Express Investigates: The murky future of Valley Clean Energy

Valley Clean Energy wants to supplant part of PG&E’s electrical services in Winters. But what lies ahead for it and similar programs is far from clear.

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That presentation was delivered at the Oct. 14 meeting by Mitch Sears, a Valley Clean Energy executive who could have easily blended in with anyone he was speaking in front of. Sears carries himself like a city official in large part because he is one: On top of his duties as the interim general manager of Valley Clean Energy, he works for the City of Davis as a sustainability program manager, a role that requires him to explore ways to strike a balance between the city’s energy and environmental initiatives and the costs associated with them. As a city official, he knows all the right notes to hit when pitching a project like Valley Clean Energy to his peers: Here’s all the good things we do, here’s all the ways we can save you money. Right off the bat, Sears focused on all the good things: Valley Clean Energy offers customers a higher mixture of green and carbon-zero energy in their electricity portfolio compared to PG&E. That could help a local government meet some of their climate goals and also give communities certain bragging rights: Who wouldn’t want to live and work in a town that could honestly say it was part of the solution instead of part of the problem? On top of that, as a community organization, there are few closed doors at Valley Clean Energy: Their key meetings are open to the public, and materials associated with those meetings are available online. But Sears knew the biggest selling point of the night would be how Valley Clean Energy could save Winters residents and businesses money: Valley Clean Energy customers paid 2.5 percent less for their electricity compared to PG&E. That rate discount was not locked in, Sears warned — it might go up, it could go down — but the allure of the discount was repeated over and over again to the point where it became clear that it was the carrot used to convince cities to join. If city officials were interested, Valley Clean Energy said it could bring Winters online sometime between 2020 and 2021. All it would take to get the ball rolling was a check for $25,000 and an authorization to pull current residential and business data held by PG&E. City officials were interested. “I think, with the depth of what you’re looking at, $25,000 to get a release of all our customer data to go and crunch those numbers, it doesn’t sound like an unreasonable amount,” City Manager John Donlevy said at the end of the presentation. He noted that other communities had poured between $500,000 and $1 million just to get Valley Clean Energy off the ground. By comparison, $25,000 up front to save money over time was a drop in the bucket. “I would absolutely recommend it,” Donlevy said. “We’ll try to figure out where we can come up with the $25,000.” [caption id="attachment_756113" align="alignnone" width="4752"]Valley Clean Energy Interim Manager Mitch Sears makes his sales pitch to the Winters City Council on October 16, 2018. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express Valley Clean Energy Interim Manager Mitch Sears makes his sales pitch to the Winters City Council on October 16, 2018. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express[/caption] But before the city cut a check, it needed to strongly weigh its options. Donlevy said there was a due diligence process involved, and a decision on whether or not to start the exploration process of joining Valley Clean Energy was not going to be made at that evening’s meeting. Council Members Jesse Loren and Philip Neu also said they liked the idea, but agreed that the plan needed more consideration before they could make a formal decision. “I’m not sure the community would like us to jump into it instantly,” Neu said. “But I think that the community will back it once they know what it’s all about — so I can support this, certainly.” It was probably not the answer Sears and Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, who was also at the meeting, wanted to hear: What they knew that no one else did in the room was that Valley Clean Energy was already exploring the possibility of reducing the amount of green energy in their portfolio or reducing the rate discount that saved electricity customers money. Several weeks later, Valley Clean Energy would indeed decide to do one of those two things.

