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

Resources

A Future Forest Resides within a Tiny Seed

Think globally, plant locally.

Growing a tree from a seed and then planting it is good for you and the planet. Try it and you will understand what I mean.

My tree planting experiences began after my spouse and I moved to the California Central Coast over a decade ago. We live in the midst of one of the few remaining native stands of Monterey pine trees in the world. This is a special place.

Drought, disease, and climate change are stressing our forest. Mother Nature needs assistance or our forest will die. This means we must help take care of the forest that remains and we need to plant trees to replace those that have died. We also need to plant trees to restore previously forested land that was cleared for some reason but is no longer being used for that purpose.

“When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be.”

Peter Wohlleben

Over the years, my spouse and I have planted trees in our yard for various reasons that include doing our part by attempting to restore our tiny patch of forest and to fulfill our commitment to plant at least two trees every year we buy a Christmas tree. In addition, we have planted Monterey pine tree seedlings during volunteer days on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve near where we live.

But I had never grown a tree seedling from seed—until last year.

It gave me a new appreciation of how awesome Mother Nature is and that in my own small way I can give her a hand in keeping Earth beautiful and healthy. You can, too, and so can everyone else.

I have been recounting my tree seedling growing experience on Green Groundswell. This is the final chapter of the story that began on a cold January evening in 2019 when I met Rick Hawley from Greenspace at a Cambria Forest Committee meeting and began coveting his rack of 98 tiny Monterey pine tree seedlings.

A few months later, my spouse and I became the stewards of our own rack of newly planted seeds.

Monterey Pine Tree Seedlings on Our Deck - January 17, 2020
This is our Monterey pine tree seedling rack on January 17, 2020. The rack holds 100 seedlings (there are two tubes with two seedlings). We transplanted six seedlings that were doubled up. Four have been growing in 1-gallon pots and two went to live in our yard.

If you have not read the previous posts and want to find out what it was like trying to grow itty bitty tree seedlings from seed, then you might want to read Mother Nature Needs Our Help – Let’s Plant Trees, Arbor Day 2019 – Let’s Plant Trees, and Imagine if Everyone Planted One Tree. Otherwise, pick the story up here, put on a raincoat, and grab a shovel because it is time to plant tree seedlings.

This is Your New Home

Unlike their wild cousins who live their entire lives wherever their seeds land and find acceptable growing conditions, our tiny tree seedlings have grown up in yellow plastic tubes in a rack on the deck outside of our kitchen. I do not know if they have been conversing with the mature Monterey pine trees in our yard but if they have I can imagine a conversation going something like this.

Seedling: “Have you lived in that spot all your life?”

Tree: “Yes and do I have some great stories to tell.”

Tree: “What is that yellow thing around your roots and why are you living in that weird formation with your cousins?”

Seedling: “I don’t know, but I heard that we might be moving soon.”

Tree: “Really! I wonder what it would be like to live somewhere else.”

Before Moving Day

Since Earth Day in April 2019, my spouse and I and some thirty-odd other individuals and families have been growing Monterey pine seedlings at home. The local schools have been participating, too.

Rick and other Greenspace volunteers made it easy for us. They provided the seeds, potting soil, and rack of tubes. All we had to do was plant the seeds in the tubes, place the rack in a sunny location, and provide water.

The seedling growers had been informed that we would be planting our seedlings sometime during the winter after the rainy season began so the seedlings would have a chance to become established in their new homes before the dry summer weather set in.

Land owned by California State Parks was chosen for the planting location. The land had previously been deforested and grazed by livestock animals so at this point it is basically grassland near a Monterey pine forest.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Google Map Showing 30 Planting Plots
This is a Google map view of the planting area on California State Park land outside of Cambria, CA. My spouse and I planted our tree seedlings in plot 13 – image Greenspace.

Before we could plant seedlings, several things needed to occur.

The area was covered with 4-foot tall dead grasses and plants that would make trekking through it and digging holes very difficult. Cal Fire did a controlled burn to clear the land.

Then Rick and a small band of volunteers measured out thirty circular plots and placed 2,940 yellow flag markers to show us where to plant our seedlings. This is to ensure that the trees have adequate room to grow without crowding their neighbors.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Volunteer Plot Flag Setters
Greenspace flag setting volunteers – photo Greenspace.

