoke about community choice at a recent San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting.

RELATED: Sempra May Have Broken State Rules By Lobbying On Energy Program

The city of San Diego’s records show a lobbying firm called Responsible Solutions headed by Lani Lutar met with the following elected officials and their staff:

—Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

—Stephen Puetz, the chief of staff for Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

—Mike Hansen, the deputy chief of staff and chief of policy for Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

—City Councilman Chris Cate.

—Ian Clampett, the deputy chief of staff and chief of policy for City Councilman Chris Cate.

—Jack Straw, the director of land use and environmental policy for Mayor Kevin Faulconer (the form lists Straw as a staffer for Councilman Scott Sherman, but Sherman’s spokesman said he was no longer working in that office at the time of the meeting).

The records say the meetings were about implementation of the city’s climate action plan, which includes the consideration of community choice.

City council members’ calendars from 2016 and the first two months of 2017 also show Lutar met once with Councilman David Alvarez and twice with Councilman Mark Kersey. A spokeswoman for Alvarez said the meeting was about “the Otay Valley Regional Park Concept Plan Update and a related matter of the Skydive San Diego lease.”

Kersey’s chief of staff said the two Lutar meetings “didn’t have to do with Sempra or SDG&E, they had to do with our infrastructure committee priorities for the year.”

Kersey’s calendar also shows he met with Frank Urtasun, who told KPBS he works for Sempra Services. However, on city forms Urtasun is most recently registered as a lobbyistfor Sempra Energy.

Kersey’s chief of staff said the meeting “had to do with climate action plan implementation.”

City forms show Urtasun also met with Faulconer’s staff about implementation of the climate action plan.

Meetings like those and public comments at the county meeting are the reason SDG&E is being investigated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

A spokeswoman for the commission said by email earlier this month that “SDG&E is not in compliance with the California Public Utilities Commission Resolution allowing them to form an Independent Marketing Division with conditions and consequently may not be participating in lobbying activities that could only be performed by the marketing division.”

“SDG&E attorneys have argued that under their particular reading of the Resolution they are allowed to lobby,” she said. “The California Public Utilities Commission is investigating the facts surrounding their community choice-related communications.”

Amber Albrecht, a spokeswoman for SDG&E, said by email that the utility “is not lobbying” on community choice. Instead, she said, their understanding is that the California Public Utilities Commission has approved their independent organization to lobby on community choice.

In August, the California Public Utilities Commission gave initial approval to the organization but said it still needed more information from SDG&E.

Then in December, the commission said marketing and lobbying on community choice was suspended because SDG&E had not given enough information to show the organization is independent enough from the utility.

Albrecht said that proposed changes to SDG&E’s independent organization are being reviewed by California Public Utilities Commission staff, but that doesn’t block the organization from operating.

“Staff has no authority to override the California Public Utilities Commission’s resolution,” she said. She added that the commission “has no authority” to stop the independent organization “from exercising its First Amendment right to speak, particularly here where the ban would be applied to control the content of Sempra Services’ speech.”

California Public Utilities Commission staff still have not said how long the investigation could last, or what the consequences of it could be.

Sempra Services Lobbyists Met With San Diego Elected Officials, Potentially Violating State Ban, by Claire Trageser, KPBS, March 17, 2017.

Hundreds Gather to Learn about Community Choice Energy

REGION — If there was one prevailing theme from the hosts of panelists speaking to city and county officials, alternative energy stakeholders and others about community choice energy in a Rancho Bernardo conference room on March 10, it was this: why wait?

Many of the leaders present — from Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear to Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath and Solana Beach City Manager Greg Wade — are from cities that are actively exploring community choice energy, the informal name for community choice aggregation, the process in which a jurisdiction forms an entity that buys power on the open market, choosing the source of the power based on the community’s choice.

For example, the community could choose that it wants all of its power from solar or wind farms, or it wants the most cost effective energy source possible.

The major energy companies such as Sempra, San Diego Gas & Electric and PG&E in Northern California would still deliver the power, but the community would have control over where it received the power from.

CCAs, or CCEs as they are known for short, have emerged in Northern California and one city in Southern California, Lancaster, also has a CCA. But much of Southern California is still wading in the discussion and exploration phase.

At the San Diego Community Choice Forum, dozens of panelists echoed the same message — be patient, be prudent, but also be assertive.

R. Rex Paris, a Republican mayor of Lancaster, Calif., who was the forum’s keynote speaker, said that cities needed to act now, not later. Lancaster’s community choice model has become a darling in the industry, as it has propelled the high desert community to “net zero” status, which means that it produces more solar power than it consumes, which has also been a financial boon for the city.

“It is ethically, morally and just from a point of survival incumbent for us to do something about it,” Paris said.

Paris, who spoke for a half hour, said the biggest obstacle his city faced when forming their energy group was from Southern California Edison.

“In order for us to really be effective, we had to take the power back from Edison, not because they are bad people, but because they are very slow, they are bureaucratic,” Paris said.

The call for swift action was a common theme echoed by other panelists.

“Don’t wait for the next symposium,” said Drake Welch, the vice president of customer care from CalPine Energy Solutions, which provides data management and call center services for many of the state’s CCE programs.

Welch was among a panel that included Dave Pine, the vice president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, Colin Miller, the program manager of Local Clean Energy Alliance and Tom Habashi, the CEO of Silicon Valley Clean Energy.

Pine, whose county’s CCE, Peninsula Clean Energy, is one of several in Northern California, said the major factors that helped them successfully launch their program was having the manpower, financial resources (the county put up the $3 million seed money), and massive communication and stakeholder outreach that included a 20-person advisory committee.

