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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Ditch Your Car for the Day and Take the Bus

Try it.

Taking the bus instead of driving your car is an eco-friendly inexpensive way to get around. It could actually be more convenient than a car, at least sometimes.

What went through your mind after reading the first sentence? “I already ride the bus to work.” or “Thanks for the reminder. I’ll look up bus schedules online right now.” or “Fine you take the bus but I do not want to.”

If it was the latter, I hear you. I am certain that I have had the same thought many, many times.

But the climate crisis has disrupted my thinking. I believe our society needs to change the way we live, significantly, even radically to live more lightly on Earth, now, not at some distant point in the future. To me, that means trying new things and doing things that are not in my comfort zone.

Sure taking the bus is not a revolutionary action but for me it is new and outside of my comfort zone (I’ll explain why later).

My spouse and I live in Cambria a small town (population 6,000) on the California Central Coast. San Luis Obispo (population 47,000) about 35 miles away is the biggest city in our county. We already walk a lot to get around and for pleasure. To minimize trips to San Luis Obispo in our gasoline-powered car we strive to combine errands, appointments, meetings, entertainment, and other activities.

We had not been on the bus in our county until a recent warm day in September. That day we took the bus to the “big city” to run errands. This post recounts our experience. I hope after reading it you will consider trying out the bus service where you live.

The brief overview below illustrates the significance of the transportation sector as it relates to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Transportation is the moving of people, animals, and stuff from point A to point B via cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, trains, ships, and other vehicles.

U.S. GHG Emissions by Sector in 2017 Pie Chart

As you can see from this chart transportation represented a whopping 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. Over half of these emissions came from passenger cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans. Source – U.S. EPA.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2018, petroleum products (gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel) accounted for 92% of the energy used for transportation in the United States of which 54% was gasoline.

U.S. GHG Emissions from Transportation 1990-2017
This timeline shows that there is a huge opportunity for improvement in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector in the United States. Source – U.S. EPA.

A small percentage of vehicles have transitioned away from petroleum products to natural gas (a “less bad” fossil fuel) or to biofuels which are made from plants grown on agricultural land that could be used to grow food. Electricity represents only 1% of the energy used for transportation.

Bus Alternative Fuel Transition Chart 2008-2018 - APTA
Most buses in the U.S. run on diesel and natural gas, but hopefully more and more rapid transit agencies will switch to electric buses.

Our Day on the Bus

If I was a more adventurous sort of person, I might have decided to try the bus on the spur of the moment. But I am one of those people who usually plan ahead and I like to have some idea about what to expect in new situations.

Therefore, I did some advance research on the San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority (RTA) website. I discovered bus service from and to Cambria is infrequent and that on the way to San Luis Obispo we would need to transfer to another bus in Morro Bay.

Deciphering the schedule was a bit challenging but I eventually figured it out. The legend on the route map indicated that there are timed stops where the bus always stops and untimed stops where the bus will stop if someone is waiting to get on or a passenger wants to get off. I learned about fares and that you can pay in cash on the bus (exact change only), use a smartphone app (my phone is too old), or buy passes online.

The RTA website had a handy video for first-time bus riders that showed how to plan your trip, pay on the bus, and to let the driver know you want to get off at an untimed stop which you do by pulling on the cord that runs along the top of the windows.

My spouse and I both work out of our home and have fairly flexible schedules. We decided to take the bus for a day trip to run errands in San Luis Obispo.

Waiting at Route 15 Bus Stop on Main Street in Cambria, CA

We opted for a mid-morning bus. The nearest timed bus stop is three-quarters of a mile from our house, but since I had done research ahead of time, I knew there was an untimed bus stop a quarter of a mile away. We arrived at that stop at 10:45 a.m. to wait for the bus.

Small San Luis Obispo RTA Bus

At 11:05, the small route 15S bus pulled up and we got on. There were seven people already on board. Photo – SLO RTA.

San Luis Obispo RTA Bus Pass

I fed $11.00 into the machine next to the driver and the machine spit out two paper passes that were printed on paper board with a readable strip. We would swipe these passes each time we boarded a bus that day.

We sat down in the front so I could talk to the bus driver and buckled up. I was surprised that the bus had seat belts. (I also knew that the front seats in a bus are designated for elderly or disabled people so I was prepared to move if needed.)

