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What is Community Choice Energy and Why Should You Care?

Power to the people.

Community choice energy programs in California and other states are helping our country shift away from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy.

Are you thinking something like “That sounds great but what the heck is community choice energy?” If you are, you have plenty of company so do not worry about it.

I only learned about community choice energy because I chanced upon the SLO Climate Coalition when I was looking for a group promoting clean renewable energy where I live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. When I met them in October 2018, they and their predecessor group SLO Clean Energy had been working for years to bring community choice energy to the cities and unincorporated areas in our county.

Because of their efforts and the efforts of many other people this initiative is succeeding. On January 9, 2020, San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay became the first cities in San Luis Obispo County to begin receiving electricity through a community choice energy program provided by Monterey Bay Community Power. Other cities will be joining next year and hopefully, the County will get on board, too.

Community Choice Energy Flip the Switch Event in San Luis Obispo City Hall
San Luis Obispo City Council (Mayor Heidi Harmon in red), City staff, and members of the SLO Climate Coalition at the “flip the switch” event at San Luis Obispo City Hall on January 9, 2020 – photo credit San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. Click here to read the article.

Through my work with the SLO Climate Coalition, I have had the opportunity to learn about community choice energy and became interested in researching the topic on my own.

This post is intended to serve as an introduction to community choice energy and will hopefully spark your interest in advocating for a program where you live and/or opting to stay in it if your community already has one.

First, let’s talk about electricity generation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Electricity Generation and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Global warming is being caused by excess greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) building up in Earth’s atmosphere overwhelming the planet’s ability to deal with it. Most scientists agree that humans need to stop burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas or the climate crisis will continue to worsen endangering our very existence.

This short video was prepared by the World Meteorological Organization in advance of the United Nations COP25 climate conference held in Madrid, Spain during December 2019.

How do greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation fit in the overall picture?

The process of generating electricity is the largest stationary source of CO2 emissions in the United States. In 2018, this represented 33% of all CO2 emissions sources across the country. 1

U.S. Electric Power Generation and Emissions 1990-2018 Graph
Fuels Used in Electric Power Generation (TBtu) and Total Electric Power Sector CO2 Emissions – source U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In a 2019 report, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded that community choice energy providers could reshape U.S. electricity markets and increase customer demand for renewable energy. 2

Community Choice Energy 101

The U.S. federal government has some involvement in regulating electricity markets but states are largely responsible for what happens within their own borders.

States have the authority to pass legislation authorizing community choice energy programs. As of this writing, nine states have passed such legislation including California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

Community choice energy legislation allows communities to choose who they purchase electricity from instead of being required to buy it from investor-owned utilities (IOUs) that are beholden to their shareholders.

How does it Work?

A city, county, or some combination of cities and counties may form an organization called a community choice aggregator (CCA). A CCA is a local or regional not-for-profit public agency that assumes the responsibility for procuring electricity on behalf of all customers in its jurisdiction.

The reason they are called aggregators is that they pool (aggregate) the electricity demand for their customer base and then procure electricity to meet that demand from one or more sources of their choosing. The electrons purchased are fed into the electric grid so as a customer you are not necessarily receiving your electricity from the source selected by your CCA.

At this time, CCAs only purchase electricity. They form partnerships with IOUs who continue to provide transmission, distribution, meter reading, billing, maintenance, and outage response services.

Where I live, the City of San Luis Obispo and the City of Morro Bay opted to join Monterey Bay Community Power an existing CCA that was already serving several counties on the California Central Coast.

Our house is in the unincorporated part of San Luis Obispo County so PG&E is still our electricity provider. However, we have a rooftop solar panel system on our home so we generate most of our own power. During the day we send our excess electricity to the grid and at night we draw electricity from it.

Benefits

For me, it is a tossup as to which is the best benefit of community choice energy.

Local control of electricity procurement decisions enables CCAs to offer their customers choices. Most CCAs procure a mix of electricity from both renewable and nonrenewable sources and allow their customers to choose a mix that meets their budget and desire to support renewable energy (or not).

