Berkeley is one of 11 cities preparing to switch to a new, public energy provider. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Almost all Berkeley residents and businesses will be enrolled by the end of the year with a new electricity provider that promises to be greener and a little bit cheaper.

East Bay Community Energy plans to take over commercial and municipal accounts in June, and residential accounts in November. Customers in Berkeley and the 10 other participating cities can still opt to stick with PG&E, which will continue to manage power lines and handle billing in either case. All customers with solar panels will be enrolled with the new provider in 2019.

Alameda County is one of the last regions in the Bay Area — though also the largest in the state — to establish Community Choice Energy (CCE), a model authorized under a 2002 California law. The approach lets cities and counties buy power for their residents, to provide a public, non-profit alternative to a utility with a monopoly on energy provision.

“Berkeley and other cities participating are really taking their energy needs and decisions into their own hands, reducing greenhouse gas consumption and emissions and saving communities a little bit of money,” said Annie Henderson, EBCE spokeswoman.”We are a unique community, so there were a lot of voices that were heard in the process and developing the authority. We’re coming into a landscape that is a bit more mature. We get to innovate off that.”

All Alameda County cities except Pleasanton and Newark are participating in EBCE, and the city of Alameda is not eligible because it has its own utility.

For most people and businesses in Berkeley, the change won’t be noticeable. If it goes as planned, the switchover will happen seamlessly. But when residents turn on the lights or pop a meal in the microwave, they will know their electricity is coming from greener sources.

The default EBCE service, “Brighter Choice,” will be 38% renewable and an additional 47% carbon-free, and will cost 1.5% less than PG&E. Customers can also upgrade to the “Brilliant 100” plan, which will be at least 40% renewable and an additional 60% carbon-free, for the same fee they currently pay PG&E.

The standard PG&E plan is 33% renewable, though it’s nearly 80% greenhouse-gas-free, PG&E spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen said. State law also requires all electricity in California to be 50% renewable by 2030.

EBCE’s board of directors, consisting of an elected official from each participating city, also just voted to offer a third, 100% renewable, option to customers during the November launch, Henderson said. Berkeley’s board member is Mayor Jesse Arreguín, with Councilwoman Sophie Hahn serving as the alternate.

Establishing a CCE is “the single most powerful thing we can do as a community to reduce our carbon footprint,” Hahn said. “Essentially with one flip of a switch, the entire community will be accessing cleaner energy than they obtain through PG&E, at a lower price.”

The Berkeley City Council voted April 24 to enroll the city’s accounts in the Brilliant 100 plan.

EBCE has not yet determined exactly where the clean energy will be sourced from, but the agency is currently soliciting and reviewing proposals, Henderson said. EBCE is also joining in PG&E’s effort to replace an old jet-fuel power plant in Jack London Square with a clean energy alternative.

As for the rates, “we’ve done a lot of analysis of what’s out on the market,” Henderson said. “There are good indicators of what we expect pricing to be. Of course, the market can shift at any time. We do commit to a certain discount from what PG&E is offering.”

Vanrenen of PG&E said the utility “respects” the new choices its customers have in deciding where their energy comes from, and “will continue to cooperate with local governments.”

Anyway, she said, the switchover hardly makes PG&E obsolete.

“When an area goes [CCE], those customers are still PG&E customers. We continue to deliver energy, meter readings, billing, and emergency response,” Vanrenen said.

Currently, an “exit fee,” or the amount remaining on years-long PG&E contracts, will be baked into EBCE bills. (The total cost to customers will still be less than what they currently pay.) The California Public Utilities Commission is currently considering establishing a new mechanism to make the transition cheaper for everyone. Once that’s hashed out, PG&E will be able to better determine what effect, if any, these CCEs will have on PG&E fees in the future, Vanrenen said.

The establishment of EBCE is the culmination of more than five years of advocacy and community meetings in Berkeley and the rest of the East Bay.

“When I first got involved in Community Choice, I saw it as a way of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions faster than PG&E ever would,” said Erica Etelson, chair of the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition CCE working group, in an email. “And then, as I learned more about it, I realized that it could also be an economic development engine.”

EBCE, like other CCE providers, will reinvest earnings in the community, to develop local power sources, create jobs and launch community programs — which, Hahn said, could potentially include incentives for switching to electric cars or solar roofing, or lower fees for low-income residents. A Local Development Business Plan is currently being drawn up.

Etelson and others advocated for a CCE program “that would prioritize reducing electricity demand and developing local solar to meet remaining demand,” she wrote. “These investments will create a lot of jobs for local residents and can also be structured in ways that allow for community ownership of solar projects which will be an additional economic benefit.”

Hahn said another benefit of a CCE is it’s a public agency, so the programs can be tailored to the needs of the participating jurisdictions.

That means upcoming decisions, such as potential annual rate increases, will be made at public meetings.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...