Written by Davis Harper and Destiny Rodriguez
The capacity of local governments to protect their residents and businesses in times of crisis is being tested all over California. Elected officials are now tasked with addressing each rippling impact COVID-19 is having on their communities. Beyond the public health crisis itself, shelter-in-place orders have left millions of people applying for unemployment and businesses struggling to, quite literally, keep the lights on.
For most counties and cities in California that have established community choice agencies (CCAs) – where local governments can purchase clean power at competitive rates on behalf of their residents and businesses – residential and commercial customers have been offered flexible payment plans, with assurance that the power won’t be shut off for nonpayment. CCA’s work in partnership with the larger investor-owned utilities in the state that still own the lines that those electrons travel through. Impressively, these locally controlled, not-for-profit agencies have already been able to make a difference supporting the most vulnerable members of their communities at the most critical times.
East Bay Community Energy (EBCE) has earmarked an astonishing $1 million for community relief efforts in response to COVID-19 for the 12 East Bay communities it serves, along with $300,000 in grants for local community-based organizations. The agency also gave $70,000 to the Alameda County Food Bank and Meals on Wheels program, and is soliciting donations from its largest customers to increase that amount to more than $1 million by the end of April. “This is clearly a crisis time for residents and local businesses, and if EBCE has any resources available to help, then by all means that is what we’re going to do, and we’re doing it immediately,” said EBCE’s CEO, Nick Chaset.
Valley Clean Energy (VCE), a joint powers authority between the City of Davis and Yolo County, has donated $2,500 to the Yolo Food Bank in the hopes that others will contribute as well. “VCE was created to support our customers and give back to the community,” said Mitch Sears, VCE’s interim general manager. “That mission is even more important as we go through times of crisis like the COVID pandemic.”
Silicon Valley Clean Energy is committing $10 million in COVID-19 relief funds to support lower-income customers; pay for resiliency improvements at community and emergency facilities; and launch training programs for electrical, plumbing and mechanical workers impacted by shelter-in-place orders. The agency is also lowering electric generation rates to 4% below those of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which will result in an annual savings of $18 million to its customers.
Roughly 30,000 low-income customers in San Mateo County are receiving a $100 credit from their CCA, Peninsula Clean Energy. “In these unprecedented times, this credit will help those most at risk of losing their paychecks and financial stability, particularly our most vulnerable low-wage earners,” East Palo Alto Vice-Mayor Carlos Romero said.
Several Central Valley communities are considering implementing a CCA program. What a CCA in Fresno or Stockton looks like will be determined by local elected officials and community members, but it could pitch in to relief efforts in the community it serves. For example, the agency could support the boots on the ground delivering food to isolated elderly residents and helping homeless individuals move to safer locations. In constant contact with its customers, the provider could serve as a communications outlet to relay and receive critical information in emergency situations.
Beyond supporting short-term relief measures, this new Central Valley public electricity provider could mold to the needs of the community through targeted programs in the months and years following the crisis. Case in point: after the devastating 2017 wine country fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties, Sonoma Clean Power offered its customers huge incentives for rebuilding their homes with safer, cleaner, and more resilient, energy-efficient building materials.
As Fresno and Stockton assesses the feasibility of community choice energy, it’s worth considering the 30,000-foot view. The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that we ignore climate science at our own peril and early action saves lives. Establishing a CCA is one of many solutions for California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2022 and become carbon-negative by 2030, as outlined in the Climate Center’s Climate-Safe California campaign. With a recession almost certainly lingering, now is the time for local reinvestment and innovation, which is what CCA is all about. Establishing a CCA would spur local job growth in an emerging renewable energy industry, retain local dollars in the local economy and return power to people to decide how their energy is produced. Let’s help make it happen.
Davis Harper and Destiny Rodriguez are Central Valley-based community organizers for The Climate Center, a nonprofit organization that works with business, government, youth and the broader community to advance practical, science-based solutions for significant greenhouse gas emission reductions.