Unlike IOUs, CCAs do not have investors looking to profit from their investments. This enables CCA’s to offer competitive rates that are often lower than the IOUs. In addition, revenue surpluses are used to fund community programs versus lining the pockets of shareholders. These programs can range from funding rooftop solar panels for low-income families, to adding electric vehicle charging stations around town, to awarding grants to local nonprofits.

Many CCAs are focused on procuring electricity from carbon-free renewable sources like hydroelectric, wind and solar which spurs investment in these technologies and helps transition the U.S. off fossil fuel-powered electricity.

CCAs are already embracing the Green New Deal creating jobs and investing locally and working on helping their communities become more just and resilient.

Drawbacks

Avid community choice energy advocates sometimes gloss over potential drawbacks but I think it is important to cover them, too.

Adding more buying entities to an already complex system does not necessarily promote cooperation and could take attention away from the critical work that needs to be done modernizing, securing, and making our electric grid more resilient.

IOUs have a lot of money and expertise available to keep on top of electricity-related legislation and to lobby government agency representatives and elected officials. CCAs may or may not have the funds and staff necessary to keep up and to effectively influence legislation. Recently, there has been a rash of mostly worrisome community choice energy-related legislation making its way through the California legislature.

Most CCAs are new and do not have a long-term financial standing with creditors possibly making them more vulnerable to changing electricity market conditions or unexpected problems.

For instance, of the seven states with active CCAs, California is the only state with a regulated electricity market. California CCAs are required to pay “exit” fees to compensate IOUs for their sunken investment costs and long-term contracts. The determination of these fees called the power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA) is a contentious and recurring process with little transparency. If these fees continue to escalate as they have been, it could endanger the financial viability of existing CCAs and preclude others from even forming.

Summary

Community choice energy is beginning to disrupt the electricity industry. I believe this a good thing.

U.S. Map Showing Community Choice Energy States

We need a massive and systematic change in the way we power our lives and businesses in the United States. Perhaps community choice energy can provide a lever to break the status quo and accelerate our transition to clean renewable energy.

Disruption can be frightening, too. I worry that while communities focus on local choice and control that the big picture may not receive the attention it needs and that further fragmentation of the electricity market may have unintended consequences.

However, as far as I am concerned, the need to change far outweighs the problems and roadblocks we are sure to encounter along the way.

By learning about and advocating for community choice energy where we live, you and I can be part of a clean renewable energy future for everyone.

Featured Image at Top

Four people are holding icons representing a solar panel, sun, wind turbine, light bulb, water drop, and battery – photo credit iStock/Rawpixel.

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References

  1. DRAFT Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2018, Chapter 3: Energy – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 02/12/20
  2. Community Choice Aggregation: Challenges, Opportunities, and Impacts on Renewable Energy Markets – by Eric O’Shaughnessy, Jenny Heeter, Julien Gattaciecca, Jenny Sauer, Kelly Trumbull, and Emily Chen – U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 02/2020

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Environmental Impact of Cooking Oils

What do you know about your cooking oil?

Have you ever considered the environmental impact of the cooking oil you routinely buy to stock your pantry? Maybe you should.

Take a moment to picture the cooking oils you have in your home right now. Some of you may have visualized one bottle while others saw a collection of bottles.

The thing is every household in the world probably holds at least one container of cooking oil. It is inconceivable that those hundreds of millions of bottles, jars, and cans of cooking oil do not cause environmental harm. The questions roaming about in my head were how much and does it matter.

I decided to try to find out and share what I learned in this post.

What is Cooking Oil?

Cooking oil is used to transfer heat from a pan to food, keep food from sticking to the pan, and in some cases to impart flavor. Oils do not mix with the water contained in food which is why French fries maintain a crusty exterior as long as you do not cook them long enough to cook all the water out of the potatoes. If you do, your fries will be soft and oily.

Before embarking on this project, I needed to rope in (persuade) my spouse to participate because she is our family chef and it would be her cooking with a variety of different oils. I would be fulfilling the role of taste tester and researcher.

At our local grocery market, I selected seven different oils using the totally non-scientific method of picking bottles that I thought would make an attractive photo.

