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The Santa Maria City Council has decided, on a split vote, to hook up with the Monterey Bay Community Power Program.

The council first considered joining in May, but waited to see if the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors would vote to join or create it’s own program. It recently joined.

The wait-and-see period has now passed, and the council majority decided it was time to get into the game. So what, exactly, does that mean for Santa Maria residents? Here’s a brief history of a subject that is gaining a lot of traction with public and political leaders.

It’s called a community choice aggregation (CCA), and it allows cities and counties to join with others in purchasing electric power, and to develop their own portfolio of energy-generation sources. The goal is to lower costs to utility customers, with the potential added benefit of moving toward a fully-sustainable energy future.

That all seems fairly pragmatic and straight-forward, except as with most public initiatives in our society, there is a powerful political undercurrent.

California officially became a CCA-allowable state, one of only a handful nationwide, with passage of Assembly Bill 117 in 2002. The law specifically mandated that customers be automatically enrolled in their local CCA, but could always opt out. The law also designates CCAs as electric service providers, not utilities.

CCAs are by definition nonprofit public agencies, so as one might reasonably expect, there was almost immediate opposition from existing, for-profit energy providers. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. — our local electricity provider — sponsored Proposition 16 almost a decade ago, poured millions of dollars into getting it passed, but voters turned thumbs down. Five years ago, AB 2145, another legislative effort to derail CCAs, passed the Assembly but never came up for a vote in the Senate.

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So, California now allows communities to band together, in theory to have more local control of their energy future. There are both advantages and disadvantages to CCAs.

On the upside, the use of CCAs facilitates benefits such as giving customers a choice, lowering overall energy costs, more access to renewable energy and the resulting environmental benefits. If one believes in climate change, moving away from fossil fuels makes sense.

On the other hand, implementation of CCAs may include very real political and financial obstacles. For example, the current local provider, PG&E, has made a major commitment over the years, and losing Santa Maria’s long-time customers could cost the company millions. Under the CCA coupling approved by the City Council, all local PG&E customers would be automatically switched over to the Monterey Bay program, and those customers would have to trigger their own opt-out move back to PG&E.

Mosts of the citizens who attended last week’s council meeting seemed to favor joining the Monterey Bay program, but it wasn’t unanimous. One speaker opined that it is programs such as CCAs that are forcing up the cost of electricity.

The two votes against joining the CCA were by Mayor Alice Patino and Councilwoman Etta Waterfield, who said they believe the idea needs more study.

That likely will happen in the coming months, and if research reveals serious flaws in the program, the city could still back out between now and early 2021, but there could be expenses for opting out.

It’s possible CCAs are the future of energy in California and perhaps the nation. But that is not yet a certainty. Anytime politics and money are in the mix, there is bound to be a degree of conflict.

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