Unions Pester Community Choice Aggregation Energy Programs in California
Where there is innovation, there is union interference.
Marin Clean Energy, the first “Community Choice Aggregation” program in California, is planning to build a solar farm on a “brownfield” in the City of Richmond. Only one party objected to the project on environmental grounds: “Bay Area Citizens for Responsible Solar,” a front group for California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE).
It’s just the latest in a series of environmental objections by unions to bend the policies of Community Choice Aggregators.
What Are Community Choice Aggregation Programs?
Community Choice Aggregation programs are authorized in California by Assembly Bill 117, signed into law by Governor Gray Davis in 2002. The concept was elaborated in Senate Bill 790, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2011. The California Public Utilities Commission regulates Community Choice Aggregation.
These programs allow electric customers to circumvent buying power from major investor-owned public utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E). Instead, customers purchase electricity bought or generated by government-run utilities organized as a “Joint Powers Authority.”
Investor-owned utilities maintain transmission and distribution infrastructure and perform other services for customers. When a local government joins a Community Choice Aggregation program, electric customers in that jurisdiction are automatically transferred to that program unless the customer pro-actively chooses to opt-out and remain with the investor-owned utility.
Community Choice Aggregators are independently managed and directed by an appointed board that represents participating local governments. For example, the board of Marin Clean Energy includes representatives of the following governments now participating in the program: the Marin County cities of Novato, Corte Madera, Fairfax, San Anselmo, Larkspur, Belvedere, San Rafael, Tiburon, Ross, Mill Valley, and Sausalito; the Solano County city of Benicia; the Contra Costa County cities of Richmond, El Cerrito, and San Pablo; the County of Marin, and unincorporated parts of the County of Napa. Other cities in the San Francisco Bay Area are in the process of joining the program, and they will have representation on the board.
Programs such as Marin Clean Energy market themselves as having lower rates and generating more power from “renewable” energy sources, such as solar, wind, bioenergy, geothermal, and small hydro. Marin Clean Energy claimed that in January 2016 its generation rates were 14% lower on average than PG&E’s generation rates and would have been even lower without a “Power Charge Indifference Adjustment” (PCIA) fee charged to customers who do not choose to remain with PG&E.
Community Choice Aggregation Is a Juicy Target for the Left
As shown by the California High-Speed Rail project, any ambitious project or program proposed in California is immediately targeted by numerous leftist interest groups that see an opportunity to advance their agenda. From the beginning, unions targeted Community Choice Aggregation programs as a vehicle to organize the “renewable energy” workforce through a so-called “Blue-Green Alliance.”
In fact, Senate Bill 790 included an obscure provision – added at the demand of union lobbyists – to allow ratepayer money to be diverted into Labor-Management Cooperation Committees that fund environmental objections to energy projects and make massive contributions to campaigns to pass or defeat ballot measures.
See the October 18, 2012 UnionWatch article Mysterious Union Slush Fund Spends $100,000 Against Costa Mesa Charter, featuring a link to the TheTruthAboutPLAs article A Genuine California Union Conspiracy: Senate Bill 790 and the California Building Trades Council’s Ratepayer Funded Political Slush Fund, which links to the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction’s “Investigative Report: A Genuine Union Conspiracy.”
In 2012, the California Construction Industry Labor Management Trust (“CILMT”) began submitting comments to the California Public Utilities Commission about proposed regulations for Community Choice Aggregators.
Unions Don’t Like Competition
Marin Clean Energy has been targeted by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 1245, which represents employees at Pacific Gas & Electric. This union argued that the Community Choice Aggregation programs would harm the environment by buying power from Shell Energy North America, which generates more than 90% of its power from non-renewable sources, including coal. For example, in a June 4, 2014 letter to the Napa County Board of Supervisors, IBEW Local 1245 demanded that the Napa County Board of Supervisors prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before joining Marin Clean Energy.
IBEW Local 1245 also targeted the CleanPowerSF Community Choice Aggregation program and demanded an Environmental Impact Report before the implementation of that program:
What unions really want is a Project Labor Agreement.
If You Plan to Build a Solar Plant in California, Expect Union Hassles
A position paper of the “East Bay Clean Power Alliance” entitled “Promoting a Labor-friendly Alameda County Community Choice Energy Program” calls for all construction under a Project Labor Agreement and explains how Community Choice Aggregation programs would bring construction workers into a union:
As a public program, it can prioritize public good over profit, and work with unions to generate high-road, family-sustaining jobs, utilize union apprenticeship and other entry-level job programs, and offer pathways out of poverty, especially in low income communities…A Community Choice energy program can be a unique vehicle for opening up the largely non-union community-based energy sector to union employment. This is possible because of the program’s ability to set work standards and also to aggregate smaller installation projects into larger projects more amenable to union labor agreements.
The idea is that a Community Choice Aggregation program would negotiate a Project Labor Agreement with California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), a Sacramento-based coalition of unions, to cover all solar construction and maintenance, large and small.
Marin Clean Energy Is Targeted with Greenmail
According to the Marin Clean Energy website, “many local solar projects are under development in MCE’s service area including MCE Solar One, Cooley Quarry, Buck Institute, and Cost Plus.” A company signatory to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers won the contract to build the Buck Institute solar project.
MCE Solar One is the biggest solar plant proposed by Marin Clean Energy: a 10.5 megawatt project to be built on a 49-acre landfill site near a refinery in Richmond owned by Chevron. According to the Marin Clean Energy website, “Local communities are gearing up for construction of the largest publicly owned solar project in the Bay Area!”
Not so fast.
Unions were targeting this project, as shown through public comment at an August 19, 2015 community meeting about the project. On September 29, 2015, a group called “Bay Area Citizens for Responsible Solar” submitted a 31-page letter plus expert testimony and exhibits objecting under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for MCE Solar One, also known as the Richmond Solar PV Project. What sounds like a community environmental organization is actually a front group for California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE).
Staff wasn’t impressed, as shown in the response to the union comments:
As is typical with union environmental objections, attorneys for California Unions for Reliable Energy submitted another round of comments at the last minute objecting to the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR). After examining the documents at the November 19, 2015 meeting of the Marin Clean Energy board, legal counsel declared that the late submissions contained nothing new of concern. The board unanimously approved the FEIR.
One board member said “it is a sad day that CEQA has really become less and less about the environment and more and more about power. Governor Brown has tried to address this with reform to CEQA and this item follows that direction.”
Don’t count on that reform coming anytime soon.
Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.