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The Brewing Rift Over Community Choice Aggregation

At the state level, the push to give Californians more options for buying energy has pitted two of the Democratic Party’s largest coalitions against each other. But even though so-called community choice aggregation is a looming possibility in San Diego, the city has largely sidestepped the fight – for now.

The push to give Californians more options for buying energy has pitted two of the Democratic Party’s largest coalitions against each other.

At least, that’s been the story in Sacramento as it plays out at the state level. But even though so-called community choice aggregation is a looming possibility in San Diego, the city has largely sidestepped this fight – for now.

San Diego is working to pass its long-term Climate Action Plan, a bundle of policies meant to decrease its carbon footprint by 49 percent by 2035.

The plan’s most significant element would bring what’s called community choice aggregation to San Diego; that is, it would let the city, instead of San Diego Gas & Electric, buy energy for its 1.3 million residents on the private market — with a larger share of renewable sources.

The state Legislature is considering a bill that would add regulations for cities or counties that set up the agencies, unhelpfully called community choice aggregators. In the two such groups already operating, in Sonoma and Marin counties, the agency buys the energy and the private utility companies have continued delivering it.

The initial draft of the bill, supported by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, would have forced residents to voluntarily opt into the new agency instead of out of it, a change CCA supporters say would effectively kill the movement by dramatically decreasing the agencies’ ability to negotiate low prices. That’s since been removed from the legislation, but it successfully established AB 2145 as the enemy of community choice supporters. Now, the bill mostly forces CCAs to disclose more information about their price projections.

Still, two of the Democratic Party’s largest coalitions, environmentalists and unions, ended up at odds over it.

Unsurprisingly, utility companies, like SDG&E’s parent company Sempra Energy, strongly supported the bill. They were joined by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) the union that represents many of those companies’ workers.

But as the fight around the city’s Climate Action Plan begins to heat up locally, the local IBEW has been a vocal supporter.

At a recent hearing on the bill before the environmental committee, the political director for San Diego’s IBEW Local 569, Gretchen Newsom, threw her support behind the Climate Action Plan.

“This plan will guide strategic planning and economic infrastructure development and improve sustainability and air quality while providing good paying, middle-class jobs, something we highly support,” she said. “IBEW 569 requests the Climate Action Plan be brought forward and include provisions to achieve the use of 100 percent clean energy citywide by 2035.”

That last part is important: It’s the plan’s goal of reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 that supporters say makes a CCA essential. Without one, the city can only use the energy mix SDG&E gives it.

But IBEW 569 isn’t ready to make its support unequivocal yet. There’s a study under way that would establish concrete numbers about what a local CCA could accomplish, to make sure it could provide more renewable energy at comparable or lower prices.

“A strong environmental policy is good economic policy,” said Micah Mitrosky, IBEW 569’s environmental organizer. “We’re excited there’s a prevailing wage (in the plan) meaning these will be middle-class jobs.”

IBEW says it won’t take a firm stance on community choice aggregation specifically until seeing the results of the feasibility study.

“To be clear, we’re looking forward to seeing the results of the CCA feasibility study,” Newsom said.

“We’re just looking forward to what the feasibility study says, and having a chance to dive into it,” Mistrosky said.

Sempra Energy, for its part, seems to have recognized the chance to create division over an issue it opposes.

During the second quarter of this year, the company lobbied 13 city officials to support AB 2145, even though the City Council didn’t have any real authority over the matter. It met with Councilman Ed Harris and Councilwomen Myrtle Cole and Sherri Lightner, along with representatives for Council President Todd Gloria, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf and Councilman Mark Kersey.

More interesting, though, is who handled those meetings for Sempra.

Along with the company’s executive director and its regional public affairs manager, the company’s workforce readiness manager did some lobbying as well.

That manager is Jerry Butkiewicz, former head of the powerful San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council.

Now he’s one of the guys delivering Sempra’s anti-CCA message.

“That’s how SDG&E seems to be playing this right now: Jerry was the face for SDG&E at City Hall when they lobbied me, and he took copious notes while attending the Sierra Club town hall forum on the issue,” said Nicole Capretz, the driving force behind the Climate Action Plan within the city, and now a Harris staffer. “That might give us some insight about their approach.”

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