Wind and solar energy will become the default for Berkeley ratepayers in October. Credit: Larkin Hammond/Unsplash

John Moriarty, the owner of The 14 Carats, a jewelry shop in The Elmwood, uses roughly 1,568 kilowatt-hours a month of electricity at his store, which costs him $571 a month. He’s about to see a hike of about $11 on his monthly energy bill, but it’s a price he’s willing to pay for the cleaner energy the city will make the default for businesses in Berkeley, starting next month.

 “I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “Some people look to [Berkeley] to be on the vanguard of stuff like this. So you would think it’d be good for everybody.” 

Berkeley City Council voted in June 2021 to switch the default for residential ratepayers from energy that was partially renewable to energy that is fully wind and solar-powered. That went into effect in March, through the East Bay Community Energy’s Renewable 100 plan. The change has increased home energy bills by roughly $4 per month. 

Now it’s the turn of local businesses and schools for whom the switch will be made starting on Oct. 1. Commercial customers may opt out and remain on EBCE’s partially clean and slightly cheaper Bright Choice plan, but they need to do so by Sept. 22. 

The nonprofit East Bay Community Energy buys power from renewable sources and provides an alternative to utility companies like PG&E, which, before 2018, had a monopoly on energy generation. In 2018, Berkeley switched over its commercial and residential customers from PG&E to EBCE’s Bright Choice plan, which is 3% cheaper than PG&E’s standard rate and provides 42% renewable energy. The Renewable 100 plan sources fully clean and renewable energy from California wind and solar facilities and costs ¾ a penny per kilowatt-hour more than PG&E rates. 

Commercial customers, which include “small retailers, factories, campuses, school districts, and municipalities,” use widely variable amounts of electricity relative to residential ones, so EBCE isn’t able to estimate how much more the transition will cost the average commercial customer, according to EBCE spokesperson Dan Leiberman.

Leiberman recommends customers look at their billing history and multiply the number of kilowatt-hours they consume in a typical month by $0.0075 to determine how much more they’ll have to pay to go greener. (They can also call EBCE’s customer service at 1-833-699-3223.) 

The city publicized the switch with emails and a press release and two EBCE webinars. Not all local business owners are aware of the change, however. 

“I didn’t even know anything about it,” said Moriarty when contacted by Berkeleyside. Moriarty is also the former president of the Elmwood Merchants’ Association.

Jana Olsen, owner of Panache Lighting on Ninth Street, told Berkeleyside she hadn’t been made aware of the change, either. Her lighting shop gets bills for multiple energy meters, but the largest room uses roughly 2,297 kilowatt-hours a month, meaning her bill could go up by more than $17 per month. 

“Everything is just a little more, and just a little bit more, and just a little bit more — it’s death by a thousand cuts,” she said. “It’s not pleasant. I’m a one-person operation.”

Allen Cain, the executive director of the Solano Avenue Association, said he didn’t realize the switch was happening so soon, but he did recall receiving an email from the city about clean energy while he was on vacation. 

One step closer to meeting Berkeley’s sustainability goals

The switch to fully clean energy as the default for all ratepayers is a major step toward reducing Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to EBCE, Berkeley found that a 78% drop in power sector carbon emissions from switching to EBCE made up the bulk of their overall 26% drop since 2000.  

“By switching everyone to 100% renewable electricity now, rather than waiting for the grid to get cleaner (EBCE has pledged to provide 100% clean electricity to all of its customers by 2030), we can eliminate a significant portion of our citywide emissions and decrease the cumulative emissions created by waiting,” said Ammon Reagan, the city planning department’s sustainability program coordinator.

Elizabeth Redman Cleveland, the city’s chief strategist of sustainable growth, suggested the personal satisfaction business owners get from being part of the solution to climate change may not be the only incentive they need to switch to a greener energy plan.

“Many businesses find that ‘going green’ helps them attract new customers or increase customer loyalty,” she said in an email. “In fact, the Alameda County Green Business Program has often found that the Green Business label helps with marketing and certified green businesses report that customers feel good about supporting businesses they know are operating with the environment and society in mind.”

Berkeley’s not alone in making the switch to wind and solar energy; Albany, Emeryville, Dublin, Hayward, San Leandro and Pleasanton are all making similar transitions. 

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...