My turn: We must end utilities’ monopoly and help consumers

By Efren Carrillo, Special to CALmatters

Millions of Californians have a new option to choose cleaner energy at competitive rates. The creation of community choice aggregation programs has given us the ability to choose to power their homes and businesses with up to 100 percent renewable electricity.

By creating a community-based option for power, energy customers are empowered to reduce their carbon footprint while supporting local jobs, stable energy prices, and a new clean energy infrastructure.

From Marin to Palm Springs, Humboldt County, and Lancaster, 19 communities have given ratepayers not-for-profit alternatives to corporate utility companies, allowing them to choose cleaner power that directly benefits their cities and towns.

However, the California Public Utilities Commission could derail the expansion of local clean energy programs with a proposal that would limit choices and lead to higher prices for ratepayers.

On Thursday, the Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to adopt a plan to set exit fees that energy customers will have to pay when they switch from corporate utilities to community-based clean power providers.

One plan put forward by Commissioner Carla Peterman would be a deathblow to community power programs and a gift to corporate utilities. Peterman has crafted a proposal that ignores the independent findings of an administrative law judge and instead makes it nearly impossible for community-based power agencies to compete with Pacific Gas & Electric, and other large investor-owned utilities.

It’s no surprise that PG&E is looking for more government help after receiving a wildfire bailout from legislators earlier this month. Commissioners should reject this bad public policy proposal in favor of fair regulation that recognizes the importance of community choice.

Community choice aggregation programs enable government officials to purchase or develop power on behalf of their local communities. The growing community choice aggregation movement is delivering savings on customers’ electric bills while providing more clean power to the grid.

The programs are key to California’s ambitious climate change goals, including legislation enacted this month to move California to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. No fewer than 160 communities have chosen to participate in community choice aggregation programs to meet climate action goals, provide residents and businesses with more energy options, ensure local transparency and accountability, and drive new in-state economic development.

Community power groups understand that competition is something new for the large utilities, and that many utilities have invested billions in energy infrastructure in a non-competitive context.

Utilities should receive fair compensation for customers who opt out of their old provider in favor of community power. However, customers who left the large utilities should not be expected to pay for business decisions those utilities make after the customers have left. That would give incentives for mismanagement.

Peterman’s plan puts the interests of corporate utilities over those of local ratepayers. Her fee proposal would shift costs to community choice aggregation customers, hampering efforts to expand their services and enroll more residents.

Several programs are in their early stages, and the exit fee proposal would essentially kill those programs before their scheduled launch.

Californians spent decades fighting for an alternative to profit-driven corporate monopolies, and for the right to have choices that encourage the transition away from fossil fuels and toward more green energy. The CPUC should reject the Peterman plan, and help ensure the future of community power for local communities across California.

The days of monopolistic control over California power must end.

Efren Carrillo is board president of Center for Climate Protection, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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