Empower Our Future

Clean Energy. Local Control.

Guest opinion: Gerald Braun: Community choice electricity is a better way to meet 21st century challenges

Published in Boulder Daily Camera
By Gerald Braun

Colorado communities may soon be empowered to chart their own energy and climate futures. Thanks to the pioneering work of Boulder’s State Representative Edie Hooton and the passage of Colorado HB21-1269, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission is conducting an investigation to determine if the Colorado legislature should authorize Colorado cities and counties to offer community choice electricity.

Community choice would empower Colorado cities and counties to purchase electricity on behalf of their residents and businesses. The electricity they purchase would feed into existing electricity grids and be delivered and billed just as it is now.

Several other states blazed the community choice trail. I am a member of the Colorado-based Municipal Sustainability and Energy Forum, which convenes energy experts from across the country to exchange ideas and information on topics like community choice. I’ve been engaged, for fifteen years, in California’s implementation of community choice. I am convinced that Colorado can benefit from California’s experience and improve on California’s community choice model.

California’s legislature authorized community choice in 2002. In spite of well-conceived legislation, getting to initial adoption took a decade, during which renewable power and climate change became dominant energy policy considerations. Ramping up adoption consumed the second decade.

Now twenty-five California community choice agencies supply more than twenty percent of California’s electricity usage. Because they are able to make new purchases rather than rely on existing sources, the electricity they supply relies heavily on new renewable sources.

That’s a great start. But the future requires more. Transformative, clean, modular technologies like solar PV, lithium-ion batteries, fuel cells and heat pumps are ready for prime time. They come in small, modular packages for homes, businesses and vehicles. They can significantly lower energy costs. Deployed and integrated locally, they complement one another, strengthen local economies, reduce local carbon footprints, back up regional grids and power local services in the wake of disasters and local grid outages.

Capturing these benefits requires local attention, which community choice makes possible. Community choice enables local decision-making about electricity supply but does not require ownership of power plants or grid infrastructure, nor exposure to risks associated with direct up-front capital investment. It is simply a low-risk way for cities and counties to take a proper role in shaping local energy futures while capturing near-term public benefits.

The good news from California could be even better if California regulators and legislators had updated community choice legislation since 2002 to account for new technologies that enable greater energy democracy and decentralization. Instead, California regulators became alarmed by the surge in community choice adoption in recent years and, counter-productively, inflated and extended the transition cost obligations of community choice customers.

Nevertheless, California community choice providers are creating electricity supply portfolios that save homeowners and local businesses money and that greatly accelerate state-wide investment in renewable and zero-carbon electricity supply.

The question facing Colorado is not whether to accelerate renewable electricity investment. The economic, environmental and climate benefits are already compelling. Nor is it whether to adopt California’s version or some other version of community choice.

The question is how best to empower Colorado cities and counties to capture local benefits of energy sector decentralization and democratization while the state continues to fairly regulate investments in bulk electricity transport.

A preferred answer is to enact community choice legislation that incentivizes and rewards collaboration and win-win behavior among incumbent utilities, local governments, and community choice agencies. California’s legislation did not anticipate a need to do this.

If Colorado adopts community choice and sets a high bar for future local energy collaboration and fair cost responsibilities, it will give Colorado communities a much better way to meet energy and climate challenges of the 21st century.

Gerald Braun is the chair of Integrated Renewable Energy Systems Network. He lives in Davis, California.