Who decides where your electricity comes from?

Most likely, it’s your utility. They decide which sources your power comes from — coal, gas, hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, etc. — and which power plants it comes from.

That means your utility could be sourcing dirty energy that pollutes our environment.

Many states now have targets for clean energy, which force utilities to provide more of it. In California, a leader in this area, the utilities have a mandate to provide 50% clean power by 2030.

But even when utilities do provide clean energy, that energy often comes from big plants in the desert that may destroy fragile ecosystems, and that require building long, expensive power lines. And the utilities are still the ones who have all the power (pun intended!).

You pay for this power and infrastructure — and who benefits? Your utility.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Enter Community Choice energy …

People all over the country are starting to choose where they get their power. Millions are going solar. A growing number are signing up for clean power plans or community solar.

But many people can’t put solar on their roof. Community solar is still not widely available. And buying power from a clean power plan, though it’s a great first step, isn’t the same as having clean power coming to your home from a facility nearby.

There’s another way for all of us to get clean energy — and in many cases, to get it from sources closer to where we live. It can also bring many more benefits to our communities. It’s called Community Choice energy.

Community Choice is a model that’s been around in some states since the 1990s, but is now picking up steam. (You may have also heard it referred to as CCA, or Community Choice Aggregation.) It lets your community choose where you get your power.

That means you can choose cleaner, cheaper power. It means you and your community get to enjoy the benefits, instead of the utility.

In a Community Choice program, you’re still connected to your utility, which continues to maintain the transmission and distribution lines. But the Community Choice energy program, a public entity, procures the power. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

Who does what Investor-Owned Utility Community Choice Energy
Procures power Utility Community energy authority
Sets rates Utility Community energy authority
Owns and maintains transmission lines Utility Utility
Handles billing and customer service Utility Utility

(Some areas have municipal utilities. In those situations, the local government does all of the above.)

With Community Choice energy, a community energy authority designs the program and is accountable to the community. In these programs, cities or counties have a few ways they can provide clean energy and also cut down energy use. They can:

  • Contract with a licensed energy service provider to purchase energy in bulk.
  • Build facilities to generate clean energy, like solar installations.
  • Implement energy efficiency programs.

Community Choice energy in California

Community Choice energy programs are popping up around the country. While some of them focus on cheap energy and customer choice without necessarily supporting clean energy, the programs in California do tend to have a clean-energy focus.

California’s first Community Choice energy program was Marin Clean Energy, which started in 2010. Now, 8 programs are operating in the state, with an estimated 900,000 customers. And 16 more programs are being considered.

In fact, it’s estimated that over the next 5 years, 60% of utility customers in California will be part of a Community Choice energy program. That’s huge.

A model program

Early next year, a new Community Choice program will start in Alameda County, which includes cities like Oakland and Berkeley. East Bay Community Energy, with 11 cities participating, hopes to be a model for how these programs can build out local energy and really benefit the community.

As promoted by Community Choice advocates in the region, the program is very different from a utility. It’s not simply an energy provider — instead, it’s an energy services provider. What does that mean? For one, it provides a host of distributed energy resource services that include more than clean electricity and energy efficiency. It also integrates these with storage, conservation, demand response, and other technologies for optimizing energy use, like microgrids, vehicle charging, and more.

East Bay Community Energy will also be the first such program committed to local buildout, with a business plan to enable, promote, and provide a roadmap for the local buildout.

Local clean energy projects are often a goal for Community Choice, but many Community Choice energy programs start with a larger percentage of energy purchased on the market. That can be necessary to get a program going.

Still, that energy market is unstable and volatile, and buying power this way may mean you have to get it from a distant location. That means you keep using those expensive transmission lines, plus you miss out on a lot of community benefits like local jobs.

Benefits of Community Choice energy

Emphasizing local clean energy means more price stability, local economic development, local clean energy jobs, and local greenhouse gas reductions. It means competition in the energy market, which can lead to lower prices for all customers. And it means you have a choice in where you get your energy.

The East Bay Community Energy program hopes to achieve these specific benefits:

  1. Inclusive community representation, giving community members a say in what happens.
  2. Competitively priced electricity, with lower, more stable rates than the utility currently offers.
  3. Carbon emissions reductions even greater than what’s mandated now in the state.
  4. Prioritizing local renewables.
  5. Local, family-sustaining union jobs that support local workforce development and racial justice.
  6. Community ownership and control of clean energy.
  7. Improved public health and safety.

Each program is a bit different. Some may make it easier for you to go solar by providing better rates for solar customers. So in some cases, a Community Choice energy program may even benefit existing or potential solar customers.

The programs should definitely benefit all power customers, including lower-income ratepayers — plus workers, unions, local businesses, renters, and property owners.

How you can participate

The way these programs usually work is that each consumer is automatically enrolled unless they opt out.

So if you live in an area covered by Community Choice energy in California, you don’t need to do anything other than wait for the program to start up. (If you don’t want to be in the program, you can opt to stay with your utility — and pay more money for dirtier power, with no say in where it comes from.)

If you want to do more than just wait, you can get involved in a Community Choice energy program in your area by helping to shape an existing program or advocate for the establishment of a new one. Check to see if a program is in place that you can provide input on, or if your area needs help starting a Community Choice program. Join the Local Clean Energy Alliance to get informed about these programs or even help advocate for them.

The East Bay Community Energy program is still being developed, so if you live in that area, it’s a good time to get involved — and to help shape this model program that will give you a say in where you get your energy!