Solana Beach this summer will become the first city in San Diego County to offer its residents the chance to buy electricity from someone other than San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
One might think that a mighty feat for the next-to-smallest city in San Diego County, with a population of about 13,400 people.
Yet the coastal community often takes the lead on environmental issues, and has been among the first in the county and the state to ban polystyrene take-out food containers, single-use plastic grocery bags, and smoking in public places and on the beach.
Renewable energy is another area where the city wants to take the lead by establishing a government-run alternative to the investor-owned utility that has dominated the market.
Council members have said they intend to procure lower rates – about 3 percent lower than comparable SDG&E rates — for residents and businesses, contribute to a cleaner environment, and set an example for other communities in the region with its June 1 launch of a program called a Community Choice Aggregation.
A representative of the San Diego-based nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, Sebastian Sarria, congratulated the council on its decision to launch the program.
“You will be giving families and businesses a choice,” Sarria said, adding that community choice energy is “a tried and true program serving dozens of cities across California.”
The 3 percent discount approved last month would save the typical family about $2 a month on electricity in summer, when people switch on their air conditioning and consumption peaks. A typical monthly bill of $108.42 per month would decline to $106.35, according to an example listed in a city staff report.
Almost two-thirds of the SDG&E bill is a charge for transmission and distribution, and that amount will not change, the report states.
By increasing the percentage of “green energy,” the program helps Solana Beach meet a goal outlined in its state-mandated climate action plan.
At least 50 percent of the energy provided by the city will come from renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric. SDG&E’s electricity is 43 percent “green,” the largest share among major utilities in the West.
Solana Energy Alliance, or SEA, is the name chosen for the new CCA, and the city will offer options for customers to upgrade to a 100 percent renewable energy program called SEA Green. Solar panel owners can join the SEA NEM program to get credit for electricity their systems return to the grid through a net metering program.
The Solana Beach City Council voted at its Feb. 28 meeting to continue its roll-out of the alternative energy program and is set to adopt a rate schedule Wednesday. Councilwoman Ginger Marshall opposed the launch, saying she considers it a risky business.
“The rest of the council is very positive and wants to move forward with this,” Marshall said. “I hope it works out.”
However, she said it would be more prudent to work with other cities as partners to share the financial risks involved. She’s said before that the city is too small to shoulder the burden alone.
Other council members said extensive studies and the experiences of an increasing number of cities show little risk and many potential economic and environmental benefits. Councilman Dave Zito called it “a great opportunity” for Solana Beach.
Also, they said, nearby cities can join the Solana Beach program later if they choose.
SDG&E officials did not return a call for comments on the Solana Beach project. In the past, the utility company has been less than enthusiastic about forming public utility districts.
Some Solana Beach residents have received letters from SDG&E parent company Sempra Energy stating the need for more research and discussion before proceeding with the plan, but the council and residents dismissed those suggestions, saying more than ample work has been done.
Four other North County cities — Carlsbad, Del Mar, Encinitas and Oceanside — are taking a different approach.
They have agreed to share the costs of a year-long, $100,000 study to determine the feasibility of forming a joint powers authority to offer their residents community choice energy. The results of that multi-city study are expected sometime this summer.
Residents in each of those cities have spoken publicly about the benefits of community choice energy.
The city of San Diego released its own study last year that concluded a CCA would lower costs and increase the percentage of green energy for its residents. But so far the city has made no commitment to the idea.
Solana Beach decided last year to take a solo approach by contracting with two private companies — The Energy Authority (TEA) and Calpine Energy Solutions — to set up and operate its CCA.
TEA focuses on operations, while Calpine’s responsibility is primarily data management. The City Council will oversee the partnership, select energy providers, and set rates based on information provided by the consultants and staff members.
Solana Beach and any other San Diego County alternative energy provider will continue to use SDG&E to provide and maintain the wires, poles and other components of the delivery system. However, each CCA will contract with its own energy providers to purchase the juice delivered on the system.
All residents will automatically be enrolled in the new program, but everyone will have the option to drop out and return to SDG&E if they wish.
Solana Beach residents have expressed widespread support for the idea.
“I’m an empty nester now, and I don’t really use a lot of electricity anymore,” said Frank Stribling. He was one of more than a dozen speakers who urged the council to proceed at a meeting last year when it agreed to hire the energy consultants.
“I’ve investigated, and it doesn’t really make economic sense for me to put solar panels on top of my roof,” Stribling said. “This … the CCA would allow me to use clean and renewable energy without putting solar panels on top of my roof.”
“I want choice, and I want more access to renewable energy,” said another resident, Beverly Martinez.
Residents can expect to receive their first enrollment notices for the program in April.