Our driver was a friendly man named Alan who seemed to know some of the passengers. When I asked him how long he had been driving the route 15 bus, he said 16 years. Before that, he had driven a tour bus at Hearst Castle. Alan joked that his son has told him that he is driving his life away. He said that he thought driving a bus was his calling.

The bus traveled along Highway 1. After the hilly terrain flattened out, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean for several miles.

We arrived in Morro Bay a few minutes beyond the scheduled time of 11:33 a.m. The full-size 12S bus was waiting for us so we walked off one bus and directly onto the other bus. We swiped our passes, found seats, and sat down (no seat belts on this bus). There were ten or so other passengers when we got on the bus.

At 12:08 p.m., we arrived just two minutes late at the outdoor San Luis Obispo transit center near City Hall. The county buses pull up in one section and the San Luis Obispo city buses line up across the intersection.

Hot Fudge Sundae from McConnells in San Luis Obispo, CA

Now we were in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo so it was easy to walk around completing our various errands. We treated ourselves to ice cream at McConnell’s (to be truthful I had a hot fudge sundae).

My understanding of the schedule meant that we needed to take the 12N at 2:33 p.m. in order to make our connection in Morro Bay with the 15N at 3:00 p.m. so we arrived at the Transit Center with about 15 minutes to spare.

San Luis Obispo County RTA Bus with Bike on Bike Rack
This photo of one of the full-size RTA buses shows a bike on the bike rack. Photo – SLO RTA.

We sat on one of the benches observing buses coming and going. I watched one man ride up on a bike and then hoist it onto the bike rack at the front of the bus. It is low to the ground but I doubt I could lift a bike up that far.

When the 12N arrived, we got on, swiped our passes, and found seats in the middle of the bus. This bus did not leave right on time because apparently, we were waiting for another bus to arrive. When it did, some passengers got off that bus and walked over to board our bus. We headed out at 2:36 p.m. with about 20 passengers.

The 15N bus with Ernesto at the wheel was waiting for us when we arrived in Morro Bay at 3:02 p.m. (2 minutes late). We swiped our passes for the last time and sat down among the handful of passengers already on board.

As we approached the untimed stop across from the one where we had started our journey, I saw three people waiting to get on. Ernesto let us off at 3:41 p.m. and we walked back to our house arriving at 3:50 p.m.

Whew, we had successfully taken the bus from Cambria to San Luis Obispo and back. Next time, perhaps we will try getting around San Luis Obispo on the city bus.

Bus Benefits and Drawbacks

Riding the bus that day was a good experience all around.

The buses were clean and comfortable. When I asked the bus drivers questions, they answered politely with varying levels of enthusiasm. The passengers ranged in age from college students to seniors and we did not encounter any obnoxious or unruly behavior.

Our trip was relaxing and hassle-free. With the bus driver handling the driving, we were free to sit back enjoying the scenery and talking with each other. In San Luis Obispo, we did not need to navigate a parking garage or search for street parking. We saved the cost of parking, avoided wear and tear on our car, and did not have to pay for gas.

We usually walk around downtown San Luis Obispo even when we drive our car there but the bus required extra walking between our house and the bus stops. I think this a good thing.

For us, the limited schedule is a major drawback. We could take the bus to San Luis Obispo to attend an evening meeting, which we do almost weekly, but we would have no way of getting back home. I doubt that expanding bus service to our small town is even on the county’s radar screen but I suppose I could try to find out.

Now that you have read this post you might be wondering why I even wrote it since it seems that we will not be ditching our car in favor of the bus for most trips to San Luis Obispo.

I wrote it because living more lightly on the planet requires changing how we live our daily lives. If we don’t try new things, how will we ever change? How will we figure out what needs to be done to make riding the bus a workable solution for more people?

Perhaps there is a wonderful bus service where you live. You won’t know unless you try it.

Featured Image at Top: This photo shows 69 volunteers, 69 bicycles, 60 cars, and one bus gathered in Canberra, Australia to recreate a world-renowned photograph taken more than 20 years ago to demonstrate the advantages of bus and bicycle travel in congested cities. Photo credit – Australia Cycling Promotion Fund.

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