Santa Cruz residents will get an up-close look at the region’s evolving array of renewable energy offerings at the first-annual Community Power Festival this weekend.
The free event, to be held Saturday, July 14, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at San Lorenzo Park, is organized by nascent nonprofit energy provider Monterey Bay Community Power. The government-backed agency—tasked with transitioning 16 cities in Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties to 100 percent carbon-free energy—planned the festival to offer attractions like live music along with education from purveyors of solar panels, electric bikes and other green alternatives.
“We wanted to have a celebration in Santa Cruz, where everything started,” says Shelly Whitworth, media and communications coordinator for Monterey Bay Community Power.
The effort to create a local clean power authority started five years ago, when former state legislator and current Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson expanded a vision for a countywide program to a broader regional effort.
In the process, Santa Cruz joined a fast-evolving national conversation about community choice energy (CCE) programs, which allow local or regional agencies pursuing more aggressive emissions-reduction goals to take over electricity generation from existing utility providers. A 2002 state measure, AB 117, laid the groundwork for CCEs after California suffered a wave of brownouts and complications with energy deregulation, allowing local agencies to accelerate renewable energy investment by buying in bulk.
Earlier this year, the Monterey Bay region’s roughly 37,500 commercial electricity customers started automatic enrollment in community power. Sign-up for the roughly 235,000 residential accounts in the three-county area started this month. With service up and running, Monterey Bay Community Power joins nine CCEs already offering emissions-free electricity across the country, including nearby Marin and San Mateo counties.
Among the factors differentiating the Monterey Bay CCE is the geographic and demographic diversity of the service area, says Benjamin Eichert, director of the Greenpower program at interfaith advocacy group the Romero Institute.
“Some of the other programs have expanded to later encompass low-income communities, but for the most part they launched in affluent communities,” Eichert says. “You can see the breadth of the program when it includes Carmel, Santa Cruz, but also Hollister, Gonzales.”
Though many environmental groups and policymakers in Santa Cruz have long been outspoken advocates of environmental conservation and climate action, community choice energy isn’t without its critics. Environmental justice groups sometimes contend that business models don’t go far enough to improve access for low-income ratepayers, and climate advocates often disagree about the shades of green that color different carbon-free power sources. Hydropower, for instance, notoriously attracts water conservation concerns.
Locally, PG&E will still oversee transmission, distribution, customer service and billing for all electricity. By the end of this year, however, all commercial and residential users in Monterey Bay Community Power’s service region will begin receiving power from the agency’s portfolio of hydroelectric, solar and wind energy, with the exception of those who decide to opt out of the program and stick with PG&E. The utility’s power mix also includes fossil fuels, natural gas and nuclear power, among other sources.
Of the commercial customers who started the rollover to Monterey Bay Community Power earlier this year, 3 percent have opted out of the new service. Just 1 percent of residential customers have opted out since enrollment started July 1, says Monterey Bay Community Power Director of Communications J.R. Killigrew. Thanks in large part to high anticipated enrollment, the agency is projected to generate $136 million in revenue this year, and $262 million during the first full year of operation in 2019.
Killigrew, a veteran of Marin’s CCE program, says those who opt out are often skeptical of government-controlled power or “just like the status quo.” Costs, Killigrew adds, were designed to be an incentive, rather than a barrier.
“We’re the first community choice program that has an annual rebate program for residential customers, a biannual model for commercial users and a quarterly rebate for large industrial users,” Killigrew says.
To counter concerns about volatile renewable energy prices, Monterey Bay Community Power promises that a 3 percent rebate from PG&E’s rates will be tacked onto customer bills once, twice or four times per year based on power consumption. The program also allows customers to forgo their rebate to help fund local sustainability projects.
Among the biggest questions is how the agency will reinvest funds collected from customers. Since Monterey Bay Community Power is authorized to procure power throughout the Western U.S., customers can pay a higher rate for energy generated in California. Funding local clean power projects is a priority for groups like Eichert’s Greenpower—and the agency did recently release a “Go Local” request for offers to support 20 megawatts of new solar installations in the region—but large-scale projects in cheaper states often come with lower wholesale rates.
“They will be getting renewable energy from a variety of places,” Eichert says. “We want as much as possible of it to be local.”
At least 2 percent of annual revenue will also be dedicated to programs to encourage broader adoption of green technologies—and “not just for your brand-new Tesla,” Whitworth says. Among the programs the agency has considered are making it easier to buy used electric cars or preventing customers behind on their electricity bill from having their power shut off.
Events like this weekend’s festival, Killigrew says, are designed to bring new technologies to life.
“It’s probably one of the fastest-growing revolutions people have seen in a long time,” he says.
The Community Power Festival will be 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday, July 14 at San Lorenzo Park, celebrating the launch of Monterey Bay Community Power, which has been enrolling customers from Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties. There will be interactive booths, local vendors, community organizations, food and live music.