By Matthew Vollrath/Special to The Almanac
In the fall of 2014, two San Mateo County supervisors sat down with a group of environmental advocates to discuss something called "Community Choice Aggregators," or CCAs – a phenomenon that was just starting to take off in California.
Though the name was clunky and confusing, the concept was powerfully simple. Instead of relying on PG&E's power, which came mainly from fossil fuels like natural gas, the county could start buying renewable energy from wind and solar. This cleaner electricity would be delivered through PG&E's existing lines, so no new wires would have to be installed. And in the end, residents' electric bills wouldn't go up. In fact, they would go down.
The supervisors, Dave Pine and Carole Groom, were immediately intrigued. Soon, they became genuinely enthusiastic.
"It became obvious that (CCAs) were a very powerful tool for quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Pine said in a recent interview. "There's no more important priority than addressing climate change and reducing our carbon footprint. So the more I learned about this model, the more excited I became."
Two years later, a new public agency, Peninsula Clean Energy, was formed. It was launched in 2016 through a joint powers agreement between the county and its 20 cities, and its stated mission is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in San Mateo County by providing greener power at lower rates.
How has PCE done in achieving its goal in its first three years? Impressively, county and PCE officials say. They assert that the agency has saved residents a total of $18 million annually, and cut 105,000 metric tons of carbon emissions per year the equivalent of taking some 22,000 cars off the road.
"It's the highest level (of impact)," said Jim Eggemeyer, sustainability director for San Mateo County. "Peninsula Clean Energy is the greatest opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we've ever had."
Cleaner power, lower price
Between October 2016 and April 2017, Peninsula Clean Energy threw a series of virtual switches, and grid-related emissions in the county were slashed dramatically.
"Almost overnight, we saw our carbon production drop 30%," Pine said.
In a state already charging toward ambitious targets for combating climate change, the arrival of PCE put the county significantly ahead of the game.
"When we launched, we were already 14 years ahead of California's goal of being 50% renewable by 2030," CEO Jan Pepper of Peninsula Clean Energy asserted.
But the agency's work isn't just about county pride, Pepper said. "By demonstrating that we can do this, then others will follow, and we can help move our region, our state, and the nation to a renewable energy economy," she said.
When PCE launched, it was the sixth community choice aggregator in California. Three years later, there are 19 CCAs throughout the state, which together supply nearly a quarter of all electricity in California.
"CCAs could reshape U.S. electricity markets," researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles Luskin Institute assert in a recent paper. They estimate that CCAs have increased renewable energy use in California by 13.1 terawatt hour (TWh) since 2011, enough to power nearly 250,000 homes per year, all while creating billions of dollars in savings.
That remarkable value proposition – cleaner power at a lower cost – is made possible by a number of factors, Pepper said.
The first is the fact that CCAs are public agencies. Unlike investor-owned utilities like PG&E, PCE does not profit from its revenues, and can offer lower prices as a result.
"We don't pay dividends to shareholders," Pepper explained. "Instead, we can provide savings directly to customers through lower rates." Since its launch, she noted, PCE has consistently kept the price of its default power option at 5% below PG&E's rates.
Another factor is the ever-growing presence of renewables. As technologies rapidly improve and more panels and turbines go up throughout the state, the price of wind and solar energy continues to plummet every year.
"Renewable energy is now very competitive or even lower-cost than fossil-based energy," she said. Many experts estimate it will fall even lower in the next few years – to as low as $0.03 a kilowatt hour (kWh), a full $0.02 cheaper than fossil fuels.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of PCE, however, is the scope of its service. When PCE launched in 2016, it became the official power provider for San Mateo County. All residents, businesses, and government services were automatically switched from PG&E's power mix to PCE's 50% renewable energy.
Though customers can choose to opt out, only a small handful have done so, program officials said. As a result, the county's overall energy load is now roughly 50% renewable.
"Right from the get-go, you had everyone involved," Eggemeyer said. "All across the board, we were immediately making better choices and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions."
Technically, though, not all of this impact is strictly local, he noted. When PCE purchases energy from wind and solar providers, that energy is piped into the larger grid for California and other western states. Not every "clean" electron goes directly to a San Mateo County home.
But when it comes to sustainability, that was never the point, Eggemeyer said.
"The way I look at it is, sure, we can look at it in numbers relative to San Mateo County," he said. "But it's really about helping all of California."
For all its early success, however, PCE has only made it halfway. The grid is 50% renewable – but there's still the matter of the other 50%.
With the threat of climate change closing in – a recent United Nations report gives the world just 12 years to reverse the crisis – many local governments have adopted aggressive "zero emissions" targets. Last year, the state of California pledged to be carbon neutral by 2045. And in September, the county declared a climate emergency, which included a promise to achieve zero emissions ahead of the statewide goal.
With the help of CCAs, 12 communities in California, including Culver City, Santa Monica, and Thousand Oaks, have already achieved 100% renewable power. But only one in San Mateo County – Portola Valley – is among the 12.
This is because of PCE's two-tiered system. By default, customers receive PCE's "Eco Plus" power mix, which is 50% renewable. They can also choose to opt up to "Eco 100," and receive 100% renewable energy for roughly $4 more per month. The Portola Valley Town Council has voted to opt all of the town's residents up, and several other major customers, including Facebook, have also made the switch.