This, Pine said, allowed the county to overcome the biggest obstacle, skepticism from local government officials who saw the program as “too good to be true.”

He said they got all of the city attorneys in the county involved with writing the joint power authority agreement that provided the backbone for the CCE.

“They were the most conservative voices, so we got them eating the (sic) food,” Pine said.

Pine said the best argument that elected official could make to their constituents was they were giving them a choice.

Habashi echoed Pine’s sentiments, saying that communities needed to be prepared to spend lots of money ($2 million to $3 million before seeing a return on the investment), and needed to have the program led by a single entity, such as a CEO or a chairman, not by committee.

“You need one maestro, not six conductors trying to lead the show,” Habashi said.

Habashi also said it was important for communities to choose what their exact goal was with their CCE, whether it be green energy, better rates than the local energy provider or economic development.

“These are all fine and good but one of them must take precedence for your community,” Habashi said.

Blakespear, whose city is among five coastal communities considering a joint powers authority to form a community choice organization, said that the forum helped her get a better understanding of the undertaking of creating a group.

“It wasn’t my goal to run an energy company when I ran for mayor, but I want our city to be a more environmentally oriented city, and having clean power is the most effective way to reduce our carbon footprint,” she said. “This helps me understand the details of CCA and what it means for a city to actually start one. There is lot of intricacy, and I need to understand that to be a supporter.”

Blakespear said she still needed more information before committing the city to moving forward, but said the fact that Encinitas is not alone makes the task less daunting.

While the County of San Diego has already voted to not pursue a CCA, which Blakespear said was disappointing, the fact that other cities still have interest means they can still move forward with the next steps.

Hundreds Gather to Learn about Community Choice Energy, by Aaron Burgin, The Coast News Group, March 17, 2017.

SDG&E Invests in Energy Storage with Flow Battery Technology

SDG&E is unveiling a new vanadium redox flow battery storage pilot project in coordination with Sumitomo Electric, which stemmed from a partnership between Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Development Organization and the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development.

During the four-year demonstration project, SDG&E will be researching if flow batterytechnology can economically enhance the delivery of reliable energy to customers, integrate growing amounts of renewable energy and increase the flexibility in the way the company manages the power grid.

“SDG&E is continuously at the forefront of delivering clean energy solutions and championing innovative technologies to assess the long-term benefits for our customers,” said Caroline Winn, SDG&E’s chief operating officer. “This pilot will advance our understanding of how this flow battery technology can help us increase the reliable delivery of clean energy to our customers and align with state and local carbon emission reduction goals.”

The vanadium redox flow battery storage facility will provide 2 MW of energy, enough to power the energy equivalent of about 1,000 homes for up to four hours. Like other battery storage systems, the battery will act like a sponge to soak up renewable energy harnessed from the sun and release it when resources are in high demand.

Flow battery systems have an expected life-span of more than 20 years, and could have less degradation over time from repeated charging cycles than other technologies. SDG&E will be testing voltage frequency, power outage support and shifting energy demand.

“We are delighted to see our first flow battery system operating in the U.S. through the multiple-use operation of the battery system in SDG&E’s distribution network, we would like to prove its economic value and potential use on the electric grids,” said Junji Itoh, managing director of Sumitomo Electric.

“California continues to lead the nation when it comes to growing the economy and decreasing emissions,” said Sid Voorakkara, Deputy Director for External Affairs at the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. “GO-Biz is proud to partner with NEDO to bring this demonstration project to life and increase opportunities for economic growth powered by renewable energy.”

SDG&E has been a leader in bringing energy storage options into the region with the recent unveiling of the world’s largest lithium ion battery storage facility in Escondido and a smaller facility in El Cajon. To date, SDG&E has about 100 MW of energy storage projects completed or contracted.

SDG&E Invests in Energy Storage with Flow Battery Technology, Electric Light & Power, March 17, 2017.

Tule Wind Project Expansion Clears Legal Hurdle

Opponents of a wind project that will dot the ridgeline of the McCain Valley in San Diego’s East County lost a court decision this week, meaning an expansion to the Tule Wind Project remains on schedule.

The Protect Our Communities Foundation (POC) battled the project from its inception, claiming the blades from wind turbines pose a danger to birds — golden eagles in particular.

But on Monday, a U.S. District Court judge in San Diego turned down the group’s case, saying the federal government did not violate its own procedures when it OK’d the second phase of the project that will deliver wind energy on lands belonging to the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians and the state of California.

“This ill-conceived project will turn important golden eagle breeding territory into a graveyard for an iconic and protected species and destroy thousands of acres of pristine, wild desert,” April Rose Sommer, executive director of POC said in an email.

Avangrid Renewables, the company in charge of the Tule Wind Project, has long insisted the wind farm is safe.

Concerns about bird fatalities are “a serious issue that has really been given a lot of consideration and thought,” said Jeffrey Durorcher, senior counsel for Avangrid. “We’re going to be diligent and responsible about it.”

The second phase of the Tule project is considerably smaller than the first phase, which is under construction and expected to be completed by no later than the end of the year.

Called Tule I, the first half of the project is expected to erect 52 General Electric turbineswith towers 262 feet high and 351 feet in diameter, with an estimated capacity for 132 megawatts of electricity.

Southern California Edison has signed a 15-year power purchase agreement and the turbines will be connected to a substation operated by San Diego Gas & Electric.