Community Choice Aggregation

For decades, there were only two options for signing up for electrical service: Build your own power plant and transmission grid — which most people don’t know how to do — or sign up for service through a for-profit, investor-owned utility (IOU) company like PG&E. Before the 1990s, the federal government imposed restrictions on how states could regulate the production and sale of energy. In the mid-1990s, the energy market opened up a bit with federal and state de-regulation efforts, but those efforts had unforeseen consequences: Market manipulations by out-of-state companies like Enron coupled with stringent caps on the price of electricity led to a catastrophic state energy crisis in the early 2000s, the bankruptcy of PG&E in 2001, the recall of Republican Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and the collapse of Enron (which just a decade earlier had been one of the biggest backers of the de-regulation efforts that, through its own greed, would ultimately lead to its demise). During that turbulent time, a Massachusetts regulator-turned-power activist named Paul Fenn had an idea: What if local communities could supplant monopolistic utility companies by arming themselves with the power to choose where their energy came from? If they didn’t like where a company like PG&E was buying their electricity — because, for example, that energy came from non-renewable resources like coal or oil — they could simply choose to buy that energy from somewhere else. Fenn helped draft the legislation passed by California lawmakers in 2002 that established Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), a system that allows local governments to form non-profit energy organizations that decide where residents and businesses in a given area get their energy. CCAs don’t completely replace utility the companies that are already in a community — for example, if PG&E is the electrical company for a city, it continues to transmit, meter and bill customers in that city. But CCAs get to decide where that electricity comes from — they can choose to buy from the same suppliers as a company like PG&E, or they can get their electricity somewhere else where the energy might be cheaper, come from greener sources or both. In Marin County, anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of the energy supplied to customers comes from green sources — higher than PG&E’s portfolio of just under 40 percent. California law requires all customers in an area served by a CCA to be automatically enrolled when the CCA launches or expands to a new community, though customers can opt-out if they want. In 2017, Sears led an initiative within the City of Davis to explore the idea of creating an alliance with Yolo County to form a CCA. Through that effort, the Valley Clean Energy Alliance was formed. Backed in part by a $11 million line of credit through River City Bank, Valley Clean Energy reached an agreement with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to provide energy and technical services to customers served by the CCA. In June, the gently-renamed Valley Clean Energy formally launched in Davis, Woodland and certain areas of unincorporated Yolo County. Under California law, CCAs have to conduct a certain amount of public outreach both before and after it takes over energy purchasing powers. Valley Clean Energy fulfilled this obligation in part by contracting through a Sacramento-based publisher that employed real journalists to write content for a newspaper supplement touting the benefits of the newly-formed CCA over PG&E: At launch, Valley Clean Energy would provide customers a lower rate on electricity that came from a higher percentage of green sources compared to PG&E. That 2.5 percent discount was estimated to save customers well over $1 million every year. After covering operational expenses, anything left over would be invested right back into the community.  And unlike PG&E, where highly-paid executives make decisions behind closed doors, Valley Clean Energy had a six-member board of directors comprised of local representatives that set rates and made other decisions in open, public forums. “As a locally-based energy provider, VCE is accountable to the communities it serves, not shareholders,” Lucas Frerichs, a Davis city council member who serves as the chairman for Valley Clean Energy, said in the supplement. [caption id="attachment_756108" align="alignnone" width="1958"]Graphic by Taylor Buley / Winters Express Graphic by Taylor Buley / Winters Express[/caption] The supplement contained a number of stories from people who endorsed what Valley Clean Energy stood for: Yolo County Superintendent Jesse Ortiz said the 2.5 percent rate discount offered by the CCA would help shave some of the $200,000 his office spent on electrical costs every year. Woodland resident Mary Kimball said local control of the CCA meant it would “always have the needs of the community it serves first.” Paul Muller, the operator of Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley, said Valley Clean Energy could be trusted to make “better energy choices” that sent “a message to energy providers and policy makers that renewable energy is what people want.” Needless to say, private energy providers aren’t crazy about CCAs. For the last 10 years, PG&E and other IOUs have organized efforts to try to undermine the ability of local governments to launch CCAs in their communities. In 2010, PG&E spent $46 million in an attempt to convince voters to pass Proposition 16, a ballot initiative that would have required two-thirds of voters to approve a CCA before it formed. Four years later, at the urging of several IOUs, a state lawmaker wrote legislation that would have changed how customers are enrolled in a CCA: Instead of being automatically enrolled, as the 2002 law required, customers would have to opt-in when a CCA entered their community. Ultimately, voters turned down Proposition 16, and the lawmaker’s efforts to undo customer enrollment by default stalled in the state senate. But a short time later, PG&E and other IOUs figured out a way to make CCAs seem like a less-attractive option by increasing a state-mandated fee on the bills of CCA customers. That fee, called the Power Charge Indifference Adjustment (PCIA), is imposed on customers who leave a for-profit utility like PG&E for a CCA like Valley Clean Energy. When PG&E purchases power only to have customers depart for a CCA, it’s left over with power that it can’t sell. Instead of writing off that power as a loss or charging customers who stay with PG&E the difference, a fee is passed on to CCA customers. PG&E and other IOUs say the PCIA is needed to make sure customers who stay with them aren’t on the hook for certain operational expenses. CCAs have disputed this, saying the PCIA is an “exit fee” that penalizes residents and businesses who opt for local energy purchasing control. In 2016, PG&E and two other IOUs petitioned the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) with a request to reconfigure the formula used to calculate the PCIA fee. CCAs were on board with this idea, agreeing with the IOUs that the PCIA formula needed to be reconfigured. The IOUs wanted a formula that allowed them to charge more through the fee; the CCAs, naturally, wanted a formula that charged less. In August, an administrative law judge issued a proposal that some CCAs said resolved a lot of uncertainty regarding the updated PCIA formula and would help keep costs low. One month later, the head of the CPUC issued an alternative proposal that reconfigured the formula in a way that allowed IOUs like PG&E to charge more through the PCIA. Both plans were put up to a vote. In October, just one week before Valley Clean Energy was set to meet with the Winters city council, the CPUC unanimously approved the alternative proposal. When the Express asked if the CPUC felt the PCIA fee was fair, a spokesperson responded with links to press releases and blogs, including one written by CPUC Commission Member Carla Peterson for Express media partner CALmatters. “Neither the judge’s proposal nor mine would increase overall costs or allow the utilities to increase their profits,” Peterson wrote. “My job is not to pick winners or losers. It’s to do what’s fair for all customers while providing stability for California’s electric grid and communities as they exercise their right to choose.” But in a competing commentary piece for CALmatters, Efren Carillo of the Center for Climate Protection wrote that Peterson’s proposal handed IOUs a win that would lead to rate hikes for customers who departed for CCAs like Valley Clean Energy. “Peterman’s plan puts the interests of corporate utilities over those of local ratepayers,” Carillo wrote. “Her fee proposal would shift costs to community choice aggregation customers, hampering efforts to expand their services and enroll more residents.” Carillo would be proven right when Valley Clean Energy started deliberating a rate hike for customers just two days after pitching a rate discount to the Winters city council.

