Where Is Community Energy Going?

Yolo County’s new community choice energy agency recently approved negotiation with SMUD for a set of technical services designed to get the agency online by June next year.

The Valley Clean Energy Alliance’s current staff consists of city and county employees borrowed from local sustainability programs, essentially a zero-sum game that may limit rather than facilitate local clean energy resource development.

The borrowed team would retain local managerial control, in theory, but it would be increasingly dependent on the advice and expertise of the SMUD team.

We can be encouraged that the VCEA board has finally taken a decisive step after a primarily political process that has taken too long. It spent 18 months organizing a joint power authority comprising the cities of Davis and Woodland as well as Yolo County. According to the technical study commissioned by Davis and presented to the Davis City Council in early 2016, the process from that point to serving customers could have taken six to nine months.

Now, a year and a half later, according to information presented at the Aug. 31 VCEA board meeting, the target date for serving customers is still 10 months in the future. One apparent reason for the lengthy delay is that VCEA has yet to appoint a permanent chief executive officer or recruit for any other managerial positions. VCEA interviewed CEO candidates but for unexplained reasons abandoned the effort without choosing anyone.

A similar agency involving many more participating jurisdictions and customers, East Bay Community Energy serving Alameda County, had a CEO in place within three months. East Bay is accepting applications for a chief operating officer and other permanent positions.

Again, for unexplained reasons, VCEA set up a citizen advisory committee including local energy sector experts, but did not call a meeting until last week, after the SMUD proposal had already been chosen by staff and consultants to recommend to the board.

One of the VCEA directors admitted to me that the SMUD deal will allow the agency to operate indefinitely without a permanent CEO. But how well has this worked so far? Is it a good idea going forward?

In summary, Davis and Yolo County have become enmeshed in a political process rather than the business planning process any private-sector startup would have in place before engaging contractors. VCEA will be committing resources without a plan and without appropriately experienced management in place.

With this easy-going approach, will we get what we want from our community energy agency? For example, will we get 100 percent locally produced renewable energy in the county as soon as possible? Such transformational outcomes are what make VCEA worth doing. Achieving them is a tall order that will require exemplary and aggressive planning and management.

Community Choice is a competitive public business that must be managed as such. VCEA should recognize the need for an accountable, permanent management team to be in place while the contract with SMUD is negotiated.

Then, the VCEA management team can turn its attention to other requirements of the Community Choice formation process, including development of a proper business plan.

— Mark Braly and Alan Pryor are members of the city’s Natural Resources Commission and of its advisory committee, which recommended a community energy agency.

Where Is Community Energy Going?, by Mark Braly and Alan Pryor, The Davis Enterprise, September 10, 2017.

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