What are you getting if you buy clean electricity?

August 31, 2018

Many Community Choice Aggregators are marketing clean energy by simply rearranging where existing low-carbon electricity goes.

Change is potentially afoot for me this November, and I’m not talking about the midterm elections. In November, if I do nothing, I will become an electricity customer of East Bay Community Energy. What does that mean? As their handy schematic points out, my local utility, PG&E, will still own and operate the wires and deliver power to me, but East Bay Community Energy will be in charge of buying electricity from the wholesale market for its customers to consume.

chart about new CCA

Source: ebce.org

East Bay Community Energy is my local Community Choice Aggregator (CCA). CCAs are taking cities and counties around California by storm. According to one projection, they could serve almost two-thirds of the load in the California investor owned utilities’ service territories by 2020. They are essentially competitive retail providers with a twist: They aren’t for-profit companies but entities set up by the local governments. (See Severin’s overview of the pros and cons of CCAs.)

The newfound appeal of CCAs in California appears to hinge at least partly on the environmental characteristics of the electricity they’re buying for us. Many of the CCAs have “clean” in their name: Sonoma Clean Power, Valley Clean Energy, CleanPowerSF, Silicon Valley Clean Energy. East Bay Community Energy’s graphic highlights that they, “buy and build cleaner energy,” reinforced by the wind turbine and solar panels.

But, what does it really mean to buy clean electricity from an entity like East Bay Community Energy?

I can imagine a CCA enthusiast, I’ll call her Ms. Virtuous, driving past wind turbines, like the ones in northern California’s Altamont Pass, basking in her green glow, thinking, “Yes! Those wind turbines were built to provide me power. If everyone bought electricity this way, the dirty coal plants would rot in power plant hell, we’d have tons of wind turbines, fields full of solar panels and we’d solve climate change.” (I know what you’re thinking: Nobody besides me and my friends thinks about where their electricity comes from no matter where they’re driving, but indulge me for a minute.)

cars and wind turbinesThe CCA embracers are probably not like Ms. Doubter, who drives by large hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest thinking, “Hmm, these dams have been around for decades supplying electricity to Oregonians. But, since I decided I wanted clean energy, the dam’s electricity is being re-designated as mine and the electricity that I used to buy from the coal plant in Utah is now on paper being sold to Oregon. So, on net, nothing is really changing.”

At a recent California Public Utility Commission hearing, the CCAs reported details on their current and planned power purchases. The situation appears a lot closer to the musings of Ms. Doubter driving by the dam than Ms. Virtuous driving by the wind turbines.

Continue reading on the Berkeley Haas Energy Institute blog, where this article was first posted.