Santa Maria should join the Monterey Bay Community Power Authority

This editorial by SBCAN Executive Director Ken Hough was published in the Santa Maria Times on Aug. 16, 2019. Ken can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward is a progressive look at local issues.

In May, the Santa Maria City Council considered a staff recommendation to join the Monterey Bay Community Power Authority (MBCPA). Good reasons were given in the staff report for doing so: a carbon-free electrical energy portfolio, rebates that result in rates 3 to 5 percent lower than PG&E’s, electric-vehicle incentive programs and encouragement of local clean energy generation, to name just a few. 

MBCPA is one of 19 “Community Choice Energy” authorities in California serving close to 10 million customers. Here’s how these work: the authority buys and builds electricity supply; the existing utility company, PG&E in our case, maintains transmission lines delivering the electricity, and bills the customers; the customers—residential, business and government alike—benefit from lower rates, cleaner energy and local control. Customers have the ability to opt out of the program and go back to electricity procured by PG&E.

At the Council’s May 21 meeting, city staff noted that—with jurisdictions in San Luis Obispo County already participating and others in Santa Barbara considering joining—MBCPA was prepared to rebrand the organization to include “Central Coast” in its name.

Some additional benefits noted in the staff report included that 2 percent of revenues are being reinvested in local energy programs like transportation electrification and small, dispersed electrical resources; the payments to customers who produce more solar power than they use are more than double those provided by PG&E; and customers have the option to “opt-up” to support 100 percent California wind and solar for 1 cent per kilowatt hour.

After the staff presentation and before public comment, the City Clerk noted that there was a letter from the County of Santa Barbara asking the city to wait for the completion of a county study. After hearing public testimony and a presentation from MBCPA staff, the Council decided to postpone a decision, at least in part because of the county’s request.

In July the county’s study was completed and the County Board of Supervisors decided to join MBCPA, thereby providing the benefits listed above to residents and businesses in the unincorporated area of the county. Guadalupe, Carpinteria and Goleta have also decided to join. Santa Barbara has decided to develop its own Community Choice Energy program.

Competition should be welcomed. In Santa Maria, PG&E remains a monopoly. It is in bankruptcy court and surely hopes to eventually begin paying dividends to its investors. That’s fine for stockholders, but our local elected officials should be looking out for the interests of their residents and businesses and their own municipal finances. Since January 2019, all of our PG&E bills have had an insert reporting that they are going to ask for a rate increase. Meanwhile, MBCP is planning to reduce rates by increasing its rebate from 5 percent to 8 percent.

Opponents of community choice energy argue that the community would lose taxes that are paid by PG&E. However, those funds are not manna from heaven. Through utility rates, our residents and businesses pay those taxes. Those funds would also benefit the community if they were left in the hands of ratepayers.

With that background, those of us who have advocated for community choice in electrical supply were heartened to see the display notice in the August 2 Santa Maria Times announcing a public hearing on Tuesday, August 20 at 5:30 p.m. before the City Council to consider approval to join MBCPA. We encourage you to participate in the public hearing and we encourage the City Council to bring these benefits to its residents and businesses.