Tule II will not be constructed until Tule I is finished and has been permitted for as many as 24 turbines with a capacity of 69 megawatts. Last fall, developers said seven turbines on Tule II will be built on state land and as many as 17 on land belonging to the Ewiiaapaayp Band.

“It’s very windy” on the reservation, Michael Garcia, vice chairman of the Ewiiaapaayp Band, told the Union-Tribune during a groundbreaking ceremony last year. “It’s an easy resource to recoup. So we just see a good opportunity there.”

Covering 640 acres, Tule II’s wind turbines will be located about 1,500 to 2,000 feet higher than Tule I. Last October, the State Lands Commission unanimously approved a 40-year lease for Tule II.

POC officials say they are not opposed to renewable energy but say the Tule Wind Project is located in a dangerous spot for birds, citing memos from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game that said Tule II “has a high potential” to injure or kill golden eagles and could impact their breeding territories.

But U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino ruled Monday that the Bureau of Indian Affairs came to a “carefully considered” decision when it approved Tule II and followed safeguards from the National Environmental Policy Act.

POC has taken both phases of the project to court but have been turned back each time. Sommer said her group is considering its next steps, including an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

Tule Wind Project Expansion Clears Legal Hurdle, by Rob Nikolewski, The San Diego Tribune, March 8, 2017.

A Definitive Guide to Community Choice Aggregation – and whether San Diego will do it

San Diego has ambitious plans to fight climate change. The plan depends on getting all electricity from renewable resources.

That could set up a showdown between the city and Sempra Energy, the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric. SDG&E gets most of its electricity by burning natural gas.

Unless the company stops selling gas-fired power within city limits, the city could begin buying power for its 1.4 million residents from someone else. In doing so, the city would become a community choice aggregator, or CCA.

That dumb, confusing name masks a simple concept and a big debate: The city government and a Fortune 500 company are on a collision course. The cost, reliability and environmental consequences of everyone’s electricity is on the line.

Here’s an FAQ to get you caught up.

Why does the city care about electricity anyway?

State and local governments are trying to fight climate change, even if the federal government won’t. Since fossil fuel-fired electricity is a major source of greenhouse gases, these governments all seek to curb the use of coal and gas.

California has several laws aimed at combating climate change. They require power companies to get 50 percent of their power from renewable sources, like wind and solar, by 2030.

San Diego has its own Climate Action Plan. It has made the mayor a star across the country. The plan is far more ambitious than the state’s. The city wants 100 percent of electricity sold within city limits to come from renewable sources by 2035.

Natural gas would still come to homes for heating and cooking.

What does SDG&E think of the city’s big climate change goal?

Of the three major utilities in California, SDG&E is leading the way in complying with state renewable energy goals. Today, 43 percent of SDG&E’s electricity comes from renewable resources and the company has rid its energy portfolio of coal.

But, it’s not planning to abandon natural gas. As the city Climate Action Plan was nearing passage, SDG&E said the plan lacked credibility because the city wanted to get to 100 percent renewable energy and get rid of gas completely. The company argued gas is necessary because wind and solar are not so dependable. You can burn gas to generate power any time of day.

In a statement this week, the company said there are new battery storage technologies that are helping to solve this problem, but it did not comment on whether it believed it could offer 100 percent renewable energy in the future.

If SDG&E won’t help the city, can the city help itself?

If SDG&E isn’t willing or able to meet the city’s goals, city officials have a Plan B written into the Climate Action Plan: They might start buying power themselves, from someone other than SDG&E.

This kind of power buying is known as community choice aggregation, and the city would become a community choice aggregator. Both phrases are abbreviated CCAand are here to stay, but they’re daunting and cumbersome.

Community choice? Try government choice.

What is community choice aggregation? In short, rather than SDG&E finding and buying power, the job would be transferred to San Diego City Hall.

Let’s break this down, word by word.

Community

It sounds like a bunch of people standing around on the sidewalk flying kites hoping for lightning. It’s not. Community means the government. Community choice actually means “government choice.” This means San Diego city staff or a new agency created by the city. Since other cities in San Diego County are also thinking about buying their own power, a number of cities could create a new regional agency to buy power.

Choice

Two groups have a choice.

First, the city government has a choice. For the purposes of the Climate Action Plan, the city would choose to buy green energy.

Second, customers have a choice. When the government begins buying power, every SDG&E customer in the city would automatically get sent that power instead of SDG&E’s. But customers could choose to opt out of the government program and continue getting power from SDG&E. Customers would do that if, for instance, SDG&E’s power was cheaper.

Aggregator/Aggregation

This word is almost unnecessary, but here’s why it’s there: Since the power bought by the government would likely come from a variety of sources, the power sources would be pooled together – an aggregation of community-chosen power.

Will SDG&E go out of business?

No.

Here’s the hardest thing to understand: SDG&E doesn’t make money selling electricity. It makes its money delivering electricity.

Look at a sample power bill. This becomes clearer: There’s a charge for electricity generation. This is the electricity itself, three-quarters of which SDG&E buys from other companies and resells without a markup.

There are also charges for distribution and transmission. That’s where SDG&E gets its gravy, from guaranteed profits on the sprawling system of lines it’s built over the last century to deliver power to its customers.

If the city starts buying power, SDG&E continues to run the delivery system and continues to profit from delivering power.

“We’re not challenging them, there’s a partnership that would benefit everybody,” said Nicole Capretz, one of the architects of the city’s Climate Action Plan who’s now executive director of the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign.

Every customer would still get bills with SDG&E’s logo atop them. The difference would be the one line on the bill about electricity generation. That rate would be dictated by the city’s power costs rather than by SDG&E’s.

