July 9, 2014

Controversial Energy Bill Moves Forward

A bill that would make it difficult to form new, community-based clean energy programs such as Marin Clean Energy has advanced to the state Senate's Energy Committee, where it is scheduled for a hearing Monday.

The bill, AB 2145 — introduced by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, a former public relations executive for Southern California Edison — would dramatically alter the law governing Community Choice Aggregation.

The law, adopted in 2002, allows cities and counties to jointly purchase electricity for constituents within their political boundaries, providing an alternative to the incumbent, investor-owned utility. Initially intended as a means of bringing down electricity rates, the law has been utilized by environmentalists seeking to reduce greenhouse gas production by increasing use of renewable energy sources.

Currently, customers must opt out when a public authority such as Marin Clean Energy is formed in their community; otherwise, they are automatically transferred from the private utility to the new entity. Bradford's AB 2145 would reverse that process, requiring customers to opt in to the new entity if they wish to join.

"It makes more sense to make sure that consumers know what they're getting into when they sign up for one of these CCAs," said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, chairman of the Assembly's Appropriations Committee, who voted for the bill. The bill was approved by the Assembly on a vote of 51-15, with 13 abstentions. Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, was among the dissenters.

Supporters of CCA programs say the opt-out requirement is vital because new public entities need to be able to count on a sizable customer base to secure the financing necessary to get off the ground.

Ed Mainland of Novato, a board member of Sustainable Marin, said, "This is a repeat of Proposition 16. It's a power grab by a monopoly corporation to kill off the competition. And the competition is getting serious because there are more than a dozen communities throughout California that are now in the process of setting up a CCA or considering it."

Proposition 16, which Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bankrolled to the tune of about $46 million, would have required a two-thirds vote of the electorate before a public agency could form a CCA.

On Thursday, opponents of AB 2145 rallied in front of the downtown Oakland PG&E payment center. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to spend $1.3 million to study the feasibility of creating a CCA in Alameda.

AB 2145 is opposed by a large coalition of local government agencies, environmental groups, civic organizations, and community choice advocacy organizations. Supporters include PG&E, San Diego Gas and Electric Co., the Orange County Taxpayers Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245.

Local 1245 has distributed an email and paid for advertising aimed at garnering support for AB 2145, as well as dispatching a political mailer criticizing Marin Clean Energy's chairman of the board, Damon Connolly, during his bid for county supervisor in June.

Local 1245 has criticized Marin Clean Energy for its use of renewable energy certificates (RECs), tradable commodities that certify that one megawatt-hour of electricity has been generated from an eligible renewable energy resource. Local 1245 argues that purchasing such credits is an ineffective means of stimulating development of new renewable energy production.

But Jess Dervin-Ackerman, conservation program coordinator for the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, said, "The truth is the utilities use RECs as well. It's just something that is part of our energy market and mix right now. We believe that using RECs does provide a demand for additional renewable energy and helps generate investment in renewables."

Hunter Stern, Local 1245's business representative, could not be reached for comment on Friday. Spokesmen for the Coalition of California Utility Employees and the California Labor Federation, both of which are listed as supporting the bill, also did not return phone calls.

Dawn Weisz, Marin Clean Energy's executive officer, said some unions are opposing AB 2145. For example, Rob Cole, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 100, issued a statement voicing his local's "strong opposition" to AB 1245, which he calls the "Monopoly Protection Bill."

Weisz said that during the period when Assemblyman Gatto was deciding whether to bring AB 2145 up for a vote before the Appropriations Committee, over a three-day period, he received more than $21,000 in campaign donations from PG&E, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the California State Association of Electrical Workers, and other unions.

Gatto scoffed at the idea that the donations affected his vote. "That's malarkey," he said. "People contribute to lawmakers on both sides of the issue."

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