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R. Rex Paris, mayor of the city of Lancaster, Calif., speaks at a forum in Rancho Bernardo on the benefits of community choice energy on March 10. Photo by Aaron Burgin
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Hundreds gather to learn about community choice energy

REGION — If there was one prevailing theme from the hosts of panelists speaking to city and county officials, alternative energy stakeholders and others about community choice energy in a Rancho Bernardo conference room on March 10, it was this: why wait?

Many of the leaders present — from Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear to Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath and Solana Beach City Manager Greg Wade — are from cities that are actively exploring community choice energy, the informal name for community choice aggregation, the process in which a jurisdiction forms an entity that buys power on the open market, choosing the source of the power based on the community’s choice.

For example, the community could choose that it wants all of its power from solar or wind farms, or it wants the most cost effective energy source possible.

The major energy companies such as Sempra, San Diego Gas & Electric and PG&E in Northern California would still deliver the power, but the community would have control over where it received the power from.

CCAs, or CCEs as they are known for short, have emerged in Northern California and one city in Southern California, Lancaster, also has a CCA. But much of Southern California is still wading in the discussion and exploration phase.

At the San Diego Community Choice Forum, dozens of panelists echoed the same message — be patient, be prudent, but also be assertive.

R. Rex Paris, a Republican mayor of Lancaster, Calif., who was the forum’s keynote speaker, said that cities needed to act now, not later. Lancaster’s community choice model has become a darling in the industry, as it has propelled the high desert community to “net zero” status, which means that it produces more solar power than it consumes, which has also been a financial boon for the city.

“It is ethically, morally and just from a point of survival incumbent for us to do something about it,” Paris said.

Paris, who spoke for a half hour, said the biggest obstacle his city faced when forming their energy group was from Southern California Edison.

“In order for us to really be effective, we had to take the power back from Edison, not because they are bad people, but because they are very slow, they are bureaucratic,” Paris said.

The call for swift action was a common theme echoed by other panelists.

“Don’t wait for the next symposium,” said Drake Welch, the vice president of customer care from CalPine Energy Solutions, which provides data management and call center services for many of the state’s CCE programs.

Welch was among a panel that included Dave Pine, the vice president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, Colin Miller, the program manager of Local Clean Energy Alliance and Tom Habashi, the CEO of Silicon Valley Clean Energy.

Pine, whose county’s CCE, Peninsula Clean Energy, is one of several in Northern California, said the major factors that helped them successfully launch their program was having the manpower, financial resources (the county put up the $3 million seed money), and massive communication and stakeholder outreach that included a 20-person advisory committee.

This, Pine said, allowed the county to overcome the biggest obstacle, skepticism from local government officials who saw the program as “too good to be true.”

He said they got all of the city attorneys in the county involved with writing the joint power authority agreement that provided the backbone for the CCE.

“They were the most conservative voices, so we got them eating the (sic) food,” Pine said.

Pine said the best argument that elected official could make to their constituents was they were giving them a choice.

Habashi echoed Pine’s sentiments, saying that communities needed to be prepared to spend lots of money ($2 million to $3 million before seeing a return on the investment), and needed to have the program led by a single entity, such as a CEO or a chairman, not by committee.

“You need one maestro, not six conductors trying to lead the show,” Habashi said.

Habashi also said it was important for communities to choose what their exact goal was with their CCE, whether it be green energy, better rates than the local energy provider or economic development.

“These are all fine and good but one of them must take precedence for your community,” Habashi said.

Blakespear, whose city is among five coastal communities considering a joint powers authority to form a community choice organization, said that the forum helped her get a better understanding of the undertaking of creating a group.

“It wasn’t my goal to run an energy company when I ran for mayor, but I want our city to be a more environmentally oriented city, and having clean power is the most effective way to reduce our carbon footprint,” she said. “This helps me understand the details of CCA and what it means for a city to actually start one. There is lot of intricacy, and I need to understand that to be a supporter.”

Blakespear said she still needed more information before committing the city to moving forward, but said the fact that Encinitas is not alone makes the task less daunting.

While the County of San Diego has already voted to not pursue a CCA, which Blakespear said was disappointing, the fact that other cities still have interest means they can still move forward with the next steps.

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