La Mesa and Chula Vista move forward on community choice energy program

The city councils of Chula Vista and La Mesa each gave the green light Tuesday night to take the first steps in joining forces with the city of San Diego to create the area’s first community choice energy program.

“There’s power in numbers and in this case, bigger is better,” La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis said after the La Mesa city council voted 5-0 to consider accepting an invitation from San Diego to form a community choice aggregation, or CCA, program.

Chula Vista’s city council agreed to a similar measure, although the vote was much closer at 3-2.

CCA programs have grown in popularity in recent years across California, promising to deliver cleaner sources of electricity to customers at similar or lower rates than investor-owned utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric.

Under a community choice model, traditional power companies still take on their current duties (such as delivering electricity through transmission lines and handling customer billing) but the CCA would assume the role of purchasing the source of the electricity (such as wind, solar or natural gas) in the service territory.

The state’s first CCA opened for business in 2010 in Marin County in Northern California. There are now 19 across the state, serving roughly 10 million customers.

Earlier this month, the city of San Diego formally invited seven towns — Chula Vista, La Mesa, Santee, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Del Mar and Solana Beach — plus the unincorporated areas represented by the County of San Diego to sign up to be part of a joint powers agreement led by San Diego. As an enticement, San Diego has promised to assume the initial startup costs of $300,000 and do the legwork to ensure the proposed CCA gets launched on the proper financial footing.

The invitees have until Oct. 1 to adopt the final structure of a regional joint powers agreement, or JPA, that would create a fully operational CCA in the San Diego area by 2021.

Regional JPA supporters say under a regional JPA, members can enjoy economies of scale when it comes to negotiating power purchase contracts. Plus, a JPA allows jurisdictions to better protect their respective general funds by creating a legal and financial firewall in case the CCA ever runs into fiscal problems. The thinking goes that a regional JPA will be legally separate from the members’ governments.

“This is a big change, not just for La Mesa but for the city of San Diego,” said La Mesa City Councilwoman Kristine Alessio. “This is a big change for the region.”

Tuesday’s vote in La Mesa does not formally commit the town to join the regional JPA but all five city council members said they supported creating a CCA. The council is scheduled to review the framework drafted by the city of San Diego on Sept. 10.

The Chula Vista city council showed a less united front.

In a vote directing city staff to examine the regional JPA offer as Chula Vista’s preferred option, council members John McCann joined Stephen Padilla in voting yes. “If we do partner with the city of San Diego, they’re going to put in the upfront costs, not us,” McCann said.

While he said he supports creating a CCA, Mike Diaz voted no because he feared multiple jurisdictions in a regional JPA would dilute Chula Vista’s influence. He preferred Chula Vista set up its own CCA. “Local control is very important to me,” Diaz said.

Jill Galvez echoed some of the concerns CCA critics have about the risks of local governments entering the energy landscape. “I don’t feel comfortable doing this,” she said before casting a “no” vote. “I don’t think we should rush into this and jump into the pit head-first.”

It was left to Mayor Mary Casillas Salas to cast the tie-breaking vote. “We can’t afford to put this off for a year when we have evidence about climate change,” she said. “We have options in front of us to make us proactive to minimize what’s going to happen in the very near future.”

At both the La Mesa and Chula Vista meetings, a representative of the local chapter of the IBEW electrical workers union complained the JPA draft introduced by the city of San Diego did not include a number of guarantees for prevailing wages, collective bargaining, the creation of community advisory boards and other items.

Padilla of Chula Vista said unless he saw some “movement” to address those issues, he would not support the regional JPA framework.

Cody Hooven, chief sustainability officer for the city of San Diego, said the framework was set up to provide a large degree of flexibility among the communities considering the JPA. “This is just a foundational document,” Hooven said. “There’s a lot of policies and procedures that still need to be put together.”

Hooven said the city of San Diego plans to put out a final JPA document next week.

Santee’s city council is scheduled to address the regional JPA invitation Aug. 28.

And the city of San Diego has its own decision to make. Although Mayor Kevin Faulconer has already come out in favor of creating a CCA, the San Diego City Council has not yet formally decided whether to adopt community choice energy. A vote is expected in mid-September.


La Mesa and Chula Vista move forward on community choice energy program, by Rob Nikolewski, The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 14, 2019.

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