Back at home, I placed the bottles of oil in our pantry and we proceeded to put away the rest of our groceries. When I opened the refrigerator, I was confronted with a covered dish containing half of a stick of butter and a jar of coconut oil. Hmm, were these cooking oils, too?

That led to the question “What constitutes cooking oil?”

I did not find a definitive answer. Generally cooking oil is a fat derived from a plant that is liquid at room temperature such as olive, canola, and peanut oil.

Terrific that seemed straightforward except…

Coconut oil is plant-based oil but it is solid at room temperature. Is it still oil? What about butter? Butter is derived from an animal and is used for cooking, but is solid at room temperature. Oh, and what exactly makes something a fat?

I wanted answers so I approached my son who is a physicist and is skilled at explaining science to non-scientists like me. He gave me the French fries example above.

From my son, I learned about fatty acids, lipids, and glycerol, which you can read about using the links at the left.

One thing that I found fascinating is that edible fat molecules and inedible petroleum molecules are more similar than you might think. They are both slippery meaning good at lubricating stuff. However, edible fat molecules also have a molecular handle that allows other molecules in your body to grab onto them to run your biological machinery and keep you healthy.

Model of a Triglyceride (Fat) Molecule

This is a molecular model of a fat or triglyceride. Note the three fatty acid chains attached to the central glycerol (red) portion of the molecule. Image – Wikipedia.

To summarize cooking oils are fats that your body needs to function. These fats come from plants, animals, and are sometimes synthesized in laboratories. Cooking oils are generally liquid at room temperature but not always.

Growing Oil Crops

In this post, we are discussing plant-based cooking oils that are derived from tree fruits (e.g., avocado and olive), nuts (e.g., walnut and peanut), and seeds (e.g., canola [rapeseed] and sunflower).

Oil crops can be grown in harmony with nature intermixing with other plants and animals and growing up without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Cooking oils that meet certain environmental standards and are certified by an independent third party can be marketed as USDA organic.

On industrial-scale farms, trees and plants are often grown as monocrops which is the practice of growing a single crop on the same section of land year after year. This type of agriculture kills the soil so synthetic fertilizers must be applied to provide nutrients for the plants. In addition, monocrops are susceptible to being wiped out by insect pests and taken over by plant pests (weeds) so massive amounts of pesticides are used in an attempt to prevent these problems.

Blooming Canola Field in Saskatchewan, Canada with Storm Clouds
This is an industrial-scale monocrop canola field in Saskatchewan, Canada – photo credit Nas2/Wikipedia.

To combat the monocrop pest problem some growers use GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds that have been genetically engineered to withstand the application of ever more powerful pesticides. Nowadays, in the U.S., most soybeans and canola plants are grown from GMO seeds.

Oil trees and crops grow in a variety of climates and some are thirstier than others.

Problems for people and other members of nature arise when huge swaths of land are cleared to make way for monocrop tree plantations and agricultural fields. The repercussions are significant and cumulative meaning they get worse over time. Habitat loss, soil erosion, sedimentation in streams, air and water pollution, and the destruction of biodiversity endanger the health of ecosystems all over the world that support life on Earth.

Of course, the environmental damage caused by growing monocrops on an industrial scale is universal and not just confined to oil crops.

Making Cooking Oil

Peanuts in Shells in a Bag

Plant-derived oils are made by squeezing the oil out of the flesh of fruits like avocados and olives, from nuts such as peanuts and almonds, and from seeds like sesame and safflower. Photo credit – American Peanut Council.

Some oils are then refined, bleached, and deodorized to change their color and to remove the flavor of the source plant. Extraction and processing methods affect the look, taste, and sales price of cooking oils.

Cold-Press – in this process, the fruit is ground into a paste and then pressed through a series of disks using hydraulic pressure without producing heat. Sometimes the paste is pressed multiple times to extract every last bit of oil. Extra virgin olive oil is produced from the first press.

Expeller Pressing Machine

Expeller Press – is a machine used to extract oil from nuts and seeds by squeezing them under continuous high pressure. The friction created by this process heats the oil which may affect the nutrient content and taste of the oil. Photo credit – Matthewsr2000/Wikipedia.

