By Tyson Siegele, SanDiego350
Originally published in the San Diego Free Press
A staunch supporter of Community Choice Energy gave the keynote address at a March 10th forum organized by the Climate Action Campaign. Since clean, renewable energy is one of the main benefits of Community Choice Energy (CCE), you might think the speaker would be a long haired hippy prone to singing kumbaya. Not at all, not even close. The proud Republican Mayor of Lancaster, California, Rex Parris, provided an enthusiastic endorsement of CCE, lambasting the high prices of utility power and praising the savings gained through Community Choice.
Rex Parris and Clean Energy Innovation
The people of Lancaster first elected Rex Parris in 2008. Since then he has been re-elected 3 times including in 2016 when he received 67% of the vote. One of the main ways he achieved such strong support was by turning Lancaster into a clean energy mecca. The biggest win in terms of jobs was bringing Build Your Dream (BYD) electric bus manufacturing to the city. BYD is an electric vehicle heavyweight. In 2016 it built more electric cars than any company in the world, and did so by a large margin. The Lancaster facility does not get as much press as Tesla, but it is ramping up activity in a similar fashion. Soon, in addition to buses, Lancaster will begin providing electric trash trucks and other heavy duty vehicles.
Electric vehicle manufacturing is just one piece of the pie in Lancaster. Parris was also instrumental in reducing permitting times for rooftop solar and introducing building codes requiring rooftop solar arrays. The city was the first in California to require rooftop solar on all new buildings. Better yet, Lancaster hopes to soon be able to announce that it has become a zero net energy community. That means it aims to produce more renewable energy within city limits than its total energy consumption, a goal it has been working toward since 2011. Accomplishing that has involved new and innovative building codes, creative public/private partnerships, and most importantly Community Choice Energy.
Lancaster and Community Choice Energy
While the Mayor is now a strong advocate for the environment, this was not always the case. When introducing himself, Parris said, “I like to call myself a California Republican. You know what that is? We actually read books.” Which is exactly what Parris did when people the Mayor respected kept telling him that climate change was real. Originally, the Mayor admitted, he assumed the Republican party line on climate change had merit. He thought that maybe global warming was a conspiracy invented to allow other countries to compete. Now though, not only does he understand climate change is real, but he works hard to combat it.
Lancaster saves money with CCE
As a fiscal conservative, Mayor Parris pairs belief with practicality. He realizes economics are key to finding viable solutions. As such he spent a good deal of time talking about how Community Choice Energy strengthens his community economically in addition to the obvious environmental benefits. But then, the savings achieved, were well beyond expectations. “The money you make on these things…”, he said, “just by becoming sustainable, nobody was prepared for.”
Mayor Parris touted the Lancaster CCE program’s cost savings. “Everyone is saving 4.6% off their electric bill, when you average it out across the city. And they could save a lot more, but I want us to be the leader of the nation in sustainable cities and alternative energy use and that takes money and I don’t want to charge the taxpayers one dime. [The additional savings] doesn’t go into the general fund, it goes into other innovative projects.”
The mayor however is not the only CCE believer in Lancaster. People are naturally drawn to the cheaper cleaner energy option. Parris stated that the city, “had a 94% [participation] rate [in the CCE program] when we opened it up.” Over time, as people become more familiar with Community Choice, they also become more comfortable selecting it instead of the standard utility option. Evidence of this is easy to find in more recent Community Choice programs. Peninsula Clean Energy board member, Dave Pine, who also spoke at the forum, noted that the participation rate in their CCE program stands at 98%.
CCE savings for San Diego
Options are available for individuals who want to live a more environmentally sound lifestyle. Some are as easy as signing up for free clean energy, but nothing in California comes close to rivaling the impact of Community Choice Energy programs. If the City of San Diego were to adopt Community Choice, it would have real advantages over the Lancaster success story. To begin with, San Diego’s population is eight times Lancaster’s. Those 1.4 million San Diegans would give the city a significant boost in economy of scale. Plus, each new CCE program that comes on line gets better energy prices, partially due to the learning curve, but also due to the financial industry becoming more familiar and more comfortable with CCE programs in California. Enough hypothesizing though, let’s look at one of the large existing CCE programs and see what kind of savings it actually experiences.
Sonoma Clean Power just released its 2015 results in its 2016 annual report. SCP served 195,000 accounts in 2015 and achieved $48 million dollars in savings for its customers (page 7/9). SDG&E serves approximately 700,000 accounts in San Diego city limits. So if a Community Choice Energy program in San Diego were to achieve similar savings levels per account, San Diego ratepayers would save $171 million dollars each year.
Crime and Utility Rates
Parris does not waste time mincing words. To emphasize how extreme the cost differences were between CCE and standard utility rates, Parris said that electricity used to cost more than twice as much as it does under CCE. During the Q&A he noted that some of the city’s power now costs less than 4 cents per kilowatt hour. If anyone was unsure of how seriously the Mayor views the disparity between utility pricing and CCE pricing, Parris, a lawyer by trade, followed that up with, “Someone ought to be in jail.” It is starting to look like Parris may get his wish.
Criminal activity aside, it can be said time and time again that CCE programs have proven themselves to be the cleaner, cheaper energy option.
Clean Energy means Local Jobs
Bill savings are just one way Community Choice strengthens a city. The only way Lancaster has managed to make it to the verge of becoming a zero net energy city has been through a tremendous amount of local clean energy construction projects. One of those projects is a city-owned 10 megawatt solar array. An array of that size, in addition to providing well-paying local jobs, can power more than 1,500 homes. As Lancaster ramped up local clean energy, it also ramped up employment. This is another way that CCE changes the dynamic: money paid to Lancaster-based power producers goes right back into the local economy. Out-of-state utility investors can not suck money out of our region nearly as easily with a CCE in place.
Lancaster’s tracking solar array – Source: City of Lancaster
San Diego’s Lost Decade
The idea of CCE is not new to the San Diego region. In 2005 the county performed a feasibility study on CCE. It said that CCE would save the unincorporated portions of the county 25 million per year over the next 20 years. Looking at the savings being achieved by Sonoma Clean Power, it appears the authors of the study erred on the conservative side. Still, that lowball estimate would amount to 250 million dollars per decade.
Unfortunately, all elected officials are not as up to date on clean energy initiatives as Mayor Parris. There are still some elected officials who resist Community Choice. For example, in February, San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar refused to move forward with a CCE study. Her input to the discussion was, “What’s the rush?”
In today’s divisive political climate, it is nice to find an issue on which we can all agree. The majority of people in both political parties believe we should be emphasizing alternative energy over oil and gas. Imagine how popular renewable energy would become if everyone realized that clean energy does not just save the environment, it is cheaper too. CCE should be an easy decision. Democrats want it. Republicans want it. It saves us money. We end up with cleaner air and more jobs. The question is not, “What’s the rush?” The question is, “What are we waiting for?”
Tyson Siegele, a SanDiego350 member, is an architect who works to promote sustainable design and clean energy. Recently he created ButItJustMightWork.com, a residential clean energy handbook, to chronicle things to do as well as things to avoid on one’s path to zero emissions.