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Earth Day Voices Bay Area: Bay Localize

by the Worldchanging San Francisco local team:


Power by the People! Cities to Generate Local Renewable Energy
By Kirsten Schwind, Programs Coordinator of Bay Localize
and Ingrid Severson, Lead Project Organizer of Bay Localize

You say you want an energy revolution? With our nation’s growing awakening to climate change and fossil fuel depletion, the debate over our energy future is taking off. The critical subtext is, who will control the energy of the future?

Under California’s Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program, communities can literally take power into their own hands by generating their own electricity. Under the 2002 California law AB117, CCA permits any city or county to facilitate the purchase and sale of electrical energy to its constituents by pooling their demand.

CCA enables communities to assume greater control over energy pricing and invest in higher percentages of renewable energy. In cities with private energy utilities, those companies continue to provide all metering, billing, collection, and customer service to participating CCA customers, but would allow local governments to choose the energy sources and producers that provide electricity to their constituents.

“The idea is to beat the status quo,” explains Neil DeSnoo, Energy Engineer for the City of Berkeley. The status quo for many communities in California has been the system of Pacific Gas & Electric. Although the company has committed to generating 30% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, its renewable portfolio currently amounts to only 12% of total sales. Unfortunately, PG&E continues to invest in the development of nuclear and natural gas -- two nonrenewable energy sources with their own unique environmental drawbacks.

According to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we must slash global carbon dioxide emissions by two-thirds by 2100 to avoid “intolerable impacts” on human society. To have a fighting chance of stabilizing our delicate climate, we’ll need to tackle head-on growing fossil fuel use more boldly -- and more quickly.

sf-ca-baylocalize.jpgPioneering Investments in Renewable Energy

Bay Area cities are rising to the challenge. San Francisco recently filed its own CCA plan to generate 51% of its electricity from renewables by 2017. The city’s plan calls for 31 megawatts of solar panels on hundreds of large warehouse-scale rooftops, 72 megawatts of fuel cells and other distributed generation, 107 megawatts of technologies at hundreds of sites that reduce or eliminate power demand, and 150 megawatts of new wind turbines, some potentially within city limits. The final vote on the implementation plan is expected in May of 2007.

The cities of Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville are collaborating on a similar CCA proposal to submit to their City Councils. DeSnoo explains, “The primary benefits are local control, increasing the fraction of renewables, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, and rate stability.” Bay Localize, an Oakland based nonprofit, is taking a leading role in a growing alliance including groups like Pacific Environment, Sierra Club, Kyoto USA and Local Power, along with a range of area businesses to build community support for CCA in the East Bay. CCA efforts are also underway in Marin, Sonoma, San Luis Obispo, Fresno, and Chula Vista.

Renewable electricity is also the greenest source of fuel for vehicles through plug-in electric cars and trucks -- and certainly a more sustainable alternative to mass production of biofuels. Demand for biofuels is projected to increase dramatically to the point where it could displace production of food crops, leading to a situation in which more of the world’s poor would go hungry to fuel the cars of the wealthy. Transportation fueled by local solar panels, windmills, distributed fuel cells and captured wave and tidal flows can help prevent deepening global inequities.

Harnessing the Power of Rooftops

CCA energy systems are good news for building owners with solar panels. Bay Localize sees the CCA campaign as key to its Rooftop Resources Project, which aims to mainstream the use of rooftops to provide a healthier urban environment. A combination of solar panels, rooftop gardens, and rainwater catchment systems can harness roof space to conserve energy, reduce storm water runoff, counter the urban heat island effect, and produce energy, water, and edible, green landscapes.

BayLocalize-roofpitch.jpgThe Rooftop Resources Project is measuring the productive capacity of Bay Area roofs through a study identifying the ideal mix of systems for each building type, as well as launching multiple pilot projects. Bay Localize is publishing a resource guidebook to help building owners and residents install their own rooftop systems, and working with public officials to provide incentives that streamline their installation. The organization sees increased local clean energy generation, energy efficiency measures, and green job creation for low-income residents as key elements for a successful East Bay CCA plan.

