Santa Cruz County Goes Green(er)

Energy switch may pay dividends beyond fighting climate

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Illustration by Lizzy Choi
Illustration by Lizzy Choi

Santa Cruz area residents will soon be receiving their electricity from renewable power sources — and possibly saving money.

Both the city and Santa Cruz County signed on to Monterey Bay Community Power (MBCP) in late February, along with 17 other municipalities, which are working together to offer renewable energy to residents. Although MBCP is not sure exactly what type of renewable energy will be generated, the shift is expected to take place early next year.

“We’ve been working on it for nearly five years,” said Gine Johnson, a policy analyst on the staff of District 5 supervisor Bruce McPherson.

The move toward cleaner energy is McPherson’s brainchild — the work his office initiated created MBCP.

The main question for municipalities was whether switching to renewable power, such as wind and solar, could be done at a reasonable cost to consumers, Johnson said.

“We raised $400,000 to conduct a feasibility study to determine if we could provide greener energy at rate parity,” she said. Rate parity, in regards to electric companies, means delivering electricity at the same rate charged by Pacific Gas and Electric  Company (PG&E).

Santa Cruz County-owned buildings already get 27 percent of their energy from renewable sources, Johnson said, adding that the most immediate goal through MBCP is to hit 59 percent green power.

Once the County got the ball rolling, Santa Cruz city was quick to join, according to deputy city manager Scott Collins. He added San Benito and Monterey counties were interested early on. That’s key, because while MBCP will buy green power to start, the long-term goal is to generate power locally.

“Because there’s more land between San Benito County, Santa Cruz County [and] Monterey County, we have the ability to find land for a large-scale project,” Collins said. He pointed out that with three counties and local governments, there’s a sharing of costs and greater transparency.

“We would eventually want to be energy self-sufficient,” he said. “We can develop that capacity over a period of time.”

The state requires retail sellers and publicly owned utilities to get at least half their power from renewable sources by 2030, Collins said, adding MBCP expects to hit 80 percent green by 2020.

While he did not know how much the city already gets from green sources, Collins said it already has a number of large-scale projects, including solar panels at both the municipal building and police department.

Reducing greenhouse gases was the main drive behind the creation of MBCP. However, Johnson said there are side benefits, including job creation. MBCP will need people to build, maintain and run local power generation systems.

It’s also likely energy consumers will see lower bills, Collins said.

“It’s a real possibility,” he said. “The longest-established community [power] choice agencies in the state are offering real savings. In fact, [savings] may be better, given that PG&E just raised its rates earlier this year.”

Marin County moved to renewable energy in 2008. The project, Marin Clean Energy (MCE), was spearheaded by Shawn Marshall, who was an elected official in Mill Valley at the time.

“The promise we made to our constituents was [rate] parity,” Marshall said. “As it turned out, when MCE launched we were about 5 percent lower on the [power] generation rates. We were very cautious and careful not to overpromise.”

Marshall was quick to point out, however, that the savings are only in power generation. PG&E will continue to handle power lines and maintenance, she said, so savings will likely average about 2.5 percent. While electricity will be purchased or generated by MBCP, consumers will still get their bills from PG&E.

As MBCP started to get up and running, Greenpower, a nonprofit that promotes renewable energy, began educating consumers about the switch. Greenpower’s  director Benjamin Eichert said his organization has hosted public events, primarily for Spanish-speaking and faith communities.

Consumers will have the opportunity to opt out and continue to receive power from PG&E, but unless they make that choice, they’ll automatically be switched.

Aside from some savings and the knowledge that they’re helping in the fight against climate change, Eichert said one of the best parts for consumers is that not much will change.

In fact, Eichert said, they might not notice the switch at all.