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Community choice energy grows on Central Coast

Sarah Swenty/USFWS
Solar panels at the Topaz Solar farm in eastern San Luis Obispo County.

In 2005, California passed a law allowing local governments to pool the electricity demand of their residents and then buy and sell electricity on their behalf. It’s called Community Choice Energy, and over 19 cities and counties have now established community choice agencies or programs.

Rather than Pacific, Gas & Electric (PG&E) or Southern California Edison being in charge of all aspects of electricity delivery to homes and businesses, the community choice agencies are nonprofits and can generate and sell electricity to the grid.

"They can then use that excess revenue to reinvest in local energy programs and they could also have local say in the energy content so it could be more renewable that could have lower carbon content," said Chris Read, sustainability manager for the city of San Luis Obispo. San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay recently joined the Monterey Bay Community Power agency. By January of 2020, power customers in San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay will start seeing a change in their electric bills.

"The Monterey Bay Community Power program provides a three percent rebate back on all electricity bills so that's three percent cheaper relative to the current PG&E bill," Read said. 

Initially, San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay were looking at starting their own agency, but a regulatory change this year made it too expensive. So they joined a big existing one, which brings new benefit.

"[Monterey Bay Community Power] just invested in one of the largest solar plus storage developments in the country, in concert with one of the Bay Area community choice energy programs," Read said.

And the distance between Monterey Bay and San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay is no obstacle.

"Ultimately we see ourselves as part of a larger Central Coast community," Read said. "So this is an opportunity to to really engage with the counties of the north of us and ensure we're all working together on our climate goals our economic development goals and our local energy goals.

In 2019, San Luis Obispo power customers will hear more about the change, and when they can start looking for their three percent rebates on monthly bills.

Meanwhile, King City is the smallest community choice program in the state. Former mayor and current city council member Joe LeBarre said King City looked at joining the Monterey Bay community choice program, but wouldn’t have had enough of a say in decision-making. So the city went it alone, and that means King City residents get all the benefits.

"Some of those benefits are a slight reduction in electricity rates," LeBarre said. "And we'll be adding brand new wireless streetlights—streetlights [concern] was number one in our community survey for residents because of safety."

Another benefit, LeBarre says, is that many King City residents are Spanish-speaking, so the community choice agency built a completely bilingual call center. And they are looking at more investments.

"Long term we're looking at putting me in a three megawatt solar power plant," LeBarre said. "If a feasibility study comes back positive and we do that, that becomes an asset for the community."

PG&E programs like CARE, which gives discount of bills depending on income, will continue to be available to community choice customers.

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