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County plans to help residents buy green power

 

San Mateo County's 20 cities are being asked to decide whether to become part of a county program that would give PG&E customers the option to buy electricity from sources that provide more renewable energy.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance on Tuesday, Nov. 3, to create Peninsula Clean Energy, a joint powers authority aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

In addition, the board plans to vote on the Joint Powers Authority agreement at its next meeting on Nov. 17, said David Pine, San Mateo County supervisor.

Cities within the county that decide to join the agreement by a Feb. 29 deadline will help decide which renewable energy options to offer PG&E customers. The program is expected to launch in October 2016, said Mr. Pine.

A baseline energy mix from renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and small hydroelectric power, would be delivered to households across the existing Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) grid. People could choose to ramp up their renewable energy usage or could opt out of the program and stick with their existing PG&E service.

Because Peninsula Clean Energy would use the existing PG&E grid to distribute the renewable energy, users will experience little to no inconvenience, but could substantially decrease their carbon footprints, according to county Supervisor Dave Pine. The switch, he said, is described as "the biggest change you will never notice."

These programs, called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) or Community Choice Energy (CCE), are already in operation in many places around the country. In California, there are programs in Sonoma and Marin counties and in the city of Lancaster in Los Angeles County.

Mr. Pine said his motivations to create Peninsula Clean Energy are based on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The program, he said, "is the single biggest thing a city or county can do to reduce its carbon footprint."

However, the more he learned about the program, the more he came to appreciate other potential benefits of having a locally organized energy supply.

Today, he said, people's choice for renewable energy is limited, since PG&E is the dominant energy provider in the area. With Peninsula Clean Energy, he said, each city will be represented by a local board representative and all meetings will be held in public. The joint powers authority would not operate for profit and could set its own rates.

"Because we'll have local control," he said, "we'll be able to do a lot of exciting things in addition to offering more renewable energy."

Some potential initiatives, he suggested, could include programs to make it financially attractive to install rooftop solar panels, partnerships to add more electric vehicle charging stations, and alliances with local generators to install wind and solar power.

The program has already completed the first phase, which included a feasibility study looking at offering customers the option to buy renewable energy at rates of 35 percent, 50 percent or 100 percent of their electricity consumption.

According to Mr. Pine, the study demonstrated that there is ample renewable energy available for the county even if all 20 cities decide to sign up for the program.

Phase One of the project included discussions with an advisory committee, launched in May 2015, and involved a number of city representatives, lawyers, and stakeholders, such as environmental and labor advocates.

Phase Two, for which the Board of Supervisors approved $800,000 in spending, is to cover city/community outreach, designing the program, and securing working capital and credit capacity.

"We've seen tremendous enthusiasm for the program," Mr. Pine said.

To those who might ask, "What's so bad with what we've got now?" Mr. Pine responded that while a substantial portion of PG&E's energy is technically carbon-free (at least 55 percent in 2014), that number can be misleading. Nuclear and hydroelectric power count toward that percentage as carbon-free resources, but they are not considered renewable. In 2013, only about 24 percent of PG&E's energy came from energy sources defined as renewable by California law.

"We can do better with Peninsula Clean Energy," said Mr. Pine. "We can do better without using nuclear."

According to Heather Abrams, Menlo Park environmental programs manager, the Menlo Park City Council is expected to hold a study session on the topic on Tuesday, Nov. 10, leaving time for a first and second reading of an ordinance should the city decide to join Peninsula Clean Energy by the Feb. 29 deadline.

Visit peninsulacleanenergy.com for more information.

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