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What was wrong with the two energy-related commentaries in Sunday’s Monterey Herald? It’s hard to know where to start, so let’s just go with the first headline.

Both pieces were objections to the planned Monterey Bay Community Power project, a three-county, government-led consortium that would compete with Pacifc Gas & Electric Co. One piece was one written by Pacific Grove businessman Jeff Gorman and the other by Libertarian Party stalwart Lawrence Samuels, who seems to be opposed to just about everything.

The headline on Gorman’s piece, reflecting a theme also picked up by Samuels, reads “Monopoly on power not the answer.” OK, as I pointed out a jillion times in my reporting days, the headline is not written by the author. It is written by a copy editor, who, in the case of The Herald, probably lives somewhere near Chico.

Regardless, it’s an airball of a headline even if it isn’t entirely Gorman’s fault. The three-county MBCP entity would be an alternative to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a true monopoly. As a competitor of PG&E, the new entity would, by definition, not be a monopoly. PG&E would remain in business. And here’s a point not made in Gorman’s piece, residents of the three counties involved – Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito – would be allowed to opt out of the new power structure and stay with PG&E at a cost of $10 a month.

Gorman writes that state law “allows these new government entities to convert PG&E customers into government customers without customer approval.” That simply is not so. Rather than be a monopoly, MBCP would eliminate a monopoly and customers would have a choice.

Organizers of the MBCP, led by former Republican state senator and California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, say the goal is to provide cheaper power than the power we are forced to buy from PG&E and to promote the use of sustainable power supplies such as solar and wind-generated energy. Low-income households now receiving discounts from PG&E would be able to retain the discounts.

Each of the three county governments and most of the cities in those counties have signed onto the plan.

The headline on Samuels’ piece declares “Rates will zoom with new agency.” Which might be true but a more accurate headline would have been “Rates will zoom with new agency or they might actually go down.” A similar setup in Sonoma County led to lower rates while the other consortiums in California are still pursuing that goal.

Samuels, like Gorman, gets lost in the monopoly thing. “As any first-year student of economics can attest, government monopoly and state ownership is far less efficient and greatly more expensive than the private sector …. “ He mentions “backward incentives.” But quite a few first-semester students of economics would remind Gorman that there is a worse creature out there, generally less efficient and more expensive than the others, and that is the government-regulated monopoly. If PG&E isn’t proof of that, just think about California American Water, which pretty much invented backward incentives. Enough said.

Samuels wasn’t finished, though, having still another foot to shoot. After his wayward lecture on monopolies, he tells us “no private sector utility is able to compete with a government agency swimming in taxpayer-provided state subsidies.” In other words, he seems to be saying MBCP’s prices would likely be lower than PG&E’s, which maybe should have been his point in the first place.

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Board splits along gender lines

Monterey County’s effort to gain additional authority over a regional electrical power consortium seems to be coming up short, with most of the other 20 government partners unenthusiastic about awarding the county an extra vote on the governing body.

Monterey County staffers are scheduled Tuesday to brief a divided Board of Supervisors on their effort to persuade the other counties and cities involved to bestow additional voting rights on Monterey County. That item is on the board’s 1:30 p.m. agenda.

The proposed Monterey Bay Community Power agency is intended to be an alternative to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., an energy brokerage of sorts dedicated to increasing the Central Coast’s use of renewable energy and potentially driving down the cost of electricity. It would be the seventh such “Community Choice Energy” agency in California.

It would be operated by a joint-powers agency made up of the governments of Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties and the cities in those counties.

Five years into the process of creating the agency, most of the government agencies involved have formally approved the structure and the operating principles but three members of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors have thrown a wrench into the works by insisting that Monterey County receive an extra vote because it has the largest population of the three counties. As it stands, Monterey County and the cities in the county would have five of the 11 votes on the board, more than any other county, but supervisors Luis Alejo, Simon Salinas and John Phillips say Monterey County deserves a second vote of its own, giving the county and the cities in the county a total of six votes. As an alternative, they say they could support weighted voting,.

The issue has divided the board, with Chairwoman Mary Adams and Jane Parker supporting the original plan. Parker, in fact, is urging her constituents to attend today’s board meeting and be prepared to argue in favor of moving the venture along.

According to Parker’s office, the agency would:

  • More than double our use of renewable energy resources (from 27% renewables to 59% renewables)
  • Provide 70% greenhouse gas (GHG) emission free electricity
  • Provide annual surplus revenues of approximately $9 million dollars in funds that can will support our local regional goals
  • Help build local renewable energy projects, stimulate local economic reinvestment and support local green job creation.

Government staffers in Monterey and elsewhere say it is difficult to tell whether the Alejo-Salinas-Phillips triumvirate is simply seeking a stronger voice on the agency board or is attempting to scuttle the venture.

Alejo didn’t return a call or email requesting comment, but he reportedly has argued privately that he fears the agency could end up raising power bills for low-income residents. The person who has worked most closely with the venture says that simply isn’t true, as demonstrated by the agency’s voluminous technical studies.

That person is Virginia Johnson, an aide to Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, the former secretary of state and legislator who has led the formation process.

Johnson said Monday that some other community power agencies have succeeded in lowering overall electrical rates and that even if that did not prove to be the case on the Central Coast, current PG&E customers would be entitled to continue their PG&E service along with any low-income discounts.

“There is no way poor people are going to pay more,” Johnson said.

San Benito County officials originally expressed similar concerns but were won over by activists working closely with the Catholic Church, which has embraced the plan.

A popular feature of the new entity is that it would allow for relatively affluent households to pay a premium for power in order to be supplied entirely by relatively clean sources such as solar or wind.

The overall plan had been scheduled for final approval by the end of 2016 but was delayed until March because of Monterey County’s reservations, which, according to Johnson and others, have received scant support elsewhere.  Johnson said the other entities would much prefer that Monterey County stay with the plan, largely because additional population creates additional buying power when purchasing electricity, but she said the others are fully prepared to move ahead with or without Monterey County.

As it stands, Monterey County and jurisdictions in the county would have five votes on an 11-member board of directors. Those votes would be assigned to the county, Salinas, the Peninsula cities as a group, Seaside/Marina/Sand City/Del Rey Oaks as a group, and the South County cities.

Santa Cruz County and its jurisdictions would control four votes and San Benito County, with the smallest population of the three counties, would control two votes.

Under the alternative weighted voting proposal, Monterey County, Santa Cruz County and Salinas, the largest city in the region, would be apportioned extra voting power on some issues.

Monterey Bay Community Power would be a government-run non-profit operating under a 2002 state law that enables communities to choose to buy power from clean sources while contracting with PG&E to maintain power lines and provide customer service.

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