Turning Down the Heat
Local Control of Electricity Sources: A Sonoma County CCA
About 60% of the electricity that we use in California is generated by burning fossil fuels, making our state's power production a major contributor to global warming. A vital step in reducing greenhouse gasses (GHGs) will be to shift electricity production away from using coal and other fossil fuels to renewable energies like solar and wind.
Some parts of Sonoma County are already using renewable energy to make their electricity. Healdsburg has a municipal power system which allows them to buy most of the city's electricity from the Geysers geothermal plant. The Solar Sebastopol program is promoting the construction of 1 MW of rooftop solar power. But most county residents are PG&E customers and use whatever mix of electricity the utility is providing.
This mix, as noted in a small slip of paper in your PG&E bill, is variable. About half of PG&E's power comes from its own natural gas and hydroelectric plants and from the Diablo Canyon nuclear power facility. The rest is purchased from the power market and can come from coal, natural gas, hydroelectric or renewable energy. However, economic forces may be tilting the utilities' choice towards expanding coal sources rather than green energy. How can consumers take this decision-making into their own hands and influence the future of energy use in California?
In 2003, California passed AB117 which allows communities to directly purchase their choice of electrical power from the market. This is called Community Choice Aggregation, or CCA. If adopted in Sonoma County, the county could then, like Healdsburg, choose to buy power from renewable sources. Unlike Healdsburg, forming a CCA would leave the distribution system in the hands of PG&E, which would be paid by customers for maintenance.
Cities and counties all over California are moving towards setting up CCA's for themselves. Our close neighbors, Marin County and San Francisco, are well along the path of CCA formation, while up to 50 other cities and counties in California are exploring the possibility. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Ohio have well-established programs and more than 15 other states have begun them. What are the potential benefits to Sonoma County from a CCA?
A study by Navigant Consulting was done for Sonoma County on the feasibility of creating a CCA. The study found that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced and consumer rates decreased as well. There are a number of mechanisms that make this possible.
- A CCA can buy from sources that produce fewer GHG emissions. This creates market demand for renewable energy and encourages investment both in researching new energy technologies and in building new renewable power sources. It will help to 'grow' the renewable power sector.
- A CCA can choose not to buy from very polluting sources, like coal-fired power plants. Although Californians tend to see the coal industry as a problem of the eastern U.S., highly polluting coal-fired power plants have been built in the interior western states, in Nevada and near the wilderness areas and national parks of the Four Corners region. These plants provide electricity to California utilities.
In addition to being some of the largest GHG contributors in the U.S., emitting twice as much carbon dioxide as a natural gas-fired plant of the same size1, the coal-fired plants are wreaking local environmental havoc. They cause intense air pollution not liable to California's stricter air quality regulations. Coal used in the plants comes from huge strip mines on Navajo and Hopi land, and processing the coal depletes water supplies in this desert region. Many new coal-burning plants are planned for the area to fill future demand from California2.
- A CCA can be operated with the sole goal of saving money for consumers. Since a CCA is not for profit and has no investors and executives to pay, these savings can be considerable. According to the Local Government Commission, public utilities can save 15-20% over investor-owned utilities. CCA's can also be used to meet the commitment of the county and cities to reduce GHG emissions. Marin County has projected that it will increase its green energy use while reducing electricity prices by 3%.
What You Can Do
- Join the Sonoma Group's Climate & Energy Committee, which has made promoting a Sonoma County CCA a top priority. We could use your help! Contact Nabeel at firstname.lastname@example.org.