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Imperial Beach residents say they're confused about utility choice

A switch to community choice power is confusing some Imperial Beach residents.

"I didn’t understand why we’re doing this," resident Bob Siminski told KPBS on Wednesday. He and all residents of the beach community are now receiving power from San Diego Community Power, a nonprofit community utility, or community choice aggregator.

He said he has a lot of questions about the switch. "I’m going to still have to pay the original people I paid to begin, with so who are these people coming in here as interlopers?" he asked.

Dorian Edge is another resident with questions. "What’s it going to benefit me? How are my electrical bills going to fluctuate? I notice my SDG&E bills have gone up," she said.

In fact, all of the Imperial Beach residents we spoke with had a lot of questions about mailers telling them they will now be receiving their power from San Diego Community Power. Some had no idea it was happening.

RELATED: San Diego Community Power Begins Providing Energy to 5 Local Cities

Imperial Beach is the first city to be enrolled in the community utility. Soon customers in Encinitas, La Mesa, Chula Vista, and San Diego will have the same decision to make. Customers are automatically enrolled and must opt out to stay with SDG&E.

"It’s really hard for local government to communicate to its constituents, even really really good things for people," said Dr. Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at the Environment and Sustainability Institute at UCLA. She's an expert on power providers and these newer community choice aggregators. She said it’s important the communities making the switch know what the community utility is and their motivation.

Pincetl said it's a community choice aggregator's goal to provide renewable energy at competitive rates and make investments that benefit the environment, community and the local economy.

"The impetus for creating these — they’re called green power alliances — across the state has been to offer more opportunity for customers to purchase electricity that is generated by renewables than the investor-owned utilities have done in the past," she said.

Pincetl says community aggregators buy more renewable power in bulk, pass the savings to their customers, and reinvest profits because they are not beholden to shareholders.

"So the community generators are in a sense in competition with the investor-owned utilities, but they don’t have to pay the 10% profit to the shareholders. So that margin of difference because they’re public helps them keep their rates lower than the investor-owned utilities [which] have to pay shareholders," she said.

But customers will still be paying their bills through SDG&E because the utility owns the power lines and will be servicing them. The community utility pays a fee to use the lines to send the power to their customers.

"For most customers, they won’t notice much change at all, except maybe a little bit of savings on their bill," said Cody Hooven, the chief operating officer of San Diego Community Power.

Hooven said customers will see more of their power coming from renewable sources. She said the renewable amount would be 50% versus 30% from SDG&E, at a savings of about one to two percent. She said customers can also choose to opt up; that is, pay a little more for more green energy.

"A typical resident, a couple dollars more a month and you could be 100 renewable electricity," said Hooven, adding that the goal is to eventually service 700,000 customers across five cities with more renewable power. She said they would soon be including unincorporated areas of the county.

Customers can opt out of San Diego Community Power at any time, without a fee, but SDG&E will charge a processing fee of $1.20 to return after the 60 day opt out period and will not allow the customer to return to the public utility for a year.