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

Anaerobic Digesters are Good for the Environment

Don’t waste your green waste.

An anaerobic digester can magically transform your yard trimmings and food scraps into electricity and other good stuff so please do not send it to a landfill.

A reasonable question is “What the heck is an anaerobic digester?” In short, it is a giant tube that uses an anaerobic (without oxygen) fermentation process to convert the contents of your green waste bin into renewable energy (electricity or vehicle fuel), liquid fertilizer, and compost.

Kompogas Anaerobic Digestion Process Infographic
Kompogas anaerobic digester plant process infographic – source Hitachi Zosen Inova.

You cannot imagine my amazement and delight, when several weeks ago, I spotted a social media post from SLO Natural Foods Co-op offering a tour of the anaerobic digester plant in San Luis Obispo, CA. I had wanted to visit it for months, but I did not expect that my Co-op membership would be my ticket in.

My spouse and I were already scheduled for a long-awaited tour of the Cold Canyon Landfill and Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) the morning of the same day. Fortunately, the anaerobic digester tour was in the afternoon.

In the previous post entitled, All Americans Should Visit a Landfill, I covered our visit to the landfill and MRF. This post will focus on the anaerobic digester.

First, let’s talk about your green waste bin.

Green Waste Bin

The waste industry refers to the stuff you put into your green waste bin as organic waste because it comes from a plant or animal organism and contains carbon compounds. Examples include tree branches, leaves, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable peelings, meat bones, coffee grounds, eggshells, and cooked, processed, and spoiled food.

Depending on where you live, you may or may not even have a green waste bin. If you do, you may or may not be allowed to put all or only some of the items listed above in it. Check with the company that provides waste removal services for your household.

U.S. Solid Waste Generation by Material 2015 Pie Chart

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2015, organic waste (wood, yard trimmings, and food) accounted for a whopping 34.6% of the total solid municipal waste generated in the United States.

The purpose of a green waste bin is to keep organic waste out of landfills where it emits CO2 in the early stages of decomposition and methane after it is buried and deprived of oxygen. Methane is a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent than CO2 and is a significant cause of global warming.

San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant uses the Kompogas® patented dry anaerobic digestion technology owned by Hitachi Zosen Inova (HZI).

Aerial View of Kompogas Plant in San Luis Obispo, CA
This is an aerial view of the Kompogas Plant in San Luis Obispo, CA. The rounded rectangular building houses the anaerobic digester –source Hitachi Zosen Inova.

Bringing the anaerobic digester to San Luis Obispo County was a multi-year effort initiated by Bill Worrell, the former general manager of the San Luis Obispo Integrated Waste Management Authority. He first became aware of the Kompogas technology during a trip to Europe in 2010. At the time, the company that owned the patent was not interested in doing business in the United States.

HZI acquired Kompogas in 2014 and they did want to expand into North America. In 2015, HZI and Waste Connections collaborated on a proposal to build an anaerobic digester in San Luis Obispo.

Over the next several years, the project was approved, underwent environmental review, obtained grants and funding, and was constructed. It opened for business on November 15, 2018.

Revenue is generated from several sources.

  • 65% – tipping fees based on the weight of the green waste each truck delivers and dumps
  • 30% – electricity generated by burning the biogas produced in the anaerobic digester (enough to power about 600 homes)
  • 5% – liquid fertilizer and compost (that remain at the end of the process)

Touring the Plant

After my spouse and I finished our landfill and MRF tour, we stopped by SLO Natural Foods Co-op to grab lunch before heading over to the anaerobic digester plant.

Truck Carrying Green Waste on Weight Scale

While we were waiting for our group to assemble in the parking lot, this truck pulled onto the weigh scale. The plant receives about 100 tons of organic waste a day five days a week.

Thomas Gratz U.S. Sales Manager HZI at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

Thomas Gratz, the U.S. sales manager for HZI was our tour guide.

He knows every inch of the plant and did an excellent job explaining its operations in a way non-technical people like me could understand.

Intake Area at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

In the waste receiving building, Thomas talked about how various machines screen out non-organic materials.

As you can see from this pile, most of the green waste currently received at the plant is yard waste (about 90%).

Green Waste Chip Storage and Automated Crane at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

After screening, everything is chopped into 2″ feedstock pieces and stored in concrete bunkers.

