ATASCADERO – Two weeks after hearing from utility provider, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., that the local electrical grid could be taken offline for extended periods of time to prevent the corporation from being held liable for another infrastructure-caused wildfire, the Atascadero City Council heard a pitch from an alternative energy provider.
Monterey Bay Community Power’s (MBCP) Director of Communications J.R. Killigrew gave Atascadero the same information being furnished to the County of San Luis Obispo’s other municipalities in an effort to sign up the whole region as members of a joint powers authority (JPA) to source “clean” energy. So far Morro Bay, Pismo Beach and Paso Robles are onboard.
While the promised rebate checks and overall lower rates may seem appealing to individual ratepayers feeling burned by PG&E’s policies, joining up with MBCP wouldn’t free customers of reliance on the existing grid. If the City chooses to join, local customers would be enrolled in a program sourcing their energy generated by MBCP, with the change showing up as a line item on their PG&E bill, Killigrew said. They’d have 60 days after that to opt out if they don’t like the change.
The opt-out rather than opt-in method was determined by California state law to guarantee Community Choice Aggregation programs like MBCP a chance to grow, as it takes much more effort for thousands of individual customers to sign up than for those dissatisfied to withdraw.
An element of the sales pitch which drew particular attention from Mayor Pro Tem Charles Bourbeau was the promise of programs that could assist business customers in setting up local “micro-grids” areas that could remain functional should the larger system go down. An area which PG&E’s representative previously distanced the company from responsibility.
According to MBCP materials a microgrid, “can act as a single, controllable entity with respect to the main grid; either connected to the grid or operated autonomously as an island.”
So far so good, but particularly for Councilwomen Roberta Fonzi and Heather Newsom, the timetable required to take action for the MBCP JPA to enroll the municipality by September gave them reason to wait out this round. Areas of concern for Mayor Heather Moreno were not just that the decision to join was advancing quickly, but that Atascadero could find itself on the hook for financial liability without much say in the affairs of the JPA.
“If we do this,” she said to constituents, “we’re not just signing up for another provider. The City is becoming an energy provider as part of the Joint Powers Authority. We need to be clear about that.”
A nonprofit entity, MBCP has two separate governing boards, Killigrew said, with elected representatives from their constituent municipality and county partners making decisions. The breakdown is largely by population, so under the structure proposed Paso Robles and Atascadero would share a North San Luis Obispo County seat.
In an appeal to Moreno’s fiscal hawk instincts, Killigrew noted their primary mechanism for stability is to amass large operating reserves capable of handling 50 percent of their annual expenditure, before turning the excess into rebates and customer programs.
As for the concern about one community of 30,000 being lost in future growth, he said their maximum projected growth would be to Santa Barbara as Ventura already operates under another energy program.
While the Council was split on bringing an actionable item back before August, in time for the energy provider’s September timeline, they agreed to schedule another informational session on July 9.
Both Bourbeau and Councilwoman Susan Funk indicated that they believed there was already enough information to act, but more was certainly available from other communities already taking part in the program.
Monterey Bay Community Power makes local pitch, by Camas Frank, Atascadero News, June 28, 2019.