Clean, safely delivered energy should be California's top priority

One of the biggest challenges we face in securing a sustainable future is finding alternative sources of energy that are affordable, environmentally friendly, and safe to deliver to consumers. With an energy industry that is driven by fossil fuel, this is not an easy task. But as utility rates continue to increase, so does the public’s awareness of where we get our energy.

That is one reason why Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) is such an interesting concept. Community Choice Aggregation is a program that allows cities and counties to aggregate the electricity demands of residents, businesses and other institutions to facilitate the cooperative purchase and sale of electricity. By enabling local governments to pool together their purchasing power for electricity, CCAs offer California communities the opportunity to increase the use of renewable resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create new jobs. Under a community power association, the local utility company continues to deliver electricity through its transmission and distribution system. The utility also provides meter reading, billing and maintenance. However, consumers are able to choose their preferred energy source.

In 2002, the California Legislature enacted Assembly Bill 117, which established a local government’s right to implement CCA. Bay Area governments have already taken steps to establish their own CCAs, including Clean Power S.F. in San Francisco and Marin Clean Energy in Marin County. Community power has also been embraced and successfully implemented in other states including Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Despite California’s enabling legislation, CCAs have been extremely difficult to establish, in large part due to the ability of large utility companies to block their formation. In 2010, community power opponents spent at least $46 million on Proposition 16, a statewide ballot initiative that would have made it extremely difficult to form CCAs in California. Fortunately, voters defeated the measure, reaffirming public support for CCAs. Still, only one local government has successfully launched a CCA since 2002, while others have tried and failed, mainly due to utility opposition. Existing law requires utilities to cooperate fully with communities seeking to establish a CCA, but the reality has been far different.

Earlier this year, I introduced Senate Bill 790 to help communities create CCAs. This bill, named The Charles McGlashan Community Choice Aggregation Act in memory of the late Marin County supervisor who was a clean energy champion, removes unnecessary burdens and undue constraints in our existing CCA implementation process. SB 790 helps ensure that community power remains a viable option for local governments. It also establishes rules of conduct for electrical corporations so that they are not able to stand in the way of the formation of CCAs. The Charles McGlashan Community Choice Aggregation Act is sponsored by the Marin Energy Authority, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and Sierra Club California.

In addition to SB 790, I also introduced a second bill this year related to energy and utilities. SB 705 responds to last year’s natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood. I co-chaired a Senate hearing following the San Bruno disaster, which raised the questions of how the tragedy occurred and what could have been done to prevent it. One issue that came to light in that hearing is the safety of our gas pipeline delivery and transmission system has not been a high enough priority. As a result, the public is at great risk of accidents and explosions.

SB 705 establishes a permanent, statewide policy that directs the gas industry to make safety its top priority. The bill also protects ratepayers by directing that a utility’s efforts to increase safety will not fall on the consumers’ shoulders in the form of unreasonable rate increases. SB 705 is sponsored by the Utility Workers Union of America and The Utility Reform Network (TURN).

Both SB 790 and SB 705 recently passed the Senate and are currently being considered in the Assembly.

Senator Mark Leno represents the Third Senate District of California, which includes portions of San Francisco and Sonoma Counties and all of Marin County.