Tough Choices

Two days after the approach to Winters, Valley Clean Energy held a meeting to discuss what they could do in response to the anticipated increase of the PCIA exit fee. It was a packed house inside a special wing of the Davis Public Library, with most of those in attendance either directly connected to or having a special interest in Valley Clean Energy. Few residents from Davis or Woodland showed up. No one from the City of Winters was there. The Express was the only media outlet in the room. The meeting opened with a presentation from a financial auditor that largely spoke positively on how Valley Clean Energy was handling its money. The group had been spending money wisely and still had a good buffer in its line of credit with River City Bank. It was a second presentation by a law firm representing public utilities where the frustrations started to set in: If Valley Clean Energy didn’t do something — reduce their green energy portfolio, eliminate the rate discount for customers, something — the group could be headed for disaster. Documents presented at the meeting and later obtained by the Express showed that if Valley Clean Energy kept their green energy portfolio mix and the rate discount the same, the group would take in about $2.8 million in operating profit for 2018. But Valley Clean Energy would have an operating loss of $439,000 in 2019 with the operating loss nearly doubling in 2020.  If Valley Clean Energy eliminated the 2.5 percent rate discount, they argued, the numbers would go the other way: The company would generate the same amount of operating profit in 2018, plus a profit of $1.35 million in 2019 and $938,000 in 2020. Essentially, the difference between the two was whether Valley Clean Energy wanted to be in the black or in the hole. Financial experts at the meeting warned if Valley Clean Energy leaned more toward the first option, they could be in default on certain agreements and loan covenants made with River City Bank and other investors. Everyone in the room was frustrated for two reasons: First, while Winters had showed some interest in Valley Clean Energy, Sears and Saylor walked out of the council’s chambers two days earlier without so much as a handshake agreement, let alone that $25,000 check. Valley Clean Energy had made a similar approach to the City of West Sacramento that ended basically the same way. That was a problem because Valley Clean Energy was in the process of negotiating long-term energy contracts beyond 2021. If they could have something more than a cursory interest from Winters and West Sacramento, the group could go to those power providers with some more leverage. “As we gain even more members, that’s clout,” Sears said at the board meeting. “That’s our strategy going forward.” The second source of frustration was that just two weeks earlier Gov. Jerry Brown had signed legislation that mandated all electrical energy come from renewable resources before a certain deadline. “Here we are at this incredible moment,” started board member Dan Carson of Davis. “The governor has signed SB 100, a measure requiring a totally renewable electricity grid by 2025..and five appointees of this governor have taken action that I believe strikes a serious blow toward the long-term efforts of achieving those important environmental goals.” The CPUC’s decision undermined the efforts of Valley Clean Energy and other groups from meeting those goals in an accelerated time frame — much quicker than anyone in the room felt PG&E would move. The anger was palpable. But no one expressed it more than Carson: At the end of the meeting, he stood up from his chair, approached a meeting attendee and said: “Can you tell I’m pissed?”