The next thing was to set up a schedule and communicate it to the seedling growers. You can imagine how chaotic it might have been if we had all showed up on the same day at the same time to plant almost 3,000 tree seedlings. Again Greenspace made it easy. We received an email with a link to a list of available planting days and times and were asked to pick one. After conferring with my spouse, I signed us up for a 3-hour slot on Monday, January 20, 2019.

Moving Day

That afternoon my spouse loaded up the car with our seedling rack, four 1-gallon pots holding our overflow seedlings, and some shovels. I donned jeans, a California Native Plant Society t-shirt and hat, and my hiking tennis shoes. After filling up my reusable water bottle, I grabbed a jacket and a pair of elbow-length gardening gloves. I was ready to plant tree seedlings.

Almost the instant we got in the car it began to rain.

As we drove to the planting site a few miles north of town I wondered if the day’s planting would be canceled. As we turned the corner onto the state park road I could see cars parked ahead on the side of the road and a group of people milling around.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Volunteer Group on January 20, 2020
This is our group of Greenspace volunteer seedling growers and tree planters getting ready to plant tree seedlings on January 20, 2020. The photo was taken by Rick using Ron’s phone.

We joined the group and added our seedling rack to the staging area. I noticed that most of the other seedlings were taller and greener than ours and wondered if we had done something wrong. Rick assured me that maybe the parent trees from which the seeds were harvested were not as hardy as some of the other seeds. That was a nice thing for him to say.

Rick showed us how to dig a hole the right size for the seedling, get it out of the tube, and plant it correctly. He explained the flag system and pointed to a distant spot with a red flag marker in the center and 98 yellow flag markers radiating out from it. The group headed up the road behind Rick carrying shovels and lugging racks of seedlings.

My spouse and I spotted a red flag maker on a slight rise and peeled off from the group. It did not take long for me to realize that I was not going to excel at digging holes so my spouse agreed to do it. My job was to carry the rack around and plant seedlings. Rick came over at one point and helped us dig some of the holes. In between digging holes, my spouse planted some of the seedlings.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Plot 13 before Planting on January 20, 2020
This is plot 13 where my spouse and I planted our tree seedlings. You can see the post with the red flag in the upper-middle of the photo and some of the yellow flag markers surrounding it.

The rain continued to fall gently stopping periodically. Soon the knees of my pants and my gloves were smeared with mud. Later on, I noticed two guys wearing knee pads. Hmm, they must have done this before.

Slowly the rack became lighter and after a couple of hours, all of our seedlings were in the ground. I stood next to the pole with the red flag and surveyed the area that we had planted. In the distance, I could see the other groups planting their circles. I was wet and muddy—and exhilarated.

My spouse volunteered to carry our stuff back to the car while I hiked around the field asking the other tree planters if they would be willing to have their photo taken. Some were and some were not. I also asked them if they would mind sharing why they were planting tree seedlings.

The responses I received included several variations of “I love trees and/or forests.” and “I want to give back to the community.” One person expressed concern about the climate crisis. Someone else answered the question by saying “Two words, Australia and Amazon.” following up with the statement “Forests are the lungs of the planet.”

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Leader Rick Hawley on January 20, 2020

As I headed back to the car, I spotted Rick Hawley digging holes with another group. I thanked him for all of his hard work putting this whole thing together, suggested we do it again this year, and told him I would love to learn about collecting seeds.

Later that night, I began feeling the effects of kneeling and getting up 60 or 70 times over the course of a couple of hours. My legs hurt so bad it was painful to go up and down the stairs in our house for a day or two. Still, it was totally worth it!

I am looking forward to visiting our trees and watching a forest reappear where once there was none.

You can grow tree seedlings and plant trees, too. There is sure to be a group in your community or region growing seedlings and planting trees. So look for them. Then join tens of millions of people all over the world who are growing and planting trees.

“There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.”

E.O. Wilson
Featured Image at Top

I took this photo on January 28, 2020, while walking with my spouse through the Monterey pine forest on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA.

Note for Readers

I was fortunate to be at the November 2019 meeting of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society when Nikki Nedeff gave a presentation about Monterey pine forests. At the meeting, I bought a copy of The Monterey Pine Forest: Coastal California’s Living Legacy, second edition published by The Monterey Pine Forest Watch in 2018. If you are interested in Monterey pine trees and forests, this is an excellent book chock full of information and wonderful images.

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