Some customers might have no idea anything changed.

Customers could even opt out of using the city-bought power if, for instance, they didn’t care about the environment. The city expects about 20 percent of customers might opt to continue receiving SDG&E’s power.

Also, as its name indicates, San Diego Gas & Electric is in two separate businesses. Even though the Climate Action Plan mandates the end of gas-fired electricity, that doesn’t affect natural gas used for things like heating homes or powering ovens and water heaters. You can keep your gas oven.

Will the electricity be cheaper?

This is a big unknown.

There are a five community choice buyers in the state.

The oldest, formed in 2010, is Marin Clean Energy in the Bay Area. Its customers used to have lower bills than Pacific Gas & Electric’s, now the bills are slightly higher. According to a sample bill on Marin’s website, its power can be $1 more a month. Sonoma Clean Power, another established player in the community choice market, can be $1 cheaper than PG&E, according to a sample bill it posted.

Will the electricity be more environmentally friendly?

Almost certainly, if the city has its way. The whole point of this is to get greener power.

But power doesn’t have to be cleaner just because the government is buying it.

For example, San Diego County’s government buys power on its own to avoid buying all of its power from SDG&E. The county has saved $13.5 million since 2009 by doing this, according to a county spokesman. But that power is dirtier than SDG&E’s. About 25 percent of the county-bought power is renewable. Compare that with the 43 percent of SDG&E’s power that is now renewable. The county isn’t a CCA, though – the county’s power is just for its own facilities, not others; and its goal is cost-cutting rather than fighting climate change.

Community choice foes have been cheering remarks made during a hearing at the California Public Utilities Commission last month by a consumer advocate.

Matthew Freedman, a staff attorney for The Utility Reform Network, said community choice buyers have too often been holding down costs by selling customers power that is not, in his view, meaningfully helping the environment.

Instead of investing in new wind and solar farms, government buyers have bought power from existing renewable energy projects. Or they have bought renewable energy credits, which means they continue getting electricity that comes from coal or gas but they get to label the electricity as green energy.

This, Freedman argued, just shuffles paper and doesn’t change the fundamental nature of energy production in America.

Freedman said real progress comes from building new renewable energy projects – also known as “steel in the ground.” This is also important for labor unions that lobby for government investment in energy to create new local jobs.

“The test for the kind of commitment the city of San Diego has identified is if they can bring new resources online to meet that goal,” Freedman told me.

The city of San Diego has talked about buying some renewable energy credits to meet 9 percent of its Climate Action Plan goals, but the overall intent of the plan is to develop new projects. For Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the jobs expected to be created by local projects are a key selling point for the plan.

Are SDG&E and Sempra trying to thwart the city?

City officials have yet to say for sure if they will start their own power-buying operation. They are still waiting on a technical and economic study of their options. Once that comes out, likely this spring, a City Council vote could happen by the end of the year.

Though it expressed doubts about the city’s gas-free goals, SDG&E says it supports community choice.

“Speaking for SDG&E only, SDG&E supports customer choice,” company spokeswoman Amber Albrecht said in an email. If that all sounds a bit tepid, well, perhaps it is.

Why? Because the company can’t say much else. When Marin Clean Energy was trying to get started, PG&E did everything it could to kill community choice. The company spent millions on a state ballot measure in 2010 that would have made it harder to form a community choice program. During a recent Public Utilities Commission hearing, the head of Marin Clean Energy, Dawn Weisz, recalled that PG&E used customer information to do phone banking and told customers they would lose power if they went with community choice.

After that, the state decided it didn’t want a monopoly, like PG&E or SDG&E, spending ratepayer money to perpetuate its monopoly by attacking community choice.

That applies to SDG&E, but it doesn’t apply to its parent company, Sempra. The parent company can lobby against community choice, as long as that lobbying is somehow independent of SDG&E and is approved by the Public Utilities Commission. If that all sounds a bit ridiculous, well, perhaps it is.

Last month, during a County Board of Supervisors meeting, representatives of Sempra’s Sempra Services division raised doubts about community choice, which the county was thinking about studying further. The supervisors opted not to do the study. Now, the state is investigating Semprafor what its representatives said during the meeting.

That also wasn’t the first time Sempra’s inclinations have been made known.

Three years ago, Sempra lobbied city officials in support of a state bill that would have hurt community choice.

Is a community choice showdown inevitable?

No.

The Climate Action Plan calls for community choice “or another program” to meet the city’s renewable power goal. Nobody is yet sure what that other program might be.

But SDG&E now offers customers a 100 percent renewable energy option called EcoChoice. The amount of power the company has available for that program is tiny, but perhaps SDG&E will figure out how to expand it in a big way.

Or, perhaps SDG&E will step up its game just enough to satisfy the city. In the fine print of the Climate Action Plan, the city admits it may fall short of its 100 percent renewable goal and get to only 91 percent renewable by 2035. The city also expects to review and update the plan in 2020 and each year after. Perhaps the city will learn that it’s too costly to move entirely away from natural gas.

Or perhaps technology will change so rapidly that 100 percent renewable is an easy move.

Surely, there’s some risk for SDG&E?

The company would continue to profit from delivering power, but community choice could hurt SDG&E’s business.

One risk is near-term. SDG&E has already bought power for its customers – including renewable energy. Emily Shults, the company’s chief power buyer, told state regulators last month that more than half of those contracts run for 20 years or longer.

If the city starts buying power and customers stop buying SDG&E’s power, demand for the company’s power will fall dramatically. The company doesn’t want to be left holding the bag for the power it has bought but can no longer sell.

