Taking Charge: How California’s first CCA confronts wildfire risk and energy equity amid COVID-19

Utility Dive

Over the last 10 years, community choice aggregators (CCAs) have become a significant presence in California’s energy landscape. Now, these local entities are also confronting the state’s broader challenges with catastrophic wildfires and prolonged power shut-offs.

A decade ago, MCE — formerly Marin Clean Energy — became California’s first CCA. Now, there are 21 CCAs in the state, many of which operate in areas of California that are vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires, as well as public safety power power shut-offs (PSPS). And this year, they’re addressing these challenges along with the broader upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think that the biggest impact the pandemic is having is really increasing the sense of urgency to get this done quickly, and get our resilience installations done as soon as possible,” Dawn Weisz, CEO of MCE, told Utility Dive during a recent interview. “We are very concerned about the impacts of PSPS events during the pandemic, particularly during shelter-in-place orders and social distancing requirements.”

When MCE was established ten years ago, it served 8,000 customer accounts in Northern California’s Marin County. Today, that number has grown to more than 480,000 accounts, representing over a million residents, across four counties in the Bay Area. That trend also reflects the broader growth of community choice in California — more than 10 million California customers are now served by CCAs, according to CalCCA, a community choice advocacy group, and they have collectively contracted more than 3,600 MW worth of new clean energy.

“We did not anticipate the level of interest and the speed at which these programs would be growing, and the number of customers being served by community choice now is pretty staggering,” Weisz said.

In the last three years, California has experienced a spate of utility-caused wildfires, which caused the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2019. Parts of MCE’s service territory have experienced wildfires, and the CCA has been involved with rebuilding efforts, including coordinating grant opportunities to help out residents who lost their homes, Weisz said.

“While it’s devastating, it also creates an opportunity to rebuild in a way that is better for the environment potentially and safer,” like constructing homes that are fully electric, she added.
The region is also susceptible to PSPS events during periods of high fire risk and the outages have particularly impacted medically vulnerable people and senior citizens, according to Weisz. Another concern is ensuring critical facilities, like fire stations, schools and community centers, have power.

Many of California’s CCAs were formed with the aim of implementing decarbonization strategies, Beth Vaughan, executive director of the California Community Choice Association, told Utility Dive. “[N]ot just the energy system, but also the built environment and transportation in particular … being local government, you’ve got your finger in all of those different businesses and can look at how do we do this comprehensively?” she added.

Weisz believes that the broader growth of community choice aggregation in California speaks to the ability of local government to be efficient and nimble, as well as the financial strength of individual CCAs.

However, aggregators do face challenges, including what she calls a “square-peg-round-hole” interface when it comes to rolling out energy programs within a regulatory framework that was built for utilities, and characterized by large, bureaucratic processes.

“I think there [are] a lot of opportunities for collaboration that haven’t yet been realized,” Weisz said. “And I think we’re moving in the right direction and as the strengths that the CCAs are bringing to the table become better understood, I think we’re going to see a lot of positive growth on that front.”

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