The Other Shoe Drops

One month after the board meeting in Davis, Valley Clean Energy convened again — this time in Woodland —to announce its cost-cutting decision. The mood in the room had changed from frustration to indignant resignation. No one summed up how everyone was feeling better than Chairman Frerichs. “It’s been hard to keep and stay chipper…in light of the continued ass-kicking from the Public Utilities Commission that all CCAs have been receiving,” Frerichs said at the Nov. 15 meeting. In the meantime, the company would have to do what was necessary with what they already knew to be true: In their books, the CPUC had given PG&E and other IOUs a win with respect to the PCIA exit fee, and the company needed to do what it took to remain on good financial ground. That meant trimming operational costs and eliminating the rate discount. The company was nowhere near out of the woods: Between the Davis and Woodland meetings, PG&E had come under intense public and legislative scrutiny after its transmission lines were suspected of igniting a 150,000-acre wildfire east of Chico. When the group met, the death toll from the Camp Fire was still climbing (as of this report, it stands at 88), the number of missing was over 1,000 (it is now around 200) and thousands of homes and businesses had been destroyed. [caption id="attachment_756110" align="alignnone" width="4000"]Davis City Council Member Dan Carson and Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor discuss matters related to Valley Clean Energy in Woodland on November 15, 2018. Photo by Matthew Keys Davis City Council Member Dan Carson and Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor discuss matters related to Valley Clean Energy in Woodland on November 15, 2018. Photo by Matthew Keys[/caption] As of early December, PG&E has yet to be formally accused of starting the wildfire. But the evidence looks bad: The company has filed two reports describing problems with its transmission lines around the time and place of two fires that were suspected of merging into the Camp Fire. Those reports were enough to send investors fleeing, sending PG&E’s stock tumbling more than 50 percent. Lawmakers were starting to call for a breakup of the utility. People began filing lawsuits against PG&E, and reports speculated that PG&E could be on the hook for billions of dollars in liability if they were found to be at fault. On its face, that might seem like it would be a public relations gift for a group like Valley Clean Energy. But everyone at the company knew that what’s bad for PG&E is ultimately bad for Valley Clean Energy too: Just a few months before the Camp Fire, PG&E had spent a total of $1.7 million lobbying lawmakers to reduce its liability in connection with the start of wildfires. That effort ultimately failed, though lawmakers did allow PG&E to impose costs on customers associated with its liability connected to the Tubbs Fire from 2017. This time, it wasn’t clear if PG&E would try to approach lawmakers with a request to reduce its liability again. But a lot more was at stake: PG&E was already on the hook for $15 billion associated with the Tubbs Fire, according to estimates from Wall Street experts, and that liability could double if PG&E was also formally connected to the start of the Camp Fire. “If the Camp Fire…[is] any indication, PG&E’s stock price going down 50 percent in the last five days, I think we’re going to see major changes on the horizon.” Frerichs said, suggesting PG&E would be coming after Valley Clean Energy’s customers again. His solution: Contact lawmakers. “That’s one of the reasons to continue to maybe engage the legislatures,” Frerichs said. “It absolutely has to happen…we’ve got to have our [representatives] in the halls of the State Capitol engaged on this issue over the next couple of years.” With a unanimous vote, the board decided to trim operating expenses by $800,000 and eliminate the 2.5 percent rate discount for its customers. Before the vote, some board members suggested the rate discount may never return; instead, Valley Clean Energy was considering the idea of returning money to customers at the end of the year through a dividend if their operating profit exceeded a certain percentage. Frerichs said other CCAs in California had offered customers a rebate instead of a rate discount, and that Valley Clean Energy “may have sort of missed out on that.” As of early December, it was unclear if and how Valley Clean Energy communicated these changes to customers beyond the open invitation to public board meetings — though the group sent a press release announcing the launch of its service five months early, no press release was sent announcing the forthcoming changes in electrical rates. According to documents reviewed by the Express, the group is planning to submit an editorial to local newspapers as part of a public outreach initiative arguing its position on the CPUC’s decision, the PCIA exit fee and how it impacts Valley Clean Energy’s electrical rates. (Shortly after this story first appeared online, the Express received and published a copy of the editorial; Jim Smith, the editor of the Woodland Daily Democrat, told the Express on Thursday his newspaper had not been contacted about the editorial, while Sebastian Oñate of the Davis Enterprise said Valley Clean Energy had reached out about possibly running an editorial in an upcoming edition. The Davis Enterprise and the Winters Express share common ownership.)