Also, a government power-buying program could offer incentives for things like rooftop solar that do hurt SDG&E’s business.

To a power company, a customer who can rely on rooftop solar is a lost customer. And it could lead the company to do unpopular things like charge other customers more for all the infrastructure that still must be maintained.

If the city started buying power, a rooftop solar customer means the city can just buy less renewable power because some people are generating their own.

If people start adding rooftop solar projects because the government encourages them, there may be less need for an elaborate power-delivery system, the thing SDG&E does make its money from.

Surely, there are also risks for the city?

The San Diego Taxpayers Association – which has on its board representatives of both Sempra and SDG&E – is concerned that community choice shifts risks away from SDG&E and to the city. (Full disclosure: An SDG&E executive also sits on Voice of San Diego’s board.)

“From a governance standpoint, we want to make sure that we consider the risk exposure to the taxpayer,” Taxpayers Association president, Haney Hong, told the County Board of Supervisors last month.

For instance, what if the city bought too much power? What if the city bought too little? What if the power it bought cost too much?

Around this argument is an air of concern that the city might not know what it is doing. Of course, it would hire people to do this, but would they be as good at buying power as the power company is?

San Diego would be new to the power game, but it already operates a public water system. And our neighbors have publicly run utilities. The Imperial Irrigation District is a public agency that provides water and power to Imperial County, as well as power to parts of eastern San Diego County. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is also public. They not only buy power, they also deliver it.

This all echoes debates that have gone on for decades.

A century ago, one of Los Angeles’ city fathers, William Mulholland, waded into a fight over whether private interests or the public should control water and power from projects that eventually made Southern California livable for millions of people. When he started at the city, water was controlled by private interests; when he left, water and newly available hydroelectricity – the renewable energy of its time – were both in the hands of the public.

A Definitive Guide to Community Choice Aggregation – and whether San Diego will do it, by Ry Rivard, Voice of San Diego, March 9, 2017.

Community Choice Energy Forum on Tap for Friday

ENCINITAS — Major stakeholders and advocates of community choice energy will be on hand March 10 for a day long forum in Rancho Bernardo on the topic, which holds a lot of interest in Encinitas as one of several cities exploring it as an avenue for energy choice.

The San Diego Choice Community Forum, which runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Renovate America in Rancho Bernardo, is sold out to the public, but several Encinitas stakeholders will be on hand for the discussion that will give more information on what community choice energy is, why it works and what it takes for it to happen in a jurisdiction.

Community Choice Energy, the informal name of Community Choice Aggregation, is the process in which a jurisdiction such as a county or a city forms an agency that buys power on the open market, choosing the source of the power based on the community’s choice.

For example, the community could choose that it wants all of its power from solar or wind farms, or it wants the most cost effective energy source possible.

The major energy companies such as Sempra, San Diego Gas & Electric and PG&E in Northern California would still deliver the power, but the community would have control over where it received the power from.

CCAs, as they are known for short, have emerged in Northern California and one city in Southern California, Lancaster, also has a CCA.

But much of Southern California is still wading in the discussion and exploration phase.

Encinitas is part of a five-city group that is in talks of creating a CCA along the North County coastline — Solana Beach, Carlsbad, Oceanside and Del Mar comprise the group.

Friday’s forum will include a panel discussion of officials from counties, CCA boards and other stakeholders that will outline the process for a jurisdiction to form a CCA program.

The event’s keynote speaker will be Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris.

Community Choice Energy Forum on Tap for Friday, by Aaron Burgin, The Coast News, March 9, 2017.

Supervisors Support Comprehensive Renewable Energy Plan Program

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors held a hearing on Phase I of the county’s comprehensive renewable energy plan February 15 and selected seven items for the Phase II implementation stage.

A 4-0 Board of Supervisors vote with Ron Roberts in Washington, DC, approved a program to establish a sustainability task force within the county’s existing framework, track community solar and wind energy initiatives within the county, and increase the county’s renewable energy generation and use along with transmission and storage.

The program will also develop strategies to address barriers to the use of alternative fuels including electric vehicles, establish and promote mechanisms to finance consumer installation, develop and implement a renewable energy education and outreach strategy, and develop a strategy to support legislation favorable to the use of renewable energy in San Diego County.

Although a motion to prepare a feasibility study for a Community Choice Aggregation program (a CCA program allows local governments to pool electricity customers to purchase power and allows the jurisdictions to administer energy programs on behalf of the residents and businesses) did not receive a second, a separate 4-0 vote directed county staff to return to the supervisors in 12 months with a report on the status of CCA studies by other California counties and cities.

“We’re already doing these items and they’re not going to cost any more money,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.

In April 2013, the Board of Supervisors directed the county’s chief administrative officer to develop options for a comprehensive renewable energy plan and to prepare a work plan including time and cost estimates.

County staff provided a work plan which was presented at a September 2013 Board of Supervisors meeting. The board’s September 2013 action was to appropriate $300,000 to fund Phase I of the work plan, to direct the director of the county’s Department of Planning and Development Services (PDS) to form a renewable energy technical advisory committee, and to direct PDS staff to prepare a pipelining provision to address existing applications for discretionary renewable energy projects. (The pipelining provision, which was also approved Feb. 15, will allow existing projects to be processed under the current rules rather than the new standards.)

The approved work plan included analyzing the county’s existing renewable energy programs and efforts, working with private sector stakeholders, conducting the economic, feasibility, and best management practices research, and developing recommendations.

