More than 50 U.S. cities have made commitments to reach 100% renewable electricity, many inspired by Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign and the cost-effectiveness of solar and wind power. But how do communities build the political will to adopt such goals, and how do they plan to meet them?
In San Diego, the answer to both is the exercise of local authority. In particular, the city is taking advantage of the state’s community choice energy law to take over selecting where the city’s residents and businesses get their electricity.
Nicole Capretz is the executive director of the Climate Action Campaign and former staffer to the San Diego mayor during the creation of the city’s climate action plan. Capretz recently spoke with ILSR’s director of Energy Democracy, John Farrell, about the city’s adoption of a 100% renewable electricity goal, and the struggle against the incumbent electric utility company for control of the journey toward that goal.
What’s the Motivation?
Unlike cities in most other states, San Diego has a legal obligation under California state law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the obligation notwithstanding, the city’s abundant solar resource has made residents interested in solar for years. “We should not be able to turn our heads in San Diego and not see rooftop or parking lot solar,” said Nicole in our February interview.
San Diego would join over 100 cities, and 13-14 counties that have already executed or are moving to offer community choice energy. Local control and local economic development are key principles for many of these other communities. For San Diego, Nicole suggested, community choice means “millions of dollars to reinvest in the community” to incentivize rooftop solar, electric vehicle ownership.
In particular, Nicole notes that under the current system, with San Diego Gas & Electric as the city’s monopoly electric company, the city and its residents have no real power in the energy system. “The city of San Diego has no control or jurisdiction over our utility. They are completely regulated by the state…San Diego is really far away from our regulatory agency in San Francisco…it’s an eight-hour car ride” Creating a community choice program that’s locally managed “let’s have a transparent public process so we can have local accountability and…have local residents participate in that process.”
What’s the Barrier?
When San Diego first began discussing community choice as a route to 100% renewable energy, the utility (San Diego Gas & Electric) was adamant that it was technically impossible. “You have to have natural gas. Point of fact. And they’re the experts,” said Nicole of the utility’s point of view.
But when it became clear that the city wasn’t dissuaded, the utility changed its message. They’ve now released a concept paper about how they could offer the city and its customers 100% renewable energy by 2035.
SDG&E is the first utility to use shareholder dollars to spend unlimited amounts of money to oppose community choice. “Pretty much embroiled in the same fight that Marin was in with PG&E.”
What’s the Difference Between Community Choice and Utility Visions?
The key difference between the community choice and utility vision is choice. Under community choice, “If people love their utility, if people think SDG&E is the cat’s meow…you can stay with SDG&E,” said Nicole. With the incumbent utility model, customers no choice of provider. There are also competing visions of how the energy is produced and delivered.
San Diego residents “want to be energy independent, we want to be energy resilient…the pathway for that–taking advantage of this natural sun resource–is small-scale, decentralized rooftop and parking lot solar, community solar. Flipping the script on our energy production and allowing consumers to be in control and in charge,” said Nicole.
The utility has a competing vision, Nicole outlined:
“They still prefer the large-scale solar, the large transmission lines. Regardless of whether it’s clean electricity or natural gas electricity that’s centralized and shipped in, that model they prefer. It’s the model they make the most money off of.”
What’s the Next Step?
The city is at the tail end of the evaluation process and the Mayor has committed to taking a vote this year (2018) to establish a community choice program. The feasibility study results were very positive, projecting the city’s “utility” would be financially solvent, meet state greenhouse gas emissions goals, and reach 100% renewable energy supply. The study also found it feasible that the savings could allow for much higher investments in local distributed energy (like solar), energy efficiency, and programs to reduce energy demand during periods of peak use.
In anticipation of the vote, the city is finalizing its business plan, which will include the decision making structure of the choice program and the power supply portfolio for the initial program.
With over 50 cities similarly committed to 100% renewable electricity, San Diego provides its peers with a pathway: community control.
For more on community choice energy, read our summaries and listen to podcast interviews with Lane Sharman about the early efforts in San Diego, with Marin Clean Energy CEO Dawn Wiesz about their pioneering effort to establish the first community choice program in California, and with Glenn Weinberg, who helped launch the Westchester Power choice program in New York.
For more on city tools to meet ambitious local energy goals, see ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit
Photo credit: Kevin Baird via Flickr