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Solar panels atop Del Mar City Hall. Solana Beach, Carlsbad and Del Mar jointly established the Clean Energy Alliance in 2019. Photo courtesy Clean Energy Alliance
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CEA tries to balance ‘green’ goals against economic hardship

SOLANA BEACH — City Councilmembers debated at their Jan. 13 meeting how to balance the merits of higher-priced renewable electricity against the economic hardship caused by COVID-19, ultimately deferring the question until they know costs more precisely.

Councilmembers expressed different leanings. Though they all indicated, all else being equal, they fundamentally support the city’s climate action goals — namely, to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 50% below 2010 levels by 2035.

Councilman Dave Zito said he’s reticent to see the city “move backwards” on its climate action goals “for what is likely to be an extremely small difference in overall bill size.”

Councilwoman Kristi Becker wants “to balance our ambitious climate action goals with the reality of today’s world.”

“We are in the middle of a raging pandemic, which has caused a severe economic recession. Many of our residents and our businesses are struggling to survive,” she said.

The debate pertained to advising the Clean Energy Alliance, a debuting public electric utility, about what mix of renewable and fossil fuel generated electricity it should sell when it opens for business later this year.

Solana Beach, Carlsbad and Del Mar jointly established the Alliance in 2019, and each appoints a city councilmember to serve on its governing board. The co-venture aims to “provide an option for local customers to purchase power from more renewable sources” than San Diego Gas & Electric, or SDG&E, a powerhouse regional utility, according to the City of Carlsbad’s web site.

“Cleaner” energy would likely cost consumers a little more than “dirtier” energy, especially factoring in exit fees SDG&E charges customers who switch utilities. Though Alliance CEO Barbara Boswell said she hasn’t yet quantified the potential cost differential.

For its default product, or what customers get unless they expressly choose some alternative, SDG&E’s power generation portfolio in 2019 included: 31% from statutorily “eligible” renewables (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass); 24% from natural gas; and 44% from “unspecified sources,” which are “purchased through open market transactions and … not traceable to a specific power generation source,” according to a recent bill insert.

By the terms of its establishing agreement, the Clean Energy Alliance must procure at least 50% renewable energy. The board plans tentatively to launch a 50% renewable option, as well as a 100% renewable option at some “rate premium,” Boswell said. The board has yet to decide which product it would offer ratepayers by default.

SDG&E also offers an all-renewable product, dubbed EcoChoice, which derives all electricity from solar sources.

The Clean Energy Alliance is considering whether to offer a 36% renewable option, below its stated minimum. It’d offer the alterative to lower-income customers who currently qualify for SDG&E’s discount programs, and potentially also to businesses, based on some as-of-yet undetermined criteria. The Alliance could likely charge a lower rate for this option, “reflect[ing] the lower cost in procuring that energy,” Boswell said.

It’d be cheaper because it’s not guaranteed green, but rather “a mix of whatever generators are flowing onto the grid,” she said. “It can be renewable energy that’s not claimed” or “generated from gas fired power plants.”

The ability to “opt down” to a dirtier, cheaper option “might be a selling point to other cities,” which the Alliance hopes eventually to attract into its membership, Becker said. “We would definitely prefer to have them opt down temporarily than to have them opt out, because if they opt out, we’re not getting them back.”

The Sierra Club’s Karl Aldinger said the Alliance should “simplify the choices to 50% and 100% [renewable],” so residents don’t have to choose between “necessarily climate action or slightly cheaper power.”

A 3-to-2 majority of Carlsbad’s City Council preferred not to offer a dirtier, cheaper option, though ultimately the decision is up to the Clean Energy Alliance’s board, Becker said.