Power pivot: Community Choice Energy arrives on the Central Coast
The expansion happened fast.
In the span of a year, 10 Central Coast cities and Santa Barbara County all had voted, one after the other, to join as members of Monterey Bay Community Power (MBCP), a growing Community Choice Energy (CCE) utility that currently serves Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito counties.
It started with San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay in late 2018. Then Paso Robles and Grover Beach in spring 2019. By the end of August, Santa Maria, Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Guadalupe, Goleta, Carpentaria, and unincorporated Santa Barbara County had all jumped on board with MBCP—capping a near region-wide transition to the electricity provider.
“It just kind of took off,” said J.R. Killigrew, director of communications for MBCP. “In six months, we more or less have unified the Central Coast.”
Each city came at MBCP from a different angle—but all that voted to join noted the CCE’s lower rates and carbon-free energy portfolio compared to PG&E.
“I think it’s a safe bet,” said Mike Cordero, a Santa Maria City Council member. “The cost of power goes down, and we won’t be using any fossil fuel energy.”
MBCP is a CCE agency (also known as Community Choice Aggregation or CCA), which is a joint powers authority of local governments that buys power for its collective ratepayers and sells it over existing transmission lines as a cleaner, cheaper alternative to the incumbent utility. With the southbound expansion, MBCP’s total customers are expected to almost double, from 275,000 to 470,000 accounts, along with its revenue, making it one of the largest CCE entities in the state.
“If we can expand and scale this kind of model that we’ve seen tremendous success with within Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz counties,” Killigrew said, “it really just fits perfectly with our goals and mission as an agency.”
CCE took a long time to take hold in California. But the concept is now proliferating across the state. When MBCP first launched in 2018, it was one of 10 others like it created in the state that year, boosting the overall CCE count to 19. CCEs now procure power for about 4 million customers, or close to a quarter of California’s electricity load.
“You can see the explosion start to happen,” said Beth Vaughan, executive director of CalCCA, a legislative advocacy organization for CCE. “It absolutely makes sense that the local communities want their energy providers to be local.”
As SLO and Morro Bay gear up to start MBCP service in January 2020—the remaining jurisdictions begin theirs in 2021—proponents say this power pivot aligns the Central Coast with the state’s aggressive push to lower its carbon emissions, while critics question whether CCEs can deliver on their promises of lower rates, cleaner energy, and local control.
Before Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson was a pioneer in the CCE world (and a decline-to-state politician), his past life was as a Republican state Assembly member, senator, and secretary of state from 2005 to 2007.
All of those years spent in Sacramento exposed McPherson to the concept of CCE, he said. When he retired from state politics and decided to run for local office in 2012, McPherson made CCE a priority in Santa Cruz County.
“After I ran for county supervisor, one of the first things I did was say, ‘This would be a great thing to do.’ And we started down the road,” McPherson said.
It took several years for the project to gain traction, but eventually the vision for a tri-county CCE venture, MBCP, came to fruition. For McPherson, who now chairs MBCP’s policy board, CCE is about local control, doing right by the environment, and saving ratepayers money.
“It’s a win-win-win situation,” he said. “I agree it seems, in some respects, like it’s too good to be true.”
That’s what several elected officials in SLO and Santa Barbara counties said as MBCP made its pitch. What’s the catch?
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