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When Will We Go Green?

Some Bay Area communities are forming public-power networks to buy and build renewable energy, but East Bay cities have been slow to join the green revolution. Is that about to change?



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The third option was for East Bay MUD to take the lead as a CCA with the cooperation of nearly all East Bay cities, serving 1.4 million customers. But it also was ruled out. In a bit of legislative oversight, the then-recently signed AB 117 failed to mention existing utilities and other special districts as eligible aggregators, along with cities and counties.

This prohibition changed last year with passage of Senate Bill 790, sponsored by San Francisco legislator Mark Leno. The law was primarily designed to check PG&E's vicious efforts to kill CCAs with cynical marketing and lobbying campaigns, but it also included a little-noticed redefinition, allowing existing public utilities like East Bay MUD to become aggregators. East Bay MUD's leaders have quickly picked up where they left off, exploring the case for a CCA in the East Bay.

Although it appears to be too late to convince Richmond to pause its entry into the Marin Energy Authority, East Bay MUD's re-entry plan may mean big things for Berkeley, Oakland, and Emeryville — and Piedmont, Albany, Kensington, El Cerrito, Hayward, Orinda, Walnut Creek, Danville, San Ramon, Pleasant Hill, Lafayette, Crockett, and other towns and vast unincorporated portions of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. East Bay MUD's service area is so large that it would easily become the largest CCA in California, perhaps the nation, if enough of the cities within its territory vote to join. This whole opportunity is just an idea at this point, stress many of the officials exploring it, and exactly what it would look like is anyone's guess.

"One of the most exciting opportunities with CCA is the ability to transform our local economy with new clean-energy jobs," said Andy Katz, an East Bay MUD board member representing Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Kensington, and north Oakland. Along these lines, Katz said San Francisco is a good model to learn from, even if they've had trouble in some areas. "It's important to study, as San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission is, the local build-out of solar energy, and also investments in energy efficiency." Katz said it's too early to assess the results of CleanPowerSF, and that specific features of San Francisco's CCA could be improved, but that the focus on creating local clean-energy jobs is the right one.

Like the officials and activists developing Sonoma Clean Power, Katz said he is interested in bringing organized labor into the fold. "I'm very interested in addressing workers' concerns," he said. "I've already discussed this with reps from the electrical workers' union who represent Alameda County."

East Bay MUD's board has directed staff to step up talks with leaders of various cities to gauge their interest in constituting a region-wide CCA. A report on the feasibility of a joint East Bay MUD-East Bay cities CCA is due in November and will be public by December, said Michael Wallis, operations director for the district. Wallis said his staff has already had meetings with Berkeley, and that a sit-down is scheduled with Emeryville's leaders. The mayors of both cities have formally declared interest in an East Bay MUD-coordinated CCA in letters to the district.

Under East Bay MUD's lead, and with cities like Berkeley and Emeryville on board, a possible regional CCA would be viable, said those who are familiar with the model's economics. But without Oakland — the region's largest industrial and residential municipality — the potential to remake the East Bay's economy is much diminished. If united, an East Bay CCA comprising the major waterfront cities, and many surrounding cities and towns in the hills, could be a tipping point, clean energy advocates say. "The level of redirected revenues, if a significant number of East Bay cities formed a CCA, would reach into the billions of dollars," predicted Shawn Marshall. "This would have tremendous regional economic value and impact over time."

Perhaps the biggest reason why Oakland's leaders let CCA fall off their agenda two years ago was fear of financial liability. These anxieties were stoked by PG&E-friendly lobbyists such as the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce (a PG&E representative sits on the chamber's board of directors). The chamber's executive director, Joseph Haraburda, claimed in a 2008 op-ed in the Oakland Tribune that launching an Oakland CCA would require $17 million in city funding. Furthermore, Haraburda implied that Oakland would financially be on the hook, concluding that "we have too much on our plate right now — public safety concerns, budget concerns, and business concerns — to take on such a risky venture."

"One thing to be clear about," Marshall explained recently, "is that ratepayer revenues generated by a CCA do not co-mingle or support a city's general fund. CCAs in California are operated as separate agencies and, by law, the balance sheets and associated liabilities are kept separate from those of individual member cities." According to Marshall, "now is the time" for CCA in the East Bay, precisely because the local economy is hurting.

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