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Santa Maria Council Narrowly Votes to Join Monterey Bay Community Power Program

This article appeared in Noozhawk on August 20, 2019.

After balking at the idea three months ago and expressing more doubts Tuesday night, the Santa Maria City Council narrowly voted to join the Monterey Bay Community Power program.

The City Council agreed, with a 3-2 vote, to participate in the nonprofit community choice energy organization, giving residents an alternative to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Council members Gloria Soto, Michael Moats and Mike Cordero voted in favor of the proposal after 90 minutes of listening to comments and debate. Mayor Alice Patino and Councilwoman Etta Waterfield opposed the motion.

Soto argued strongly for the city to join Monterey Bay.

“We are able to fight and give a voice to the residents of Santa Maria and bring more rebates, more cost savings and more programs to our residents, whereas right now with PG&E we don’t have a seat at the table,” Soto said. “Right now, PG&E is going to be looking out for the best interests of the stakeholders, not the residents of Santa Maria.”

Moats said, “I think we have a fiduciary duty to the city of Santa Maria to be fiscally responsible, and if we have an opportunity to save money, we have to look at it and vote on it.”

Waterfied earlier had unsuccessfully attempted to postpone the item, citing several areas of concern and calling for more research into the proposal.

“There are so many untruths to a lot of things that they fluff it up to make it sound really good,” Waterfield said. “I am not at all ready to vote on this.”

Patino agreed, saying she wanted to see the group’s rates, portfolio, budget and more.

“All these questions, I think, are important to be answered,” she added.

The Santa Maria council first considered joining Monterey Bay in May, but it decided to wait to see the results of a Santa Barbara County effort to form a community choice aggregate. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and the City of Guadalupe since have voted to join Monterey Bay, following several other cities in San Luis Obispo County.

Community choice aggregation allows cities and counties to join with others in purchasing electric power and to develop a portfolio of energy generation sources, with an aim to lower costs to utility customers, according to Assistant City Manager Patrick Wiemiller. Existing investor-owned utilities — PG&E for the Santa Maria Valley — continue to provide billing and other services.

Monterey Bay, one of about 19 community choice groups in the state, pledged to develop alternative power sources, including solar and wind energy along with hydroelectric power.

Santa Maria electrical customers could save $12.5 million over the first five years, according to Wiemiller’s staff report.

With the City Council’s vote, all PG&E customers in Santa Maria will be switched to Monterey Bay and would have to opt out to revert back to PG&E.

“That’s a fairly straight-forward process,” Wiemiller said.

Monterey Bay pledged to issue rebates to customers, initially 5 percent, and later increasing to 8 percent.

Another option allows communities to back out of the joint powers authority with some potential costs.

“We have never, ever seen a jurisdiction be so dissatisfied, so upset about it that they wanted to extricate themselves from the JPA (joint powers authority),” said J.R. Killigrew, director of Communications & Energy Programs for Monterey Bay.

Most of the speakers Tuesday night favored joining Monterey Bay.

“Santa Marians should have a choice in their electrical provider, especially if it offers lower prices and cleaner electricity,” said Michael Chiacos, the Energy & Climate Program director for the Community Environmental Council.

But Andy Caldwell of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business renewed objections.

“The truth is, they’re offering a 5 percent rebate but your electricity prices are 50 percent higher in California as a result of these types of programs and mandates,” Caldwell said.

Santa Maria customers won’t see the switch to Monterey Bay until early 2021 since the process spells out several steps of notification to customers and other milestones beforehand.

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