Thursday, June 30 , 2016, 7:26 pm | Fair 69º

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Tam Hunt: Utilities Again Try to Undermine Customer Choice in California

Pacific Gas & Electric sponsored an embarrassing ballot measure in 2010, Proposition 16, that was a naked attempt to preserve utility power at the expensive of customer choice. That proposition went down in flames, despite $46 million of PG&E money behind it, as voters sussed out the motives behind the proposition.

PG&E and its electrical union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are back to the same shenanigans in 2014, but now they’ve got legislative allies willing to undermine customer choice in favor of utility control.

AB 2145 (Bradford) is a bill that would gut the ability of cities and counties to take back control of their power supply and to exceed statewide renewable energy goals if they want to. Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) is the target of AB 2145. CCA is actually a middle ground between full private utility control and full public control of power. Rather than taking over the entire power grid, like is the case in Los Angeles or Sacramento, CCA allows a city or a county to choose what power their citizens get and from where. The private utility continues to control the power lines and bill customers, so their profit is preserved — but the control over power choices shifts to the CCA.

A key feature of the current CCA law (AB 117), which passed way back in 2001, is its “opt-out” language. This means that if a city or a county chooses to become a CCA, the residents of that city or county are enrolled automatically in the CCA unless they choose to opt out. They’re given many opportunities to do so and the law requires notification in various ways of the ability to opt-out.

AB 2145 would reverse this feature and make CCA customers opt in. This means that unless a customer of a utility says “yes, I want in” they won’t be enrolled. Given the inertia to stay with what is known, an opt-in requirement is a death knell for CCA efforts.

IBEW is the public face behind the AB 2145 campaign, but considering that they represent 12,000 PG&E employees and have often in the past been the public face of PG&E campaigns, it’s quite likely that IBEW is again doing PG&E’s dirty work.

Marin County was is the first CCA to get up and running in California. Proponents of AB 2145 argue that Marin County’s CCA energy is dirtier than PG&E’s. It’s not clear that this is true even now and what is clear is that CCAs must meet exactly the same renewable power mandates as the private utilities. This wasn’t always the case, but SB 2 1x, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in 2011, requires that the same 33 percent renewables by 2020 mandate that applies to private utilities also applies to CCAs.

SB 2 1x states in its legislative summary: “The [Renewable Portfolio Standard] program requires that a retail seller of electricity, including electrical corporations [private utilities], community choice aggregators, and electric service providers, purchase a specified minimum percentage of electricity generated by eligible renewable energy resources …”

IBEW’s website states its concerns about the opt out language that is currently part of CCA: "The third issue, Stern said, is the 'opt-out' process. CCAs prefer a model that would allow a CCA to automatically switch all customers from their existing utility to the CCA. Under this model, customers could wake up one morning to find themselves getting power from a new supplier without having had any say in the matter."

This is blatantly false. The current CCA law (AB 117) requires two notices to be mailed to all potential CCA customers before they are enrolled and another two after they are enrolled – for a total of four notifications of their ability to opt out. So CCA customers have numerous opportunities to opt out. AB 2145 itself states the following: the current CCA law requires that “each customer shall be informed of his or her right to opt out of the program.”

For example, PG&E’s own website states the following regarding the Sonoma County CCA effort, which just began this May. PG&E highlights the notification and opt out process available to all potential Sonoma CCA customers:

"Sonoma Clean Power is offering a CCA program to the first group of customers within participating cities and areas in Sonoma County, which began in May. PG&E customers in this first phase were to be automatically enrolled with Sonoma Clean Power in May unless they chose to opt out of the CCA program. Sonoma Clean Power provided enrollment and opt-out notifications to customers before May and will after enrollment occurs. Customers who choose to opt out need to contact Sonoma Clean Power directly."

AB 2145 is not about preserving customer choice — it’s about preserving utility control of our power system.

AB 2145 has already made it through the Assembly, with a very disappointing 51-15 yes vote. This means that many Democrats, allegedly in favor of things like customer choice and local control, voted to preserve utility monopoly power over electricity.

The Senate has yet to vote on this bill, so please reach out to your local state senator and urge a no vote.

— Tam Hunt is owner of Community Renewable Solutions, a consultancy and law firm specializing in community-scale renewables. Community Renewable Solutions can help developers navigate this complicated field and provide other development advice relating to interconnection, net metering, procurement and land use. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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