Green Power to the People

County and Five Cities Join Monterey Public Power Agency

Newly named to Monterey Bay Community Power’s 17-member Policy Board is Goleta Councilmember Kyle Richards, who praised the agency for basing decisions on the “greater good of the community” rather than shareholders. | Credit: Paul Wellman

California’s fight against climate change is getting ever more urgent as state lawmakers shorten deadlines for complete conversion to carbon-free electricity ​— ​prompting new solar and wind energy projects in the development pipeline. The City of Goleta is the latest to decide to buy all its power from carbon-free sources through an alliance formed in the county to our north: Monterey Bay Community Power. Newly named to Monterey’s 17-member Policy Board is Goleta Councilmember Kyle Richards, who praised the agency for basing decisions on the “greater good of the community” rather than shareholders.

“Instead of making a profit,” Richards said, “any ‘net revenues’ of this agency will be given back to the community in the form of rebates (lower rates) and/or incentive programs, such as electric vehicle charging stations, more residential solar, backup battery supplies to increase resiliency, et cetera.”

The competition envisioned in the 2002 law that established public power agencies is paying off generously. In its first 18 months of operation in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito counties, Monterey Bay Community Power achieved an operating reserve of $100 million. It funded $15.5 million for electric vehicle charging stations and incentives, low-income solar installations, and other energy programs. From its reserve, $25 million will go to its Uninterruptible Power Supply Fund that provides low-cost loans for backup energy supplies to critical public facilities ​— ​schools, fire stations, and hospitals ​— ​that would otherwise be vulnerable to wildfire-related power shutoffs.

All this means 300,000 fewer metric tons of greenhouse gases spewed into the air.

For Monterey Bay’s 302,000 Central Coast customers, the switch from Pacific Gas & Electric resulted in a 5 percent savings on their electricity bills. Monterey also kept 96 percent of PG&E’s customers in the program, which requires customers to opt out if they wish to remain with the investor-owned utility. A loss of 10 percent had been projected. A second power package composed of an entirely solar/wind mix costs a penny more per kilowatt hour ​— ​or about $5 a month

The switch to Monterey Bay won’t change Southern California Edison’s transmission lines that come through South County’s mountains, however, which are at risk from natural disasters. For Richards, the importance of Monterey’s Uninterruptible Power Supply Fund for backup power for essential infrastructure stands out. “There is an urgency for us to promote as much locally generated electricity as possible,” he said, “not only for the sake of reducing greenhouse gases but also for the need to increase our resilience and minimize our vulnerability to power disruptions.”

Goleta’s seat on the Policy Board will rotate with the City of Carpinteria. Since the California Public Utilities Commission requires a one-year delay before switching to another energy utility, the two cities, along with Santa Maria, Guadalupe, Solvang, and the County of Santa Barbara, will join Monterey Bay next year. 

The City of Santa Barbara, however, has opted to form its own power agency. Alelia Parenteau, who heads the city’s program, said Santa Barbara chose to set its own rates and develop its own projects in order to have complete control over the source of its electricity. The city intends to create local energy assets, including battery storage, she said. For city customers, electricity costs could rise by 5-9 percent, or about $5 per month.

Photo: Paul WellmanThe energy purchased by Monterey would still travel along Edison’s transmission lines that come through the mountains, which are at risk from natural disasters. Above, an Edison worker cuts the power to the Painted Cave area as the Cave Fire burns in the background.

When Santa Barbara County analyzed the costs and benefits of forming its own power agency, Supervisor Peter Adam questioned whether it was a prudent step, given PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings triggered by the massive liability from Northern California wildfires. He was echoed by Andy Caldwell, a frequent contributor to county debate from the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business and a Republican candidate for the 24th Congressional District. Caldwell warned that a standalone agency would be a dangerous and expensive step.

Expensive, yes; dangerous, not so much, according to Killigrew. As the county would have done, Monterey buys the electricity that runs along the power lines, but the investor-owned utilities ​— ​PG&E and Edison ​— ​own and operate the towers, poles, and lines. They also own the liability for any wildfire resulting from utility equipment, Killigrew said.

As for the larger costs, Goleta’s staff determined that starting a city power agency would require millions of dollars. Years would pass before incentives or rebates could be offered, Richards said, not to mention the financial risks along the way. “One of the major considerations for Goleta in making this switch was the relatively low risk and startup costs. … We are joining a financially stable, existing organization,” said Richards, with costs to Goleta around $7,000 for an updated plan submission to the state Public Utilities Commission.

The measure of a green energy source depends on its geothermal, solar, biomass, wind, or small hydroelectric origin, which are considered renewable. Large-scale hydroelectric, however, is not because of the decreased power output during drought and dams’ effects on fish. Monterey currently buys 34 percent of its energy from renewables and 66 percent from large hydroelectric plants in the Pacific Northwest. Edison bought 36 percent of its energy from renewables in 2018; PG&E, 39 percent. Statewide, utilities rely 35 percent on natural gas. For Edison, it’s 17 percent; for PG&E, 15 percent. Like the public power agencies, both investor-owned companies have incentive programs for solar installations and electric vehicles.

Between California’s mandate of 100 percent fossil-fuel-free energy by 2045, and the demand from public power agencies like Monterey Bay, development of solar and wind projects is thriving. Together with Silicon Valley Clean Energy, Monterey bought into two giant battery and solar projects: Kern County’s Big Beau and Kings County’s Slate 1. The two projects will generate 278 megawatts of energy and store 85 megawatts by late 2021. According to developer EDF Renewables, Big Beau’s output alone would fuel 64,000 homes and avoid more than 315,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of 67,000 passenger cars.

Monterey also invested in the 200-megawatt Duran Mesa wind project in New Mexico, slated to be completed this year. (The 98 megawatts of power from the Strauss Wind Energy Project outside Lompoc have already been sold for the next 15 years to Marin Clean Energy; Strauss faces three appeals and has yet to break ground.)

All go to decrease greenhouse gases. In fact, in Kings County alone, new solar arrays are approaching the 2,400-megawatt output of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which will begin to shut down in four years. It’s part of the ongoing transformation of the agriculturally depleted Central Valley to green energy production, Sierra2theSea.net reported, with over 3,000 megawatts slated for more than 8,000 acres of Kings County.

Just as state lawmakers aim to make California entirely carbon neutral by 2045 ​— ​through sequestration, reduced transportation emissions, and renewable energy goals ​— ​Goleta set itself the ambitious goal of 100 percent fossil-free by 2030. With Monterey Bay, that future may be within clean reach.

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