DeSnoo envisions a key role for rooftop solar panels on homes and businesses. Currently, solar panels owners receive a credit on their bill from PG&E for the power they generate, but if they use less power than they produce, they are not reimbursed for the difference. “There are warehouse roofs that would be beautiful sites for solar panels, but if the business does not have a large electrical load, it may not make sense for them to install solar panels at this point,” DeSnoo observed. “As a player in the energy market, a consortium of cities would have more clout with regulatory agencies such as the California Public Utilities Commission to enable consumers to sell back all their excess electricity to the grid at near retail prices.”

Local Voters in Control

CCAs reflect the needs and desires of communities. In an early success story, 95 towns and cities in Ohio agreed in 2000 to form the Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council (NOPEC), a public electricity aggregator. Once established, NOPEC was able to cut its customer’s pollution by 70% and also guaranteed a lower price than the coal and nuclear supplies they had relied on before.

Responding to voters instead of shareholders means cities can move faster than private energy companies in ramping up generation of renewable energy. Local energy can also make economic sense, as cities can respond to the needs of the community to maintain stable and affordable electricity rates in what is predicted to become an increasingly volatile energy market, and wipe their hands of the Enrons of the world.

CCA is a key strategy of localization, a movement of empowered communities leveraging their resources locally to become more environmentally, socially, and economically resilient. "CCA allows us to move into a more secure energy future knowing that we are doing the right thing for the planet and for the Bay Area by placing control of an economically vital resource in the hands of communities,” notes Bay Localize Network Coordinator Aaron Lehmer.

The Threat of the Alternatives

Currently 40% of California’s electricity is generated through power plants that burn natural gas pumped through pipelines from wells in the United States and Canada. As Rory Cox of Pacific Environment reasons, “Natural gas is the least dirty of the fossil fuels, but it still contributes to global warming.” Even as public interest in renewable energy in California grows, PG&E is a partner in a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Oregon to feed the California energy market.

Beginning to import liquefied natural gas would make California consumers complicit in damage to ecosystems and indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon and Russia’s Sakhalin Island, as well as dependent on politically sensitive supplies in Iran. The volatile geopolitics of liquefied natural gas lead to price fluctuations “like Enron on steroids, while increasing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 40%,” Cox says.

Nuclear energy raises an even greater threat to California’s ecosystems and community health. Nuclear proponents recently challenging an existing California state ban on new nuclear energy generation facilities. “This is not a time to enter that debate,” says Hancock, Chair of the State Assembly Natural Resources Committee, noting that we have other viable options more worthy of investment.

People Power Makes it Happen

CCAs can be implemented anywhere, in rural areas or urban, in progressive communities or conservative. What it takes is citizens and public agency staff acting together for the sake of stronger local economies and environmental stewardship. If your area has a CCA process in motion, get involved and contact your city council member to express your support. See for information on CCA campaigns in California. If your community hasn't begun looking into a CCA, you can start the discussion. It’s a practical citizen response to climate change and increasing energy price volatility. As John Lennon once said, “Power to the people right on!”

Bay Localize catalyzes the shift from a globalized, fossil fuel-based economy that enriches a few and weakens most, to a localized green economy that strengthens all Bay Area communities. The group’s objective is to increase community livability and local resilience while decreasing fossil fuel use. Three main projects based on this vision are the Rooftop Resources Project, a feasibility and benefits project supporting the development of rainwater catchment, rooftop gardens and solar energy; the Localization Asset Map, a directory of sustainability initiatives, projects and businesses throughout the nine county Bay Area; and the Campaign for Bay Area Localization, a collaborative of policy advocates, community groups and businesses forwarding the localization agenda.

Contact them for more info.
Bay Localize
436 14th Street, Suite 1218
Oakland, CA 94612

image credits: large photo of solar rooftop by Brother Robert Baird of the Oakland Scottish Rite and Nicole Clock, Energy Consultant, Sun Power Geothermal Energy; aerial image of Bay Area rooftops by Bay Localize

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