December 19, 2014

Marin Clean Energy blazes trail for Community Choice energy

The tracking equipment for the SSJID solar installation is designed to last 100 years.

The tracking equipment for the SSJID solar installation is designed to last 100 years.

In 2012 Marin Clean Energy is celebrating its second anniversary (see http://theyodeler.org/?p=5242) by offering service to all residences, businesses, and municipalities in Marin, except for the 20% who have chosen to opt out and stay with PG&E. MCE is also stepping up the quotient of renewable energy in its basic “light green” electricity product from 27% to 50%. For a small premium, customers can choose MCE’s “deep green” product (100% renewables). MCE has made important progress in promoting local renewable power.

Remarkable validation of MCE’s success came in July 2012, when the Marin Energy Authority (MEA), MCE’s governing agency, accepted the city of Richmond as a member, after Richmond had actively courted MEA for over a year. This represents a major expansion: Richmond will be about 32% of MCE customer load. With less-expensive property values, Richmond offers prime opportunities for local renewable generation.

Community Choicea driver for renewable-energy development

MCE is the first CCA in the U.S. dedicated to developing renewables. As of April 5 it was the 12th-largest local-government user of green power in the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership.

Shell Energy North America won the initial bid to provide a variety of energy services to MEA, including most power purchases and scheduling. Its five-year contract includes a “substitution” clause allowing MEA to purchase renewable power on its own, replacing conventional power from Shell, with no penalty. An important political advantage of this contract was the reassurance of having a large company on our side when we were under heavy attack from PG&E.

MEA is investing heavily in solar, both in-county and regionally. It recently contracted for 10 acres of solar development in Marin, to be installed largely on parking-lot shade structures. It also has a Feed-in-Tariff (see May-June 2009, page 11) to encourage development of local renewables. A solar project at the San Rafael Airport is the first to sign up.

MEA has set up California’s best “net-metering” program, allowing customers with their own solar or other renewable-energy systems to oversize, and sell up to one megawatt (MW) of power back to MEA at retail rates. (One megawatt is enough power for approximately 1000 homes.)

For several years PG&E tried to confuse solar customers, claiming that they had to stay with PG&E to get net metering. MEA had to spend a couple of years fighting against PG&E’s misinformation; the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) finally stepped in to clarify that of course CCAs could offer net-metering.

About 70% of MCE’s power is “greenhouse-gas free”, because in addition to more than 27% renewables, it purchased a large amount of hydropower from the South San Joaquin Irrigation District. MEA also purchased “Renewable Energy Credits” (RECs) from SSJID’s 20-acre solar farm, which powers its water treatment plant.

(As defined in California law, renewable energy encompasses solar, wind, geothermal, small hydro (under 30 MW), biogas, and biomass. Sierra Club California has concerns about some biogas and biomass projects, as well as certain RECs. RECs are the “renewable attribute” from a renewable-energy project, which according to California policy can be bought and sold like energy itself, but there are restrictions against using RECs to meet the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). MCE far exceeds the RPS, so that it may use a portion of RECs in its 50% and 100% green products. MEA has chosen projects where the sale of RECs was needed to help the renewable developers pay for the project–which was why RECs were created in the first place.)

Wresting efficiency funds from PG&E almost as hard as forming a CCA

“Demand-side resources” like energy efficiency and demand response provide essential greenhouse-gas reductions and cost savings for a renewable energy system (since efficiency measures are mostly cheaper than any kind of power). MEA filed its energy-efficiency plans with the CPUC at the first possible opportunity–this February–but to do this, it had to lead a battle in the legislature in 2011 to pass Senate Bill 790.

A little background: the “PPP” line on everyone’s utility bill funds “Public Purpose Programs”, including energy efficiency. Until this year all efficiency funds were controlled by the utility corporations.

The original CCA law left it up to the CPUC to offer CCAs an opportunity to apply for efficiency funds–but for many years the CPUC failed to do that. SB790 made it possible for MCE to “elect” to administer energy-efficiency programs, finally wresting local energy-efficiency funds away from PG&E.

MEA has hired local firms to begin implementing its energy-efficiency program. These are minority-owned and -operated firms that will prioritize jobs for Marin’s African-American and Latino communities, and for Richmond residents beginning next year. The program will begin with multi-family buildings, which PG&E has long neglected. MEA also plans to offer more and better financing options than the utility.

Now that MEA has proved itself

Supervisor Charles McGlashan and MEA executive director Dawn Weisz “plugging in”at MEA launch May 7, 2010.

Supervisor Charles McGlashan and MEA executive director Dawn Weisz “plugging in”at MEA launch May 7, 2010.

This fall MEA will begin an “Integrated Resources Planning” process to refine its view of future supply and demand resources. In the next few years MEA will have even more options for developing resources in the county and the region, including financing with “revenue bonds”. These bonds are repaid from the revenue from a project (unlike “general obligation bonds” which are repaid from taxes).

This is now possible because MEA has demonstrated its fiscal viability to local financial institutions, which would not loan it a nickel two years ago, under pressure from PG&E.

Applying monthly revenue from customers to pay for renewable-energy is the secret to why forming a CCA is the most effective action that cities and counties can take to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

MCE offers much-cleaner energy at rates comparable to PG&E

Marin’s rates matched PG&E’s at launch, but then PG&E lowered its rates several times–the company’s first rate reductions in 50 years. Marin lowered its rates in 2011 and 2012 to stay competitive, and recently PG&E rates have started to climb back up. Rates are nearly even now, but CPUC-imposed surcharges add $3.85/month for a typical MCE customer, supposedly to offset some of PG&E’s contracts made prior to Marin’s departure. MCE has posted a rate calculator at https://marincleanenergy.info/rate-calculator.

Even with the surcharges, MCE customers are getting a great bargain for electricity which is far cleaner than PG&E’s. That utility has barely 20% renewable energy—and 23% nuclear power from Diablo Canyon (which PG&E calls “green”!)  MCE has a specific policy against nuclear contracts.

Over time Marin customers will likely pay less than PG&E customers, because Marin’s investments in renewable energy will offset future increases in fossil-fuel costs.

Marin Clean Energy is thriving

MCE is thriving–despite temporarily cheap natural-gas prices (because of “fracking”). Cheap gas was once feared as the greatest danger to a CCA, because it makes renewables more expensive by comparison.

MEA has met every challenge, thanks to meticulous, creative, and resourceful management and deep dedication to providing its customers with power that is clean, affordable, reliable, and financially and ecologically sound. MEA shows up, with integrity, over and over again–no matter what barriers have been thrown in its path.

MEA boardmembers take great pride in their achievements and are deeply engaged, like the talented staff, led by executive director Dawn Weisz. Everyone’s commitment deepened after the loss of Supervisor Charles F. McGlashan, the first chair of MEA, who died in April 2011. Charles put his heart, soul, and buoyant energy into MCE, and he is deeply missed.

MCE is fulfilling the cherished ideals that led the Club to endorse CCA almost a decade ago–including robust development of local solar, energy efficiency, and other renewables. People in cities and counties around California and the U.S. have been inspired to form CCAs by Marin’s example. MEA looks forward to other communities beginning this amazing journey soon, and hopes they will all succeed as well!

Barbara George, executive director, Women’s Energy Matters

Barbara won the the Marin Energy Authority’s first annual Advocacy Award, a memorial for MEA’s first chair, Marin County Supervisor Charles F. McGlashan.

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