What Now?

What happens next for Valley Clean Energy and Winters is unclear. While things appeared to be hot and heavy after the energy company’s first meeting with the city, feelings had definitely cooled on the city’s end as the Express continued to investigate the company. THE BACKSTORY: Why the Express investigation into Valley Clean Energy matters to Winters For one, the city had been caught off guard by Valley Clean Energy’s solicitation. City Manager Donlevy admitted to the Express in an email that Winters officials didn’t know much about the company before and during the meeting, let alone that the company was facing some turbulence with respect to the PCIA exit fee. Donlevy said he learned about the PCIA’s then-potential impact on Valley Clean Energy after finding an article on the topic in a copy of the Woodland Daily Democrat newspaper. “If I had [known about] this prior to the meeting, it most certainly would have been included in the [city council agenda] packet and a question for the VCE folks,” Donlevy wrote. “Our staff expertise on this topic is limited but growing, and we have relied on VCE for information thus far. Given these actions by both VCE and the PUC, our interest my shift dramatically and the analysis will require extensive review of both risk and cost factors.” Also at stake is the city’s relationship with PG&E, which has grown intimate over the last few years after officials successfully lobbied the utility company to build a gas safety training center on the outer border of town. Other development projects, including the building of two blockbuster hotels in Winters, are predicated in part on the assumption that PG&E will continue sending workers regularly to the city for training. “We have never had an issue thus far with PG&E,” Donlevy wrote. “The city enjoys our partnership with PG&E and our intent would have been to include them in the overall discussion and review. In Winters, PG&E’s reliability has been stellar and I imagine that it would take a lot for the City to ultimately decide to choose another provider. Ultimately, it would need to be a low risk and high return proposition.” Which brings things back to that $25,000 check to get the ball rolling — the one Donlevy said he would recommend, even though no one in the room seemed to know where the money would come from. One big selling point was an assurance by Sears that the $25,000 was refundable to the city. But the money is only refundable if Winters decides to joins Valley Clean Energy; if at any point in the process Winters backs out, the city forfeits the cash, according to documents reviewed by the Express. Another selling point: The 2.5 percent rate discount, the one Valley Clean Energy did away with, the one that may not return ever again. “$25,000 is a lot of money for the city, and without question the discount was an important selling point, but not the only one,” Donlevy wrote. “As we move forward, we will need to consult with our business and residential community to bring transparency to the entire evaluation process. I see us taking the entire process on an incremental basis, looking at the regulatory framework, then the structure of the VCE program, then the overall analysis with the customer data, then the cost benefit of considering membership…a fair analysis will have steps preceding us writing a check.” That incremental process is slated to begin next year.
Correction: A version of this story that appeared in print on Thursday incorrectly identified Yolo County Board of Supervisor Don Saylor as “Don Sawyer.” His name appeared correctly throughout the remainder of the article. Additionally, the print version of the story incorrectly stated the amount of money Valley Clean Energy chose to reduce in its operating expenses. The amount was $800,000, not $500,000. This story has been updated to include additional information on an editorial being drafted by Valley Clean Energy and the group’s outreach efforts to local newspapers.]]>

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