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Flipping the switch: Nevada County hosts discussion on Community Choice energy

Nevada County just took its first baby step toward being in control of its power supply, with lower customer bills and 100 percent clean energy as some of the potential benefits.

On Thursday, local government officials and community members got the chance to explore just what it would take to create a community choice aggregation program, at a roundtable hosted by Nevada Irrigation District. These programs are administered by local governments to purchase electricity as an alternative to investor-owned utility sources such as PG&E.

Community choice aggregation is the wave of the future, organizers said. Statewide, there are 18 such programs in existence, including in Placer, Humboldt and Alameda counties.

“This is an opportunity to define our power future,” said Nevada Irrigation District General Manager Rem Scherzinger.

A community choice aggregation program purchases power for its customers and has authority to design its own rate structure and procurement protocols. PG&E would still provide services such as transmission, distribution, metering, billing, collection and customer service. Customers would receive one combined electric bill.

The roundtable featured short presentations from Woody Hastings from the Center for Climate Protection, Gary Saleba, the CEO of EES Consulting, and Tom Habashi, the executive officer of Monterey Bay Community Power.

Hastings noted that when a community choice aggregation launches, customers are automatically enrolled and would have to opt out if they want to remain customers of PG&E.

“There’s no need for a multimillion-dollar marketing program to get participation,” he said.

According to Hastings, community choice aggregation programs are generating some impressive numbers in California, with thousands of new jobs and millions in savings for customers. In 2016, he said, program customers in California saved more than $33 million and that estimate is expected to climb to $90 million by the end of this year.

Hastings said that under a community choice aggregation program, the millions paid to PG&E in Nevada County would stay here and be re-invested back into the community.

The roundtable participants also discussed some of the practicalities of launching such a program, including potential timelines of two to five years from start to finish.

Saleba, whose firms consults on and managed community choice aggregation projects, said the community can pick its priorities, including greenhouse gas reduction, cheaper energy, economic development and local control.

“They’re not mutually exclusive,” he said.

Hastings and Saleba said the biggest challenges communities face in managing community choice aggregation programs tend to be changes in regulations and legislation. On a local level, such programs run into resistance to change, and blowback from special interest groups, Saleba said.

“Their success is proven,” he added. “The track record is there.”

Habashi talked about his experience in starting Silicon Valley Clean Energy and Monterey Bay Community Power, which launched in March after a five-year process and which is sourcing 100 percent of its energy from carbon-free sources.

Some of the questions fielded by the panel included concerns about how such a program would work for a small community such as Nevada County, and start-up costs. Community choice aggregation typically works best with at least 10,000 customers, the panelists agreed. They cited an estimated start-up cost of $500,000 to $750,000, with bank funding available.

After the roundtable, local government officials expressed interest in continuing to explore the possibility.

“We’re interested if it benefits our citizens, and the citizens of this county,” said Grass Valley City Manager Tim Kiser. “It’s a very interesting concept. We’re still trying to process how this gets put together — we want to do more due diligence.”

Mali Dyck, who attended on behalf of Nevada County, said she was impressed with the number of people in the audience and added she wished more of their questions had been answered.

“At this point, the county has not discussed any potential involvement in a future CCA here,” she said.

Catrina Olson, Nevada City’s city manager, also attended but could not be reached for comment. Nevada City has expressed a serious interest in clean energy, however, and has been discussing the possibility of installing a solar farm on its defunct airport property.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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