Battle Over San Diego’s Energy Future Will Heat Up Soon
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Photo by Matthew Bowler
UPDATE: 4:13 p.m., July 12, 2017
The feasibility study for community choice aggregation, completed by Willdan Financial Services, has found the renewable energy option to be feasible in San Diego.
“We’re moving full speed ahead to reach our ultimate goal of using 100 percent renewable energy citywide, and this study shows we have the ability to get there. This analysis underscores that San Diego’s Climate Action Plan is not only ambitious, it’s achievable,” said Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
“We now have at least one option to completely power San Diego with green energy, and over the coming weeks and months we will look at other options, put all the alternatives on the table and have a public discussion about the best approach to ensure reasonable rates for San Diegans and a sustainable future for our city.”
For more than two years, the city of San Diego has been considering switching the way it buys energy, and this week is a key time in that decision-making process.
A study will be released showing whether a new way of getting energy—called community choice aggregation—is feasible and whether it would be cheaper, more expensive or cost about the same as the current system.
The answers to those questions could change the way San Diegans get their energy, and will likely be the kicking off point to a big political battle that will brew until the San Diego City Council votes on whether to use community choice aggregation in January.
What does the term "community choice aggregation" mean?
Right now, San Diego Gas & Electric provides power through its system of lines and wires to every city in San Diego County.
SDG&E buys the electricity from a variety of sources, including natural gas plants, hydroelectric dams and wind turbine farms.
Community choice aggregation is a different kind of energy program.
If a city goes with community choice, power would still go through SDG&E’s grid and electric bills would still come from SDG&E. The big difference is that the city would make the decisions about where to buy its energy from, instead of SDG&E.
This change would allow cities to have more control over how much of their energy comes from renewable sources, which theoretically would help them reach a goal of using 100 percent renewable energy.
Currently, 43 percent of SDG&E's energy comes from renewable sources, according to the utility.
Several cities and counties across the state have also considered moving forward with community choice, including Solana Beach, which recently voted to try out the program.
San Diego is considering community choice to help it reach its goal of using 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, which is laid out in the city's Climate Action Plan.
Environmental activist Nicole Capretz wrote the original version of San Diego's Climate Action Plan and included community choice as the way to get to 100 percent renewable energy. She now runs the environmental advocacy group Climate Action Campaign, which is lobbying for community choice across the county.
Capretz has been waiting for the results of this feasibility study for a long time. The city paid the firm Willdan Financial Services to conduct the study, after an initial study funded by a nonprofit was never finished. City officials said even if the nonprofit study had been completed, the city still would have paid for its own study.
Willdan's study will be presented to the Sustainable Energy Advisory Board, a city commission that advises the mayor and City Council, on Thursday morning.
"What we expect to happen on Thursday is to have confirmed that community choice is a viable and feasible program model that will save customers money, that will allow us to have local control over our energy future, that will finally inject competition into the marketplace, and that will give us that confidence that we need that we can hit that 100 percent clean energy target," Capretz said.
After San Diego began considering switching to community choice, SDG&E became the first utility in the state to create an independent entity to lobby against the program. Under state laws, utilities can not use ratepayer money to lobby for or against community choice.
Frank Urtasun, the head of that lobbying arm called Sempra Services, declined to be interviewed about the feasibility study until it comes out.
Capretz said once the study's results are public, she expects to spend the next four months battling with the utility to convince residents community choice is the way to go.
"Unfortunately in our mind, our utility has decided to fight the city's decision to potentially move forward with an alternative energy program model and they are expending a lot of resources and funds to fight this," she said.
At the same time, the city is considering other options for how to reach the 100 percent renewable energy goal.
"There is no one silver bullet to get to 100 percent renewable electricity," said Cody Hooven, the city's sustainability manager who oversees implementation of the Climate Action Plan. "It's going to take creativity and being open to new ideas. So no matter which pathway we choose it's going to take a combination of solutions."
To gather all of those options, the city recently put out a request for quotes from businesses and organizations to propose how they could help the city use more renewable energy. Eleven entities—including SDG&E—responded to the city's initial request for information, according to a public records act request.
Hooven said the requests do not exclude the city from also using community choice, and that there are lots of businesses in San Diego that could help reach the 100 percent renewable energy goal.
"The energy sector is changing pretty rapidly right now, there are a lot of new technologies available and new ideas, and the business community around energy is changing rapidly," she said.
The city will get final proposals from businesses and organizations in July and then review them, along with the community choice feasibility study. It will hold a series of workshops to inform residents about potential energy program changes this fall and then the City Council will vote on whether to go with community choice in January.
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