Overall, fewer than 2% have sprung for the upgrade. As a result, the overall grid is still about 50% renewable – the same as it was when the program launched.
PCE hasn't gone to great lengths to change this, Pepper admitted. "To date, we have not made a big push to encourage customers to opt up," she said.
But there's a reason for that, she said. Instead of trying to opt everyone up individually, PCE plans to make the shift automatic. By 2025, the agency has determined, all of San Mateo County will receive 100% renewable energy, by default, at no additional charge.
This has been the plan from the beginning, Pepper said. "The goal was first set at our board of directors retreat in 2016. We set this goal to demonstrate that it is achievable, and can be done in a cost-effective manner while still maintaining economic vitality in the county."
It's an ambitious target, Pepper acknowledged – it will mean rapidly acquiring hundreds of megawatts of renewable power while still keeping prices low. But it's doable, she insisted.
"Peninsula Clean Energy is confident we will achieve this goal," she said.
One major stride was slated to happen last year. In fall 2018, workers broke ground on the Wright Solar Facility, a 200 megawatt (MW) solar project in Los Banos. According to Peninsula Clean Energy, it is the largest solar project in California to be commissioned exclusively for a CCA. As of Friday, Jan. 3, the facility has been fully connected to the power grid in San Mateo County, providing enough renewable power for more than 100,000 households countywide. The process to connect the facility to the power grid began in December with a series of safety tests, according to Kirsten Andrews-Schwind, senior manager of community relations at Peninsula Clean Energy.
PCE is also pursuing contracts with other solar producers across the state, it says. Additionally, county residents are producing roughly 100 MW from home solar systems, which reduces the load PCE must supply.
Still, there will be challenges to reaching the five-year renewability goal, said Pine. One major hurdle will be providing renewable power at night, when no solar energy can be produced.
"No one has quite figured this out yet," he said. "At the state level, the idea of having renewable energy 24/7 is really an unsolved equation."
Solving that problem will involve finding ways to store large amounts of solar energy during times of excess, he said. This will require both advances in battery technology and, more importantly, policy coordination and money.
But Pine, too, said he believes his agency will ultimately deliver. "Peninsula Clean Energy has always aimed to be a leader in community choice energy – to set the model for others," he said. "If anyone can do it, we can."
Beyond the grid
The power grid is just one piece of the climate puzzle. In 2016, emissions from electricity generation in California clocked in at around 40 metric megatons – 11% of the total emissions for the state. The remaining emissions came from myriad other sources: everything from well-known culprits like cars and natural gas to surprising ones, like food waste and refrigerators.
Since coming on the scene, PCE has been helping to solve these problems, too.
"Our mission at Peninsula Clean Energy is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Pepper said. "We first approached [that through delivering cleaner and greener electricity. Now we are focusing on transportation, the biggest source of emissions in the county."
Over the past three years, PCE has launched multiple projects aimed at increasing electric vehicle use. The agency has committed millions to the creation of charging stations, provided free electric vehicle test drives at local events, and offered rebates for electric vehicle purchases. It has also supported the county's plans to implement "reach codes" to ban natural gas in new buildings, and led outreach efforts such as creating environmental impact monitoring at local schools.
Pepper explained that it is PCE's status as a public agency that makes this possible. Since the agency doesn't profit from its earnings, it invests all excess revenues in local sustainability projects, and supplements that with millions of dollars in grant funding, she said.
Most recently, PCE's projects have focused on addressing a vital community need: backup power. On Oct. 24, the PCE board voted to commit up to $10 million to buy solar backup batteries for county households, over 60,000 of which have been hit by PG&E's power shutoffs this season.
"We wanted to take some action before we turn into a third-world state," Pepper said at the meeting. "There's a lot of negativity around what PG&E is doing, and there's not a lot of leadership coming from the state. So CCAs have an opportunity to step in and show our commitment to our communities."
The value of solar batteries is twofold, Pepper said. In addition to providing backup power for residents who lack it, the batteries also help reduce the use of diesel generators in the county. After the first power shutoff in October, several local vendors sold out of the generators, which are heavy emitters of both carbon dioxide and other toxins.
On top of its own proposal, PCE also announced a partnership with other local CCAs to extend the battery-buying operation. The partners, which represent Alameda, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties, will aim to have 6,000 new rooftop-solar-plus-battery systems installed across the Bay Area by next year, they say.
Both battery programs will start by targeting residents with special medical needs. Over 5,000 people in San Mateo County are enrolled in PG&E's Medical Baseline program, and rely on electricity-dependent treatments like CPAP machines, oxygen concentrators, and refrigerated insulin. The battery programs will also support crucial community services like fire and police stations and hospitals.
In one sense, Pine said, these projects are icing on the cake for an agency already tackling a major issue like electricity. But ultimately, the scope of PCE's efforts is what makes it a truly powerful tool for the county, he said – especially as it nears the goal of building a completely green grid.
"Peninsula Clean Energy allows us to have an agency that's entirely focused on reducing carbon emissions," Pine said. "We've been extremely successful in that with respect to energy. Now, we have to move on to everything else."