Power to the people
County, city of Chico move forward to create alternative to PG&E
Come 2021, residents of the city of Chico and unincorporated Butte County will have a choice in regard to energy providers. That’s because they’re joining forces to create what essentially will be their own utility—just without the need to build infrastructure.
“It’s an opportunity to find a semblance of local control for electricity needs, plus cost savings,” said Mark Orme, Chico city manager. “Those are our two primary objectives, in conjunction with choice.”
It’s called a community choice aggregation (CCA), and it boils down to forming a joint powers authority to purchase energy based on a community’s needs and then sell it to residents, according to Brian Ring, assistant chief administrative officer for the county. PG&E would still provide the infrastructure, but the CCA would be able to determine where the energy is sourced (i.e., how much of it is solar or hydropower, etc.) and set competitive prices.
“There’s a lot more interest right now, especially because of the issues surrounding PG&E, including potential rate increases,” Orme told the CN&R. The Chico City Council voted to move forward with a CCA in December, he noted.
At its June 25 meeting, the Board of Supervisors followed suit. Other jurisdictions will be able to join, Ring said, but timing is key—there is a full calendar year of wait time after a proposal is submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). So, Chico and Butte County have till the end of December to finalize a plan. That entails, among other details, determining the makeup of a joint powers authority, plus outlining the amount of energy they anticipate needing. If approved by the CPUC, the CCA would launch in January 2021.
Butte County has been looking at the idea of a CCA since 2017, Ring told the board at its last meeting. A year ago, after hiring a consultant to crunch the numbers, it was found to be financially feasible—so long as at least the city of Chico was on board to ensure enough customers. Throughout California, CCAs have been growing in popularity, he added.
“There are 18 or 19 CCAs on the market [in California] right now,” Ring told the CN&R. “None have failed, all have been successful.”
Aside from giving the community a choice in energy providers—customers will be able to choose between sticking with PG&E and switching to the CCA—the model also offers an opportunity to provide cleaner energy. The CCA would choose among power sources and offer a variety of options to customers—from 100 percent renewable to much less, with costs matching accordingly.
“For a lot of folks, greener energy production is really something that they’re extremely interested in,” Orme said.
Plus, down the road, once revenues are generated, the CCA would be able to invest in local programs, including energy production, Ring told the CN&R.
“In the long run, the potential benefits of CCAs that we’ve seen are the ability, as they generate more revenue, to make interesting decisions to use those funds to keep costs down, [and] invest in programs that are unique and specific to the region,” he said. “Also, maybe you invest in your own energy program—such as solar. You get to get creative.”
One potential pitfall of a CCA is the continued reliance on PG&E for infrastructure, as chair Steve Lambert expressed at the supervisors meeting.
Ring said that PG&E would not be able to charge the CCA more than individual customers. He told the CN&R that the CCA also would not be liable for any of PG&E’s infrastructure. So, in the case of a future wildfire, for instance, the poles and wires still would be property of that utility.
“I trust our ability locally more than I trust PG&E,” Supervisor Tami Ritter, whose district includes parts of Chico, told the board. “I think local control is a good option, because … that money that we’re building into the reserve, it’s coming back to us versus going to shareholders for PG&E, which is the last place I want our money to go.”