The Backstory: Why the Express investigation into Valley Clean Energy matters to Winters

Some people out there may ask, why bother? Why spend time, effort and energy (no pun intended) covering a program that isn’t even in Winters yet — and may never come to the city at all?

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came to Winters in October, they brought with them a sales pitch that sounded like more than a good deal: Valley Clean Energy, the Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program that had started in parts of Yolo Count earlier in the year, could provide Winters with a greener source of electricity at a cheaper rate than what residents and businesses were spending on similar services offered by PG&E. They hooked the council by promoting a 2.5 percent discount on PG&E’s electrical rates that Valley Clean Energy customers were enjoying at the moment, a higher mixture of green-based and carbon-free electricity in their energy portfolio and localized control over the purchase of electric energy from sources other than PG&E. And unlike PG&E, all of Valley Clean Energy’s decisions are made in a transparent and public manner — from board meetings held in public venues to community advisory committees that provide guidance to Valley Clean Energy’s board members. There was a lot to like about Valley Clean Energy’s pitch. But as I looked around the room, it became clear that few people knew about a controversial decision made earlier in the month by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that was likely to provoke Valley Clean Energy to reduce or eliminate some of the perks they were leaning heavy on in their presentation before the council. When Sears and Saylor started discussing a $25,000 check that the city would need to provide in order to get the process going — the money, they said, would be spent on the collection and analysis of customer data from PG&E — I knew this was a story I wanted to take on, and I knew it was going to take longer than a week to fully flesh out. STORY: Express Investigates — The murky future of Valley Clean Energy In some investigative stories, there’s a sense that someone has to be the boogeyman and someone has to be the hero. The story we published this week is different. You have four groups of people who are key to the story: The city, CCAs like Valley Clean Energy, the CPUC and investor owned utility (IOU) companies like PG&E. The city wants to do right by its citizens. CCAs believe IOUs are getting in the way of their existence and retaliating against them for bringing competition and progress to the energy industry. IOUs believe CCAs unfairly poach their customers and undermine their ability to make money. The CPUC is in the tough position of trying to find a fair point of equilibrium between the two sides. Here, no one is the boogeyman and everyone is trying to be the hero. This was a story that was tough to tell for a lot of reasons. First, everyone I reached out to during the investigative part of this story — including Sears, Saylor, City Manager John Donlevy and spokespersons for Valley Clean Energy, the CPUC and PG&E — were pleasant, professional and happy to receive my numerous emails seeking answers to questions, clarification and comment. We filed a number of public records requests with Valley Clean Energy seeking various documents related to meetings and other matters. They gave the Express everything that was requested with no delay. When you interact with people who are so pleasant, it can be very hard to write a piece that scrutinizes their work and their organization in the way that the Express did this week. Another reason why this story was tough: Energy is a complicated industry with a lot of moving parts. For this story, the Express pored over more than 200 emails, slideshows and other documents related to Valley Clean Energy, CCAs, the CPUC, the Power Change Indifference Adjustment (PCIA) exit fee and other issues. That isn’t counting the number of news articles, blogs, websites and databases accessed and reviewed to help build a deep understanding of what was going on and what could happen next. I kid you not, the information was so dense at times that when my work was finished for the day I’d spend several hours battling a debilitating migraine. This happened more than once. Some people out there may ask, why bother? Why spend time, effort and energy (no pun intended) covering a program that isn’t even in Winters yet — and may never come to the city at all? When city officials make a decision that affects the collection of money — whether it’s asking residents and businesses to pay more or less for certain services, adopting a resolution that authorizes a new loan or bond initiative, or something else — that’s worthy of coverage. How those city officials spend the money they collect is equally worthy. In this case, the pitch made by Valley Clean Energy checked both boxes. At the October meeting, there was a request for $25,000, and a question about where that money would come from. There were also questions about what the program would look like immediately after the meeting in the wake of the CPUC’s decision on the PCIA fee. You have the right to know, and we have the responsibility to tell you, who these people are that want your $25,000, how they and their customers are affected by factors within and beyond their control, and what it means for you if the city eventually decides to cut them a check.]]>

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