The plan does not mandate goals or objectives. The Phase I plan included the results of economic, feasibility, and best management practices research and analysis. The plan summarized 17 best management practices. On Oct. 14 the county’s Planning Commission voted 4-0, with three members absent, to recommend 11 of those for further consideration.

Eight of those had no cost to the county for studies, although the supervisors rejected the recommendation for a new regional energy network on the grounds that the formula used by a regional government might result in decisions not favorable to the unincorporated communities.

The CCA feasibility study has an estimated cost of $200,000, a feasibility study to identify potential sites for future microgrids also has a $200,000 cost estimate, and preparing renewable energy design and development guidelines including Zoning Ordinance regulations would include an Environmental Impact Report which would result in an estimated cost of $500,000 for the study.

“I support more renewable energy in our region. We’re a perfect spot for this,” Horn said.

“I think that the Planning Commission did a good job,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “Our region continues to have some of the highest energy costs of anywhere in the state or the nation.”

“The best way to do this is to make sure we have every last tool we can,” said Industrial Environmental Association chief executive officer Jack Monger. “It’s going to be up to us to get this right.”

“The renewable energy plan provides a clear roadmap for a clean energy future,” said David Harris of La Mesa.

“We believe that a well-developed emissions reduction strategy will deliver maximum benefits and minimize costs,” said Sempra Energy regional vice president of external relations Frank Urtasun.

Urtasun also emphasized the need to use return on investment to prioritize strategies. “An ROI analysis would allow the county to identify the best management practices that would minimize costs including risks,” he said.

“We felt very strongly that return on investment was something the county should use,” said Craig Benedetto of California Strategies, who was a member of the technical advisory committee which helped develop the plan. “The county does have limited resources.”

Benedetto also noted that alternative vehicle power sources require the ability to travel throughout the county without running out of fuel. “You have to have fueling stations out there to be able to supply your constituents,” he said.

Energy consultant Cesar Rios has worked with the county, although not on the renewable energy program. “The county’s benefited from direct access, and I don’t see why the county’s constituents can’t do the same,” he said.

“In my view the CCA is still in its infancy,” said Supervisor Kristin Gaspar. “There are more lessons to be learned.”

Gaspar noted that the county already obtains 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources. “I’d encourage us all to turn our attention to actual outcomes,” she said.

Supervisors Support Comprehensive Renewable Energy Plan Program, by Joe Naiman, Village News, March 3, 2017.

Regulators Investigating SDG&E for Potential Lobbying Violations

State regulators said they’re investigating San Diego Gas & Electric’s efforts to influence the local adoption of government-run electricity programs, saying the company doesn’t have permission to do so yet.

Officials with SDG&E and its parent company, Sempra Energy, said they’ve done no wrong. They said the California Public Utilities Commission cleared their specially designated marketing division to lobby on community choice aggregation, or CCA, a program that would give residents and businesses a government-run alternative to SDG&E.

Until Wednesday night, the commission didn’t say it had undertaken a probe of the utility. The agency and Sempra also have spent this week giving fuller explanations for their opposing positions.

At stake are the statewide standards for how investor-owned utilities can weigh in on the program, which a growing number of cities and counties across California have embraced — or are considering — as a way to replace fossil fuels with more renewable power in the fight against climate change.

After publicly lobbying on CCA last week before the county Board of Supervisors, officials with the SDG&E marketing arm, Sempra Services Corporation, said they’ve been meeting with lawmakers countywide on this issue since September. Those include San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and several council members.

This lobbying caught the attention of the commission’s regulators, who said this week that SDG&E’s marketing division has never received approval to lobby on CCA. They also said they’re looking into the lobbying and that violations could be subject to fines as high as $50,000 for each offense.

“SDG&E is not in compliance …,” said Terrie Prosper, speaking on behalf of the commission and its president, Michael Picker. “The CPUC is investigating the facts surrounding SDG&E’s CCA-related communications.”

Officials for the utility and Sempra disagree with that position. They said in August, the commissioners approved a resolution allowing the marketing division to begin operations using only shareholder funds. This arrangement, the first of its kind in the state, was needed after the Legislature banned utilities from tapping ratepayer money to influence the adoption of CCAs.

A key sticking point is whether the resolution is contingent on SDG&E securing final clearance from the commission for its compliance plan, which spells out how the utility would satisfy a state-mandated firewall between it and the marketing division. The state’s goal is to ensure that information, employees and contractors are not shared between an investor-owned utility and the independent marketing arm.

SDG&E officials have repeatedly said lobbying is allowed while details of the compliance plan are hammered out. The commission has twice rejected the company’s blueprint, and a third version is expected to be considered by the agency in the next several days.

“Under the rules, whenever SDG&E proposes any changes to the (compliance) plan, it must seek staff approval for the change. That is precisely what we’re doing now, seeking approval for specific language changes,” said Amber Albrecht, senior communications manager for the utility.

A portion of the Aug. 18 resolution said the utility’s application for an independent marketing division and a related compliance plan are approved. But the document also called for some parts of that compliance plan to be revised and resubmitted to the commission.

Officials with the marketing division declined to say whether lobbying will continue ahead of the plan’s final approval. They did offer a summary of their previous lobbying efforts.

“Since the California Public Utilities Commission approved SDG&E’s filing in August 2016, Sempra Services has been meeting with elected officials and others in the community to introduce ourselves, gather community input and begin engaging in the ongoing dialogue about how our region can implement climate action plans to reduce (greenhouse-gas) emissions, maximizing potential environmental and economic benefits while minimizing cost and risk to local taxpayers,” said Frank Urtasun, regional vice president for Sempra Services.

