Broad community involvement is key

By Davis Harper
San Joaquin County community organizer for The Climate Center

The City of Stockton is just months away from a vote to decide whether to continue pursuing Community Choice Energy, which would bring millions of dollars in power generation revenues into local control.

Community Choice programs (known by the abbreviation CCA) are alternative electricity service providers governed by local elected officials that buy electricity on behalf of residents, businesses and municipal accounts. Pacific Gas & Electric Company still delivers the electricity and maintains the billing, and residents get to choose whether to become a customer of the new local agency or stay with PG&E for power generation services.

Stockton has contracted with an expert consultancy to produce​ a feasibility study​ to assess the pros & cons of CCA. The potential benefits of a CCA include reducing electricity rates, accelerating the transition to clean power sources, creating local jobs in sustainable energy development, and designing programs that meet community needs. Other Central Valley communities, including multiple cities in Fresno and Merced Counties, are exploring the potential for Community Choice Energy as well.

It’s a model with a great track record across the state – the ​21 CCAs​ in California have collectively invested in 3,600 megawatts of new renewable energy infrastructure, creating thousands of jobs in the process. They’re now serving over 10 million customers in more than 170 cities and 20 counties with cleaner energy at rates competitive with or lower than the existing utility in their service areas. These locally based, not-for-profit agencies have also been able to build up reserve funds over a short period, and many have chosen to launch programs to address specific community needs.

Perhaps the most appealing feature of a CCA is its seemingly unlimited potential for innovation. No single CCA is the same in its program goals, and in the ideal cases, much of what these agencies prioritize has been informed by broad coalitions of local stakeholders before and after launch.

East Bay Community Energy​ (EBCE), a CCA that launched in 2018 with 12 local governments (now 15, including Tracy) in the East Bay and surrounding region, exemplifies this. EBCE’s launch may be a great model for the mobilization effort necessary for Stockton to accomplish far-reaching goals if and when it establishes its CCA.

In the years leading up to EBCE’s formation, the ​East Bay Clean Power Alliance​ (EBCPA) formed as a community-based advocacy organizing effort. Jessica Guadelupe Tovar, a lifelong environmental justice advocate, led the charge to ensure EBCE programming would be reflective of the diverse needs of communities in its service area.

Beyond offering rate discounts and reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, which existing Community Choice programs were accomplishing at the time, the organization saw EBCE as a vehicle for creating clean energy jobs and assets in the community. The alliance envisioned that their local CCA would center equity in its efforts to fight climate change.

“We really focused on advocating with a more racial justice approach, really considering that there are a lot of poor people struggling to pay their electricity bills. We also wanted to emphasize the need for local clean energy development to create more job opportunities and generate more local wealth in Alameda County,” Tovar said.

Seeing the tremendous potential for job growth, the EBCPA unified leaders from the climate movement, faith community, labor, social justice community, businesses and more to advocate for and shape the policies the CCA would come to adopt.

In 2016, the EBCPA and the Alameda Labor Council established a unity position calling for the CCA to ensure its investment in renewable energy infrastructure would be made with labor-negotiated agreements that put local community members to work. Collectively, they advocated for a list of goals and a study for how to execute these community investments to begin the process of relying less on market purchase energy. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors agreed and allocated $500,000 to create a ​Local Development Business Plan​, which was completed in 2018. Its central goal is maximizing development of local resources in order to spur job creation.

Since forming, EBCE has allocated more than $15 million to its local development budget, part of which has been allocated to a number of ​community empowerment projects​, including the seed funding for a local solar energy cooperative aiming to eventually generate enough power to sell it. More recently, EBCE has offered nearly $1.5 million in ​COVID-19 relief grants addressing utility bill costs, food security, rent stabilization and health and wellness during the crisis.

In Stockton, a City with great challenges and a progressive mayor in Michael Tubbs, the possibilities for a CCA’s programming are wide open.

Formerly redlined communities in South Stockton endure some of the ​worst air quality​ in the state, and many struggle to pay their utility bills. A locally based not-for-profit electricity service provider could respond with programs to help electrify transportation and/or to cover the costs of solar and battery back-up installations. This could help on customer energy costs while also addressing the local air quality problem.

The City’s economy was hit hard by the 2008 recession and is now entering an unprecedented era of economic uncertainty with the COVID-19 crisis. A local CCA could coordinate both large-scale and small-scale local solar projects, using vacant parcels, rooftops and parking lots with the potential of bringing jobs to the area. It’s precisely the kind of economic innovation local governments in the Central Valley should be pursuing in their post-COVID roadmap.

Taking a page from EBCE’s book, a Stockton-based CCA could elevate the many nonprofit organizations in its service area by offering community innovation grants.

“We’re eager to see the results of the feasibility study here in Stockton, especially given the progress other Community Choice programs around the state have been able to make to provide rate relief and reinvest in their communities,” said Mayor Tubbs.

The energy democracy movement in Stockton could advance several social, economic, and environmental goals, but it’ll take dedicated community involvement. This would be the first time in Stockton’s history that residents would have an avenue to ask that their hard-earned money they spend monthly to keep the lights on ends up somewhere meaningful to them. Isn’t the ability to advocate and to choose better than not having a choice at all?

“The fact that we have a local energy agency that we can advocate to is a big deal – that we’re able to say what kind of energy makes up our power mix,” Tovar said of EBCE. “In a system previously designed for us not to engage, I think it’s a huge step, but it’s not perfect. We have to keep working and watching the direction of this program to make sure it does the right thing.”

Food for thought, Stockton. Are we ready to turn an old energy problem into a community solution?

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