Decanter Centrifuge – uses high rotational speed to separate fruit, nut, and seed pulp from the oil contained within them. Edible oils like olive oil may use a 3-phase separation process that makes it possible to separate the oil, water, and solids in one step.

Solvent Extraction – involves using a substance that can dissolve other substances to extract oil from oil crops. Hexane is a highly flammable chemical made from crude oil that is used as a solvent to extract vegetable oils from crops such as soybeans and canola.

Cooking Oil Tests

Seven Cooking Oils for Testing
These are the oils we used for our cooking oil tests (left to right) – sunflower, olive, hemp, canola, safflower, grapeseed, and avocad0.

Over a period of several months, our family taste-tested six of the seven cooking oils I had selected at the grocery market. Some oils like olive oil imparted more flavor than others such as sunflower oil but none of the oils interfered with the deliciousness of any of the dishes my spouse prepared using them.

The hemp oil is still sitting in the cupboard unopened. That is because when I actually read the label I discovered that its low smoke point makes it unsuitable for cooking. We do not make a lot of salad dressings or often sprinkle oil on food so we have not had a reason to try the hemp oil.

What is the Most Eco-Friendly Cooking Oil?

After reading dozens of articles and blog posts and a couple of research reports, I had learned about cooking with various oils, land use issues, oil extraction methods, GMO seeds, unintended consequences, different types of fat, and fake olive oil.

It was time to go back to the questions that I had been attempting to answer. What is the environmental impact of cooking oil? Does it matter?

You guessed it. The answer to the first question is it depends. Small-scale farms using organic and/or regenerative agriculture practices probably create significantly less harm than huge monocrop operations that gobble up forests and encourage the proliferation of pesticide use.

Other factors to consider are the amount of water, land, and energy required to grow and process the oil. The source of the energy affects the carbon footprint of the oil (e.g., coal versus sun).

The number of miles your cooking oil travels from the field to the processing facility to the store to your home is important, too. For instance, consider a bottle of artisanal olive oil sitting on a California grocery market shelf that was produced by a small organic outfit in Spain. The product itself may be eco-friendly but the fact that it has traveled thousands of miles to get to your pantry is not.

That brings us to the other question. Does the environmental impact of cooking oil matter?

Well, there are many things that are much worse like fracking for natural gas or raising livestock animals for meat. It would be easy to say that the environmental footprint of cooking oils is not something to be concerned about. However, the sheer volume of something small like cooking oil when taken collectively can indeed make a significant impact so it is probably worth at least a little consideration.

Which Cooking Oil is Right for You?

As it turned out, for our family, the most eco-friendly cooking oil we can buy is the organic extra virgin olive oil we purchase by the gallon at our local farmers market from Mt. Olive Organic Farm. There are so many reasons this is a good choice for us.

Mt. Olive Organic Farm Booth at Farmers Market in Cambria, CA on February 7, 2020
Kaylee and James at the Mt. Olive Organic Farm booth during the farmers market in Cambria, CA on February 7, 2020.

The Mediterranean climate in our region is good for growing olive trees. Mt. Olive Organic Farm uses organic farming and processing practices. The olive oil travels less than 35 miles between the farm and the farmers market which is about a quarter of a mile from our house. At home, we pour the olive oil from the one-gallon jug into a smaller bottle and put it in our cupboard. When the original bottle is empty we return it, buy a new bottle, and the old bottle gets reused.

Equally important to us is that by buying this and other locally grown and made products we are supporting the livelihoods of the people who live here not in some distant place hundreds or thousands of miles away. Plus we have the opportunity to meet and talk with the people who are growing our food.

We keep organic canola oil and sesame oil on hand, too.

There are so many different plants that can be used to make cooking oil it seems likely that locally grown and produced oil is probably available to almost anyone. You just have to look for it.

Now, I hope you feel at least a little informed about the environmental impact of cooking oil. Please take a few minutes to consider your own cooking oil choices and decide whether you want to try something new.

Featured Image at Top

These bottles of six different plant-derived cooking oils are shown with their corresponding seed, fruit, or nut – photo credit iStock/AlexPro9500.

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