After a bitter fight between Marin County and Pacific Gas & Electric over establishing the state’s first CCA, the Legislature in 2011 barred utilities from using ratepayer dollars to lobby on such programs.

As more CCAs come online, the specifics of how SDG&E and Sempra are allowed to operate could set a significant precedent for other utilities, said Andrew Campbell, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haas.

“This situation is going to clarify the rules, potentially set new rules,” Campbell said. “How this is resolved between Sempra and the CPUC and the (local) governments in their territory is what’s going to apply for other potential CCAs …”

California’s five existing CCA programs — Marin Clean Energy, Sonoma Clean Power, Lancaster Choice Energy, CleanPowerSF in San Francisco and Peninsula Clean Energy serving San Mateo County — have routinely offered customers more renewable power than competing utilities at the same or lower prices.

The number of such programs in the state is expected to double this year, and more than two dozen more municipalities are exploring the option. That includes the cities of San Diego and Solana Beach.

San Diego expects to release the findings of a rate study for CCA this fall. The program is being considered as part of the city’s nationally recognized Climate Action Plan, which calls for San Diego to run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.

According to the city’s lobbying database, Sempra first disclosed its intention to do CCA lobbying with San Diego in January.

On Thursday, the mayor’s office said Sempra and the contractor Responsible Solutions, a lobbying firm, met with Faulconer and city staff to discuss CCA once in November and another time in December.

Also, Councilman Chris Cate’s office said he met with Urtasun from the SDG&E marketing division to talk about the electricity program once in November.

Sempra and Responsible Solutions haven’t responded to requests asking whether they disclosed their lobbying before January.

Regulators Investigating SDG&E for Potential Lobbying Violations, by Joshua Emerson Smith, The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 23, 2017.

Sempra Unleashes Controversy with Lobbying on Rival Electricity Program

The region’s largest energy provider has been lobbying elected officials for months concerning an increasingly popular electricity program that would give residents and businesses an alternative to San Diego Gas & Electric — even though the company and its critics disagree on whether it has state approval to do so.

Officials with Sempra Energy said Thursday that they have been legally meeting with lawmakers to discuss community choice aggregation, or CCA, a state-sanctioned program that transfers the authority to buy and sell power from a utility to elected officials or their appointees for a particular jurisdiction — say a city, county or groupings of both. During a public meeting Wednesday, for example, they voiced concerns to the Board of Supervisors about a proposal to study whether the county should adopt a CCA program.

In California, a growing number of local governments have embraced or are exploring CCA as a way to limit use of fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy in the fight against climate change. These programs have routinely delivered more green power at prices equal to or lower than what utilities charge.

After a bitter fight between Marin County and Pacific Gas & Electric over establishing the state’s first CCA, the Legislature in 2011 barred utilities from using ratepayer dollars to lobby on such programs.

State law does allow investor-owned utilities to set up shareholder-funded marketing divisions for this purpose, and last year, SDG&E and its parent company, Sempra Energy, became the first in the state to officially pursue creation of such an entity. They named their new division Sempra Services Corp.

The marketing arm cleared a key hurdle in August, but is still seeking final approval from the California Public Utilities Commission. State regulators have rejected multiple blueprints drafted by SDG&E for how the marketing division would remain independent from the utility. The CPUC is considering a third revision to the company’s so-called compliance plan.

On Thursday, officials with the commission said Sempra Services has not received final clearance to lobby on CCA. They stopped short of making a judgment on whether the division’s activities in recent months have run afoul of state rules.

“The CPUC’s approved resolution (in August) on the creation of the marketing arm requires SDG&E to provide certain information to the CPUC for approval before marketing begins,” said Terrie Prosper, spokeswoman for the commission. “That approval is pending.”

She added: “We would need to look into the facts of the situation, but if Sempra is participating in activities that should only be covered by the marketing agent, they would be in violation of CPUC rules.”

Frank Urtasun, a top official with the marketing division, said Sempra Services has been lobbying elected officials on CCA since September, citing the commission’s resolution.

“We’ve not received any type of notification from the (CPUC) that overturns the decision that they made on August 18,” he said Wednesday after speaking at a public meeting where a majority of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors blocked a proposal to study CCA. “That’s why we’re here.”

Supervisors Kristin Gaspar, Greg Cox and Bill Horn — who opposed efforts by Supervisor Dianne Jacob to move forward with a feasibility analysis of CCA — on Thursday referred questions to the CPUC or declined to comment on whether they had met with Sempra officials to discuss the alternative electricity program.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and several of the city’s council members said Thursday that they’ve had conversations with Sempra about CCA. The city is considering CCA as part of its broad plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The fact that Urtasun, as well as an independent contractor for Sempra, Lani Lutar, spoke publicly about CCA this week set off a firestorm among supporters of such programs.

“We’re very concerned that they are basically defying the state,” said Nicole Capretz, executive director of Climate Action Campaign, which has advocated strongly for CCAs throughout the county. “I don’t know what’s going on. As of today, they don’t have authority to operate.”

A statewide coalition of existing CCAs, known as the California Community Choice Association, filed a challenge Thursday to SDG&E’s most recent compliance plan. It raised concerns that Sempra Services may be engaging in lobbying activities without the commission’s green light.

“We asked the commission to order them to cease all lobbying and marketing activities until they have a compliance plan that’s actually approved,” said Barbara Hale, one of the group’s top officials and the president of San Francisco’s CCA, CleanPowerSF.