The yellow automated crane (it reminded me of the claw in Toy Story) grabs chips and deposits them on a staging platform for a conveyor.

Chip Conveyor Intake Area to Anaerobic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

This is part of the conveyor that transports the feedstock chips from the intake building on the right to the anaerobic digester building on the left.

Pipe Feeding Chips into Anaerobic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The black tube structure delivers the chips from the conveyor into the anaerobic digester.

The digester has a plug-flow design meaning that the chips being fed into the tube push the material down the digester.

Motor that Turns Agitator Blades in Anaerobic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

This motor, which is lower on the building than the tube above, turns agitator blades that run the length of the anaerobic digester to keep the contents mixed up.

I am sure Thomas told us the dimensions of the anaerobic digester but I did not record them. I estimate it is about 140 feet long with a diameter of 30 feet or so. This construction photo depicts its scale – source Hitachi Zosen Inova.

Inside the anaerobic digester bacteria and heat ferment the feedstock chips turning them into biogas and digestates (more on this later).

Anaeraboic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant
This shot is from the door of the building that houses the anaerobic digester. The digester is the black structure running the length of the building.
Earthquake Footings and Heating Pipes for Anaerobic Digester at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

Thomas explained the seismic features of the digester like the footing show here.

You can also see some of the pipes and tubes that connect the heating system to the bottom of the digester to keep the bacteria happy during fermentation.

After walking up several flights of metal stairs, we reached the top platform from which we could survey the grounds of the plant and the hills surrounding San Luis Obispo.

The plant has several safety measures to ensure that no pressure builds up inside the anaerobic digester.

  • The first line of defense is a domed storage tank that can hold several days of produced biogas if for some reason it cannot be burned in the combined heat and power plant on site.
  • If the tank is full, then the excess biogas would be burned inside a concrete flare tube.
  • As a last resort, a gas overpressure valve would burst to release the methane-containing biogas into the air.

An environmentally friendly feature of the plant is that everything is surrounded by curbs and drains. Stormwater runoff is collected in stormwater ponds. Cleaning and wash down water are contained on site and reused in the anaerobic digester.

Combined Heat and Power Equipment and Pipes at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The combined heat and power plant burns the biogas (methane) produced by the anaerobic digester.

The heat is used to keep the inside of the digester at the proper temperature. Electricity not used to run the plant is sent to the electric grid.

Various impurities are removed prior to and after burning the biogas. For instance, hydrogen sulfide, a highly corrosive chemical compound is converted into sulfur that can be used to make fertilizer.

Tour Group and Conveyor to Compost Building at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The pipe on the right returns about 30% of the liquid digestate to the digester. The remaining liquid is stored in a tank for later sale.

The conveyor on the left moves solid digestate to the composting building.

Tanker Truck Pumping Out Liquid Digestate at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

This tanker truck pulled up while we were admiring the back end of the anaerobic digester building.

The liquid digestate being pumped from the storage tank was destined for a local vineyard to be used as fertilizer.

Compost Bunkers at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

The solid digestate is stored in these bunkers while it is aerated to create compost for sale.

Inside the composting building, it was extremely humid and the air felt heavy to breathe. Negative air pressure keeps any odors inside the building.

Tree Root Air Filter for Compost Building at San Luis Obispo Kompogas Plant

Microorganisms growing on this mass of tree roots absorb the volatile organic compounds (smelly stuff) in the exhaust air from the composting building.

Dan Kallal in our group took this photo.

Lastly, Thomas showed us how the plant is monitored 24/7/365 via an online system linked with the home office overseas.

My impression of the Kompogas Plant is that it has been carefully designed and constructed to safely take in green waste and food waste and convert it to biogas, fertilizer, and compost. The process is both straightforward and complex.

I know I barely scratched the surface of the anaerobic digestion process in this post, but hopefully, you got the gist. There is more information in the resources section.

A Few Words about Food Waste

I cringe whenever I read or hear the words “food waste.”

Growing, transporting, processing, distributing, and preparing food requires a tremendous amount of land, resources, water, energy, and people power.

Our first option should always be to eat the food we buy and to make sure everyone else has enough food to eat. Sending food to an anaerobic digester or a composting facility should be the last option.

You can do your part by eating the food you buy and putting your yard trimmings and food scraps in your green waste bin.

Featured Image at Top: this infographic shows the Kompogas process ecological cycle – source Hitachi Zosen Inova.

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