JUICE: Voluntary 100% Renewable Programs Lack Traction

30 Aug 2017

Community choice and utility programs offering customers all solar energy or 100 percent mixed renewable power are about as popular as wall flowers.

The uptake rate of consumers voluntarily paying community aggregators and private utilities for all solar or a mix of clean power is in the low single digits. It is as low as a fraction of 1 percent of customers to up to 3.7 percent.

The state’s first community energy aggregator, Marin Clean Energy, offers its customers 100 percent local solar energy for a 30 percent premium above its 100 percent renewable program.  Marin’s default generation program is 50 percent renewables.

For customers using 445 kWh monthly, they pay $63.19 a month for electric generation under the all solar program, compared to $34.71 for the 100 percent renewable mix.

To date, 172 customers have signed up since the local solar program’s July debut. That is 0.068 percent of Marin’s customers, said Greg Brehm, Marin’s director of power resources. The program, however, is capped at 300 residential and business customers, with 60 percent subscribed to date.

The premium is considerable, but small in comparison to the cost of installing a solar system on top of one’s home or workplace. A home solar rooftop costs around $20,000.

Marin’s 100 percent mixed renewable program is faring better. The aggregator has enrolled 2.62 percent of its customers in its “Deep Green” program. Those 6,683 consumers pay a 1 cent/kWh premium for an equal mix of California wind and solar power. That’s a monthly premium of $4.45 for customers using 445kWh.

Pacific Gas & Electric also offers a 100 percent solar option.

Currently 5,500 PG&E customers are enrolled—both residential and small- and medium-sized businesses—which equals about 0.1 percent of the utility’s 5.4 million electricity ratepayers. Residences pay a 2.6 cent/kWh premium, amounting to an additional $8.62 a month for those using about 330 kWh. Business customers pay between $25 and $40 a month extra, according to Ari Vanrenen, PG&E spokesperson.

The utility’s standard program is about 33 percent renewable.

Since 2014, Sonoma Clean Power has offered its customers 100 percent geothermal power from the Geysers for a premium of 2.5 cents/kWh. To date, 1,150 of its 230,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers are enrolled, a total of about 0.5 percent. Its 100 percent renewable “Evergreen” program adds about $13 a month to customer bill.

Sonoma’s customers automatically receive electricity that is 42 percent renewable unless they opt up.

Peninsula Clean Energy, which is in the early stages of its launch, has 4,234 customers signed up in its Eco100 program, representing 1.5 percent of its consumers. The premium is 1 cent/kWh above its 50 percent renewable default program. That adds about $4.45 to a monthly utility bill.

San Francisco’s 100 percent renewable has the biggest enrollment, at 3.7 percent of customers. Of CleanPowerSF’s 82,037 customers, 2,828 are participating in its program supporting a mix of wind and solar power. Residential customers pay a 2 cents/kWh premium, whereas commercial customers pay an additional 1.4 cents/kWh. That means residential customers using 280 kWh pay an additional $5 each month. Its default program provides 40 percent renewable supplies.

Lancaster Choice Energy’s 100 percent renewable option has 515 participants, representing less than one percent of its load. The 100 percent green power option adds a flat monthly fee of $10 to participating residential customers. Its default program, in which customers are automatically enrolled, provides 35 percent renewable resources. The all green menu adds 1.5 cents/kWh to participating commercial and other nonresidential ratepayers.

Southern California Edison’s renewable option has the lowest enrollment of the all green programs. Of its 5 million customers, only 519 residential and business ratepayers, about 0.01 percent, have signed up. Enrolled residential customers pay about 3.8 cents more per kWh.

There is no simple explanation for the slow uptake of these all renewable programs. But, years of experience and studies have shown that few people are willing to pay for programs that enhance the environment, even if it amounts to a latte or inexpensive meal out once a month. That’s why the produce section at conventional supermarkets usually has as small organic section, compared to much more space for crops grown with pesticides.

Uncertain costs don’t help.

The fee imposed by the California Public Utilities Commission to cover costs related to the power private utilities say they bought on behalf of departing customers continues to rise.  Once known as the Power Charge Indifference Adjustment, it’s being renamed the portfolio allocation methodology as it is being recalculated. Residential customers who left PG&E in 2013, for example, paid about 0.6 cents/kWh for the fee levied by regulators. They now pay more than 3 cents/kWh, according to Neal Reardon, Sonoma regulator affairs manager.

With or with an exit fee, the only way for 100 percent renewable electricity to become a reality is to limit the choice of how green to be.

Few of us voluntarily pay to protect natural resources. That is why there are requisite clean air, energy efficiency, water quality and other health protective rules. It is why California leaders are pushing for a 100 percent renewable electricity mandate. That is also the reason some community choice advocates want to make 100 percent renewables the default program in which customers are automatically enrolled.

Portola Valley, one of the cities participating in Peninsula Clean Energy, made the 100 percent renewable program the automatic offer in its area. In response, 4 percent of the Portola Valley residents opted down to the 50 percent program, 6 percent opted out and stayed with PG&E, while 90 percent remained on the all renewable default, according to Tom Kelly, a community choice advocate.

Choice, like most everything, has its place but not when it comes to protecting the planet.

Elizabeth McCarthy

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