“SDG&E is supposed to be showing the regulators how they have their accounting rules and they’ve trained their employees and all the systems are in place to make sure that Frank knows that when he’s testifying at that county board, he cannot charge his time to ratepayers,” she added. “None of that is in place.”

In response to questions about the legality of the lobbying in recent months, SDG&E spokeswoman Amber Albrecht said: “SDG&E has filed a compliance plan with the commission to demonstrate how it complies with the law. That plan is in effect. A few discrete issues under the plan are continuing to be evaluated by the commission.”

The commission hasn’t disclosed what fines or repercussions Sempra and SDG&E could face if they are found to be in violation of the state rules.

Sempra Unleashes Controversy with Lobbying on Rival Electricity Program, by Joshua Emerson Smith, San Diego Union-Tribune, February 17, 2017.

School District Spearheads New Power Revolution

San Diego Unified School District offered a glimpse into the ongoing implementation of its climate action plan on Thursday evening (February 9) with its Family Climate Action Summit.

A crowd of about 100 trickled into the auditorium at Kearny High School, where climate action awards were presented and school-board vice president Kevin Beiser, along with students and faculty from Montgomery Middle School, presented a host of actions that have been taken to “green” campuses across the city.

“Our gardens are outdoor classrooms,” said Patrick Meehan, an English teacher at Montgomery. “It’s enriching the science curriculum — observation, data collection, keeping good records. This is the beginning of getting kids involved and learning about the environment through their classes.”

Meehan and Emalyn Leppard shared progress on their school’s garden, which began in 2003 and has grown to include a gazebo for outdoor lessons, a composting program that uses waste from the school’s cafeteria, and a greenhouse where students practice aquaculture, raising plants and fish whose growth support one another. Between 400 and 500 students a year participate in one of the garden programs.

Beiser provided more examples of student participation, including a climate learning center implemented at Hoover High and a series of district-wide competitions that have sought solutions from students to improve district campuses.

“Scripps Ranch High School has an environmental science building where students monitor their own windmills,” Beiser cited as another example. “They regulate and contribute to make sure the monitoring station is up and running; they also monitor the solar production at their school’s facility and track and maintain the underground 80,000 gallon tank that captures rainwater to irrigate the landscape.

“We’ve worked very hard to create energy-efficient facilities worthy of our children that also provide curriculum about environmental sciences and the growing green industrial sector in the future.”

The district adopted its climate plan in July 2015, which mirrors the one later adopted by city government in that it seeks to source 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2035.

“Phases one and two are generating over 10.5 megawatts of power, saving the school district $2.5 million every year on our electric bills, money that we can spend in the classroom on smaller class sizes, music, and arts,” said Beiser of the district’s existing solar-power installations. “It also saves over 4900 tons of carbon that’s not being admitted into the atmosphere.”

A third phase, coming in 2018, will add another 5 megawatts of solar generating capacity, bringing total annual estimated savings to $3.9 million. Beiser also ticked off a list of accomplishments related to conservation efforts.

“LED lighting systems have reduced our energy consumption by 1.4 megawatts, saving over $300,000 a year,” Beiser continued. “We reduced our water usage by 39 percent in 2016 by implementing a central irrigation monitoring system to adjust watering based on weather data, and to help us identify leaks anywhere in the system.”

He added that the district has switched from styrofoam to compostable lunch trays, diverting ten million of them from local landfills annually. Cafeterias have also implemented “Meatless Monday” options, and school buses now run on biodiesel, which emits 90 percent less carbon than traditional diesel fuel.

“We’re fortunate to live in a city that’s a leader in innovation, sustainability, and alternative energy, and we have one of the leading climate action plans in the country,” added city councilmember Barbara Bry (District 1), who attended to talk with parents about the city’s climate plan. “It’s clear to most scientists that climate change has become a permanent part of our world, and it’s not going away. We’re a coastal city, so we have particularly large risks.

“All of us as individuals have a role to play. We can walk more, bike more, drive less, consume sustainably, plant native species and shift to drought-tolerant yards, shift to forms of alternative energy…and it’s time to start thinking about taking these steps now.”

The forum concluded with a presentation from the Sierra Club’s Pete Hasapopoulos and Christine Herbeck on community choice aggregation, an energy model in which a nonprofit entity takes responsibility for energy generation while a traditional utility remains responsible for maintaining the power grid and offering consumers who don’t want to buy in to the program an alternative power supply.

Proponents have argued that community choice, already in place in several regions of California, hastens the adoption of renewable energy while resulting in lower electricity bills for consumers. The aggregators also pay individual solar producers more for their unused power, which could be a boon for the school district, given its aggressive solar-installation schedule. Such markets, unsurprisingly, have been hotly contested by traditional utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric.

“Community choice energy is the single biggest thing the City of San Diego can do to reduce greenhouse gases; it’s epic in proportion, and that’s why we’re so dedicated to achieving it here,” said Hasapopoulos, who gave an overview of how the system could work. “That’s because we would have a new, not-for-profit energy provider that would serve nearly 1.4 million people.”

Added Herbeck, who recently began volunteering for the community-choice push, “I had no idea that this issue actually impacted our schools so much. Our school district is paying a lot of money for energy right now, and they’ve had battles with the utility over this issue. There’s an opportunity to save our schools some serious money, and if you’re a parent, you know how hard we fight for every dollar that goes back into our classrooms.

Click here to view the flyer.

School District Spearheads New Power Revolution, by By Dave Rice, San Diego Reader, February 12, 2017.