Despite the opposition and concerns from two local labor groups, the Napa County Board of Supervisors is taking the next step in potentially joining a Marin County-based clean energy consortium.
During its meeting Tuesday, the board authorized the county to spend $35,000 on a contract with Marin Clean Energy for a feasibility study that could eventually link thousands of residents of the unincorporated area to the clean energy that MCE procures and delivers through Pacific Gas and Electric’s grid.
The study will determine if Marin Clean Energy can supply enough clean energy for customers in the unincorporated area, and if it can do so without increasing rates for the 125,000 customers it already has in Marin County and the city of Richmond.
If the study results are favorable and if Marin Clean Energy’s board of directors permits Napa County to join, the Board of Supervisors would have to vote again on joining. Even if it did, participation in the program is voluntary; any resident of the unincorporated area who doesn’t want to join can opt out and remain a PG&E customer.
The cost and need for the study divided the board, however, as Supervisors Mark Luce, Brad Wagenknecht and Keith Caldwell voted in favor, with Supervisors Bill Dodd and Diane Dillon opposed.
Dodd said the county hasn’t done enough to engage residents on whether they want to join Marin Clean Energy, and felt the issue would divide them.
“I just don’t think that this is the right way to go right now,” Dodd said. “It will divide our citizens and force them into a new bureaucracy.”
Jon Riley, executive director of the Napa and Solano Counties Central Labor Council, urged the supervisors to spurn Marin Clean Energy and devote the $35,000 to studying how to foster renewable energy projects within the county that would hire locally.
He also balked at Marin Clean Energy doing the feasibility study in house, and said an independent consultant should be used.
“Marin Clean Energy may be a perfect fit,” Riley said. “But I think someone else should determine that.”
Hunter Stern, representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, told the supervisors that his union objected to Marin Clean Energy going outside the state to get its power supplies. MCE, he said, has said it’s going to focus on producing local power with local projects, but hasn’t done that.
“It’s still coming from predominantly non-union sources,” Stern said. “That’s our work and that’s replacing our members.”
Stern said his union opposed Marin Clean Energy’s creation in 2010, and has worked to oppose a similar program under development in San Francisco.
Marin Clean Energy Executive Director Dawn Weisz said the out-of-state contracts were set up just as the agency was getting started, and were needed on a short-term basis. Its focus is to get more energy from in-state sources, she said.
Gopal Shanker, president of Recolte Energy, supports Napa County joining Marin Clean Energy, and told the supervisors that it’s the county’s sole choice at the moment.
“Marin’s our only choice,” Shanker said. “Sonoma is not ready for us and it will be too expensive to create our own. This a movement that’s just beginning. If we don’t keep up, we’ll be left behind.”
Wagenknecht spoke in favor of the program, saying it will offer incentives to create large- and small-scale renewable energy projects in Napa County that otherwise may not be built.
“I don’t see any other real option to do this kind of work,” Wagenknecht said. “I see a lot of projects that are possible to do. I see us moving in the right direction.”
Dillon said she wanted to wait on voting on the $35,000 contract to see if wineries and vineyards — the largest potential commercial customers for Marin Clean Energy in Napa Valley — were interested in the program, or would opt out if given a choice.
Caldwell said he saw the $35,000 expense as an investment that could lead to much greater clean energy usage and production in the county. He noted that the Board of Supervisors loaned a greater sum to the Napa Valley Film Festival, which has been slow to repay it.
“If there’s people wanting to opt out, that’s their choice,” Caldwell said. “We spent $50,000 on a film festival that we’re never going to see.”
Marin Clean Energy is California’s first community choice aggregation program, and is a publicly owned utility that buys supplies of clean energy from California, Oregon and Washington.
Currently, it supplies Marin County jurisdictions and the city of Richmond, although its board has entertained expanding into surrounding counties. Sonoma County is working to create its own program.
Marin Clean Energy uses PG&E’s existing power network and grid to provide electricity to customers, and is only responsible for generating the electricity. PG&E maintains the network, provides customer service, does repairs, and handles billing.
It offers two packages of 50 to 100 percent renewable energy, compared to PG&E’s 19 percent. The rates it charges for those packages are comparable to PG&E’s, although they are subject to annual change depending on the energy market.