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Humboldt Looks At Options For Locally-Produced Power

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Humboldt County, California is wrestling with a choice of energy futures.  Until recently, one-third of the county’s energy production came from burning woody biomass to make electricity.

But economic factors have led to local biomass power plants closing. This, as Humboldt is trying to join other California counties in taking over its own energy rates and using more locally-sourced power.

In this second of two stories, we look at Humboldt’s plan to buy energy via an organization called a Community Choice Aggregation, or CCA.

Matt Marshall is trying to pitch a program with a clunky name; Community Choice Aggregation.

“Yeah ‘aggregation’ is an unappealing word that doesn’t really resonate,” he admits. “It’s sort of ‘what’s a community choice aggregation program?’ We and others are trying to shift the term to ‘community choice energy’ because that is actually words that make sense.”

California is one of only six states with CCA’s. They essentially allow cities or counties to purchase electricity, set their own rates and actually choose how green or how local the energy sources are. Marshall is directing Humboldt’s efforts to start a CCA.

“It is not a replacement for the incumbent utilities,” he explains. “So PG&E still maintains and owns the infrastructure. You still get one bill from PG&E in the mail. All it’s doing is taking local control for the generation line on your bill, which is about 50-percent of the total cost of your bill. And it’s saying ‘Oh, where is the actual power coming from?’”

The existing CCA programs in Sonoma, Lancaster and Marin are all opt-out programs; that is, customers can choose to opt out and stay with PG&E. They’ve all been able to keep their rates about the same as PG&E, or even slightly lower. And if customers want a higher percentage of renewable sources they will pay a slightly higher premium.

Sonoma Clean Power has been able to enroll 90 percent of eligible customers. Efren Carrillo is on both the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Board for Sonoma Clean Power.

“The best argument that I think resonated with the constituency was that they would have local control with their decisions,” Carrillo says. “That we could reinvest the money that was quite frankly going out of state.  Just in Sonoma County upwards of $200-300 million was going out in electricity costs. What if we could keep those financial investments here locally? And that is an argument that a lot of people supported.”

The result was Sonoma County customers saved $50 million in the program’s first year. That money was mostly used to fund solar, geothermal, and electric vehicle programs within the county. But could Humboldt achieve the same success?

Steve Hackett, an economics professor at Humboldt State University who specializes in natural resources and clean energy, says one of the issues with a CCA is having enough rate-payers to cover the costs of buying energy and operating the CCA.

Another issue, Hackett says, “is what type of renewable energy packages do we want to offer our community? Do you want to support local jobs and emphasize procuring from locally-sourced  renewables like biomass in Humboldt County that may be a little more expensive. Or do we want to go after the lowest-cost renewables that might be coming from the geysers or from a solar farm in the Mojave, in which case our rates are lower but we don’t get the economic impacts.”

Humboldt certainly doesn’t have the sun or steam of Sonoma County but it’s actually quite resource-rich. Other than a vast potential for woody biomass, US Department of Energy studies show that the north coast is an excellent location for both onshore and offshore wind, as well as wave or tidal energy.

But if the Humboldt CCA hopes to fulfill its promise of local control of local resources to bolster the local economy then it will have to ask itself which renewable to invest in? Humboldt State’s Steve Hackett says that’s the right question, but it’s a tough one to answer.

“It’s an answer that the community itself has to provide,” he says. “Because there is no single renewable technology that doesn’t have some type of a negative side effect. So the right mix for Humboldt ultimately is a reflection of what we are ultimately willing to live with in terms of adverse effects.”

Efren Carrillo remembers reaching that decision point with Sonoma Clean Power.

“You just can’t set your goals on being the cheapest power you can provide,” he says “That’s one component. You’ve got to look at the multiple variables of this entity. Is price important? Is local control important? Are renewable projects important? Is reducing our carbon footprint important? And then you have to balance those interests and say ‘OK, what makes sense for this immediate community?”

The Humboldt County CCA program will not go online this year. They will spend the rest of the year figuring out where they will buy their energy from and what mix of energy makes the most sense economically and environmentally. Then will come the biggest decision of all: how much are locals willing to invest in the short term to secure the county’s long-term energy future.