By Susan Landry
If you live in Monterey, Santa Cruz or San Benito counties, chances are you’re getting your electricity from Monterey Bay Community Power. In fact, since its residential rollout last July, approximately 96 percent of us are. So are consumers getting a better deal with this brand-new agency?
Monterey Bay Community Power officials believe they are. The local government agency was tasked with providing completely carbon-free electricity to the tri-county area. This means purchasing wholesale electricity produced from sources like wind, solar and hydroelectricity, and then selling it back to consumers.
Currently, the agency purchases its electricity from existing carbon-free power sources all across California and the Pacific Northwest, sometimes sourcing energy from as far away as Utah or Arizona, according to Ted J. Terrasas, the sustainability coordinator for the city of Monterey’s Community Development Department.
Monterey Bay Community Power is what’s known as a Community Choice Aggregate. Its purpose, and that of other California CCAs like it, is to give consumers an alternative to the private utility sector dominated by companies like PG&E, according to JR Killigrew, director of communications and energy programs for Monterey Bay Community Power.
“Before (Monterey Bay Community Power) nobody had a choice,” Killegrew said. “The investor-owned utility showed up one day, built up the infrastructure and that was all you had for your electric service. You had no say in decision-making, you had a bill shoved down your throat, had to pay it every month and that was it.”
Despite the agency’s emphasis on choice, a state law known as AB 117 mandates that to ensure the success of Community Choice Aggregates, the agencies must become the default service providers in their respective areas. This means that once its residential operations rolled out in July 2018, all eligible PG&E customers’ electric services were automatically switched to MBCP.
This automatic enrollment led to a shaky start with some customers who felt the switch was forced upon them without adequate notice. “I looked at my bill and saw Monterey Bay Electrical and I thought to myself, we did not want this, we didn’t ask for this, nobody asked us. So we opted out,” said Karrisa Josselyn, an Aromas resident. “I didn’t see that (Monterey Bay Power’s) rates were lower than PG&E, I saw that my bill was much higher.”
MBCP officials admit that outreach is a challenge. Customer frustration peaked last winter following a gas rate hike by PG&E. “We had a lot of people contact us,” said Shelly Whitworth, an energy communications specialist for MBCP. “Gas rates increased so significantly they had just discovered us for the first time on their bill. They see this MBCP charge and they’re thinking it’s an extra charge.”
Monterey Bay Community Power remains adamant that customers are not being charged more for its services than they would be with PG&E. “On a monthly basis we match our rates exactly to PG&E, so you’re not paying any more than you would with PG&E,” said Killigrew. In a step towards fiscal transparency, the agency makes available all financial documents and records on its website.
PG&E continues to profit by charging customers for the delivery of electricity through its infrastructure, and by charging Monterey Bay Community Power for its billing services – over $1 million per year, according to Killigrew. “That’s half the reason the state allowed AB 117 to pass, because it’s not cutting too much into PG&E’s profits,” he said.
In addition to rate matching, the agency provides savings rebates to consumers, which are retroactively applied each December. In 2018, the rebates topped $4.4 million. Now, with savings rebates increased from 3 percent to 5, the company expects to dole out more than $10 million to customers at the end of this year.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re saving much,” said MBCP customer Beth Roybal, in an email. “I did get the promised rebate at the end of the year, which amounted to about $25. So that’s something! But most of my bill goes to PG&E fees and natural gas.”
The agency is currently funneling a much larger share of its surplus revenue into reserves — now up to $78 million, according to Whitworth, who says the reserves are essentially MBCP’s “savings account.” Once reserves reach a threshold of 50 percent of operating costs, MBCP staff aims to split surplus revenue equally between customer rebates and local energy programs, according to the agency’s proposed operating budget.
Current local energy programs include “Project Sunshine,” which provides no-cost solar installation to low-income households. The public utility is also offering electric vehicle incentives of up to $4,500 per individual through the end of July.
Monterey Bay Community Power was established, in part, to help the Central Coast area reach the environmental goals outlined in Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The bill aims for a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, a return to the emissions levels from the year 1990.
While Monterey was on track to meet this goal already, largely thanks to stricter state vehicle emissions laws, “now that Monterey Bay Power is here, we’ve blown the target away,” said Terrasas, the agency’s sustainability coordinator. “Making sure we got Monterey Bay Community Power started was my No. 1 priority … it would take an immeasurable level of smaller projects to have that same kind of an impact, it’s almost impossible.”
According to data available on its website, the utility has already eliminated more than 300 thousand metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions since operations began in 2018.
Still, the company has a long way to go on its envisioned path to a renewable energy future. All of the electricity sourced by Monterey Bay Community Power is carbon-free, but only 34 percent comes from renewable sources like wind and solar. The remaining 66 percent is sourced from large-scale hydroelectric projects.
Hydroelectricity is not considered a renewable resource by state law, because of the limited potential for new dams, and the negative impacts on local river ecosystems and fish populations. MBCP customers can “upgrade” their electricity source to MBprime, which exclusively utilizes wind and solar energy at the added cost of one cent per kilowatt hour. That’s part of the choice Killigrew is talking about.
Currently, MBCP has two large-scale solar projects on the horizon, including the BigBeau Solar project in Kern County. When completed in 2021, it will be California’s largest solar-plus-storage project to date. Together, the solar projects will power more than 32,000 homes in the tri-county area.
Things for MBCP haven’t been all rainbows and solar panels on the legislative side, either. Terrasas noted that his office responded to eight different proposed bills to weaken Community Choice Aggregates in just the past few weeks. “There’s folks out there that like the status quo,” he said. “They don’t want CCAs disrupting the energy market. They want to keep the power, literally.”
For Killigrew, the biggest challenge at MBCP remains establishing trust and good faith in the community. “You have a 100-year-old investor-owned utility that has big blue trucks driving all over the place and the brand recognition, so it’s David versus Goliath just trying to get established and get folks comfortable with the model,” Killigrew added.
About 3.5 percent of customers decided to opt out of MBCP thus far, often citing confusion, cost or an unwillingness to let government run their electrical utility, according to officials.
Josselyn says she could consider opting back in, but first the agency would need to earn her trust back through its actions. “If they want to compete with another company, then do that, don’t just say it — be better and be less. Stay on the straight and narrow, and don’t get greedy, that’s what I’d like to see,” said Josselyn.
For Roybal, who likes the idea of a local power company, “My ideal would be a community power group that actually controls the grid itself,” she said, rather than relying on PG&E for transmission of its electricity.
One thing is certain, Community Choice Aggregates are poised to become dominant providers of California’s increasing energy needs, with 19 now in operation across the state. MBCP’s emphasis on renewable energy and reliable, albeit short, track record has attracted the attention of neighboring cities Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, who will join the program next year.
MBCP encourages consumers to hold the agency accountable and voice concerns either online or by phone at 888-909-6227.
| To learn more about Monterey Bay Community Power, visit its website at mbcommunitypower.org.
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