With a unanimous vote of its board of supervisors this week, Contra Costa County joined the increasing number of Bay Area governments exploring or actually implementing “community choice energy” (CCE) systems. Marin and Sonoma counties are the only ones so far to have actually replaced PG&E as the electricity providers for their residents, but Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are all in various stages of setting up similar programs.
In addition to allowing communities to find more “green” electricity, such as wind and solar, community choice electricity programs can also lower rates, as they have in Marin and Sonoma. Proponents in Contra Costa County also emphasize the potential for fostering local clean-energy development as an economic boost to the county.
At Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting, the Contra Costa Clean Energy Alliance, which has been lobbying hard for CCE for more than a year, passed out a fact sheet stating that US Environmental Protection Agency has designated 40,887 acres of land in Contra Costa (mostly former industrial sites) as suitable for renewable energy generation. This means, according to the fact sheet, “Contra Costa’s local renewable production potential could power 1.27 million homes from local renewable energy production.“ It added, “there are 406,772 households in Contra Costa County.”
Although it seems likely that the county will move toward some form of community choice energy, it faces several open questions. One is whether to create a Contra Costa CCE, join Marin Clean Energy, or ask to join Alameda County’s CCE when it’s set up — still probably several years in the future. Several supervisors have suggested that joining an established CCE could be more efficient. But in an interview, Supervisor Candace Anderson expressed a view shared by many community activists: “I’d just as soon create our own. It would give us more control to set up and encourage local energy production.” Walnut Creek and Lafayette have already sent nonbinding “letters of intent” asking to join Marin Clean Energy, but Walnut Creek also urged the supervisors to consider creating a Contra Costa County agency.
Another issue will be the status of unincorporated areas of the county. Speaking at the Tuesday meeting, El Sobrante resident Kook Huber pointed out that “the population of these unincorporated towns totals 170,000 and represents a total larger than any single city in the county.” Ann Puntch of Rodeo, another unincorporated town, expressed concern that in the survey of cities authorized by the board Tuesday, “we might just be overlooked.”
Any Contra Costa Community Choice system that may be created will also confront a controversy now simmering under the surface: labor standards for local green energy producers. Local 1245 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which represents PG&E workers, has created obstacles to community choice energy plans in other areas because of a concern that they will eliminate good union jobs. Tom Dalzell, Local 1245 business manager, pointed out that some “green energy jobs,” like installing rooftop solar panels, are typically low-paid and temporary.
“We support large-scale [energy projects] over rooftop solar,” Dalzell said, because they’re cheaper and they’re better jobs.” However, he said this could include local solar energy projects, such as the solar farm being built — with union labor — by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
The Contra Costa Clean Energy Alliance specifies that it wants local energy developers to create “family-sustaining, high-quality jobs,” prioritizing “union jobs” and “overcoming barriers to employment in ... disadvantaged communities.” Local 1245 wants labor standards built into community choice energy systems, but that move will probably face resistance from decision-makers who, like Andersen, say they “prefer to leave that up to the free market.”