Do you know what happens when you stick a screwdriver into an electrical socket?
For the last year or so, some members of the City Council have been messing around with a socket called a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program. It's a recent phenomenon, fueled primarily by Californians' strong desire to push ahead with renewable energy.
I'm not sure I understand it completely, but that's never stopped me before, so I'll try to explain.
A CCA allows a city or other entity to purchase its own power, use an existing electrical grid and sell it to its customers. The owners of the grid get sort of a users fee, and the city gets the chance to buy its energy from solar farms or windmill forests or hydro-electric plants.
That offers the feel-good of lowering or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions while keeping the lights on. Proponents also claim that it could mean lower electricity rates, at least when all the planets line up.
It came as no surprise that our forward-looking council asked to study creating our own CCA shortly after those hip folks in northern California started doing it. We're all aware of the realities of climate change and global warming, and at least some of us are willing to do our part in slowing it down.
But. Isn't there always a but? This time there are lots of buts.
After a year-long feasibility study resulting in a 138-page report (listing five different consultant firms as participants), the conclusion was there's no clear-cut conclusion. Acting City Manager Tom Modica and his staff recommended a wait and see approach to the City Council, suggesting a two-year delay for any action, unless "new information becomes available solidifying benefits, to allow for possibly increased stability in the California electricity market, which will lessen possible risk to residents and businesses."
In a burst of rare caution, the council decided that 138 pges might take more than a minute to understand. Or, perhaps more likely, the proponents discovered they didn’t have the votes to push ahead no matter what the concerns might be. It is significant that Jeannine Pearce, who brought it forward in the first place, was the one who asked for the delay.
SCE has been the city's electricity supplier for more than 100 years, and owns the transmission system serving the city. It once generated the electricity too, but deregulation forced a separation of power (pardon the pun — couldn't help it). It now buys electricity from multiple sources, including in some cases from its own customers who use solar to generate electricity.
Presumably, if Long Beach forms a CCA, it would pay SCE a fee to use its transmission lines. But things get a little complicated here.
Apparently, the law allowing CCA formation also allows individual customers the right to opt out — to continue buying electricity from SCE in this case. That's a problem in Long Beach, because a large percentage of the electricity is used by a very few customers (think Port of Long Beach). If those customers were to opt out for slightly cheaper electricity, that would drive the price of the CCA's "green" electricity even higher.
Oh, and did I mention that SCE and other electricity providers in California are mandated to get more and more of their electricity from renewable sources as time goes on? Or that the state's power grid must be 100 percent renewable energy by 2045?
I am by nature a bit of a cynic, and tend to avoid things that sound too good to be true. In the matter of electricity and Long Beach, I have good cause for skepticism.
It happened in 1999. It came about, at least partially, because SCE had to renew its franchise agreement with Long Beach.
Instead, city officials floated a plan to create its own utility, using a giant firm called Enron to provide electricity. After lengthy negotiations — and significant givebacks from SCE — the Enron idea was dropped. But some say it was closer to reality than many know.
Cooler heads pushed for the SCE compromise largely because of the risks involved in tying a city's power grid to a relative unknown. That caution was proved well-founded just a couple of years later, when Enron went belly-up in a scandal of cooked books and more.
Again, I'm no expert, but a year or two of wait-and-see on the CCA concept would seem prudent to me.