Community choice aggregation supporters rally in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Carefully chosen words, tedious negotiations, lines in the sand. At stake: the continued release of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change.

But this isn’t diplomacy at the United Nations we’re talking about, it’s San Diego politicians struggling to work together to buy and sell green energy.

Last fall, the city of San Diego decided to start its own utility to buy and sell power. That’s because the city’s “climate action plan” says all electricity sold to city residents must come from renewable sources within the next two decades. Right now, only about half the power sold by San Diego Gas & Electric is considered green.

Since many neighboring cities have similar climate goals, San Diego asked them if they’d like to work together to start a regional “community choice” energy agency.

At first, working together seemed like a no-brainer. Only one city in the county, Solana Beach, has been able to launch a community choice agency on its own, but it’s talked about the advantages of joining a larger agency at some point.

Right now, Solana Beach has to rely on a handful of consulting firms to operate its utility and it’s been buying energy from existing power generators, rather than building its own wind or solar farms. If Solana Beach could share staff with other cities, it could save on administrative costs and be able to invest in new wind and solar projects – generating more green power, lowering rates for customers, or both.

Some brief optimism suggested many of the 18 cities in San Diego County, plus the county government, might come together and form a regional community choice utility.

Now, though, hopes of a regional powerhouse have all but collapsed.

The reason for this comes down to a different sort of power: political power.

Smaller cities don’t want the city of San Diego calling the shots, though the city has about half the county’s residents and uses about half the county’s power.

The fear revolves around an esoteric voting process known as the weighted vote. Instead of creating an agency in which each city gets one vote, the city of San Diego wants decision-making based around how much power it will buy. If San Diego and other several other cities are working together but San Diego is buying half the power, it doesn’t want to be outvoted all the time just because all the smaller cities are against an idea it has.

A singular worry about the city’s influence could now overwhelm many other concerns, including worries about climate change and deep-seated dislike of SDG&E.

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob – perhaps SDG&E’s most influential critic – has pushed for an alternative to the company for years, something that “community choice” is explicitly designed to provide. She still says a regional power agency is a great model and she hopes the city and county can team up down the road.

“However, a weighted vote is a non-starter for the county,” Jacob said in a statement. “If we’re doing what’s best for all ratepayers, a level playing field is needed so that one community isn’t prioritized over another.”

Likewise, a group of coastal North County cities – Carlsbad, Del Mar and perhaps others – may form their own community choice agency, partly out of concerns about the city of San Diego’s voting power. They desire “local control,” an oft-used talking point among local governments that don’t want to take direction from others.

The argument has gone so far that a hypothetical city of San Diego-dominated power agency is already being compared to SDG&E.

“If you’re going to exchange one monolith for another monolith, that’s not choice,” Carlsbad City Councilwoman Cori Schumacher said.

But Carlsbad’s hyperlocal plan was dealt a major blow on Wednesday night, when Encinitas decided to work with the city of San Diego instead.

Before that vote, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear offered a direct rebuke of Carlsbad’s approach. She decided a regional agency with representatives from all the local cities would offer residents more control than they have over SDG&E.

“If all 18 cities were on that board, I would feel like we had really good local control,” the mayor said Wednesday night.

There are a few other substantive issues, too. Other cities are worried about the new agency being unionized and they may have different priorities for how money is spent.

The concern about influence has roots in recent history. New rules governing the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency, allow a minority of its cities that represent a majority of the population to overrule a majority of cities that don’t. The city of San Diego has used this power at SANDAG to accept a larger housing responsibility from the state than other cities were willing to accommodate and to block an agency staffer involved in a high-profile scandal from becoming the head of the agency.

There have been similar fights over the weighted vote at the San Diego County Water Authority, which was formed 75 years ago to import water into the region from the Colorado River and Northern California. In the late-1990s, city of San Diego officials used the weighted vote (based on water purchases) to elect a controversial chairwoman who – over early objections from North County water officials concerned about rising water rates – helped craft one of the largest water deals in American history.

But the system governing water has remained fractured. Even though the County Water Authority imports water on behalf of all the cities in the region, cities have smaller water departments that buy that water and resell it, creating a blend of regional and local political influence. Now, two North County water agencies are considering leaving the County Water Authority because of what they consider burdensome costs for projects that don’t benefit them.

In the power agency negotiations, city of San Diego officials have already conceded a fair amount of ground in an effort to limit how much weight the city can throw around.

According to a draft voting compromise the city has offered, the first vote on any issue would be structured for one city, one vote – which means Encinitas would have the same say as the city of San Diego. But then two members can call for a weighted vote, where say would be based on how much power each city uses. During a weighted vote, the city’s say would be capped at 49 percent – even if the city used 80 percent of the power – and would require a two-thirds supermajority to undo the first vote. The arrangement is similar to the new rules governing SANDAG.

This deal was enough to appease La Mesa and Chula Vista, which also voted earlier this month to work with the city of San Diego.

Nicole Capretz, the head of the Climate Action Campaign, a nonprofit that champions community choice energy, said some North County cities seem to be doing their own thing, even if that hurts their economies of scale.

“In my opinion they are being a little bit stubborn about it,” Capretz said.

Some cities are doing more than others. Oceanside apparently has no interest in any sort of community choice effort for the time being. Poway doesn’t even have a climate action plan. A judge ruled the county government’s plan is illegally weak, though the county is appealing. Climate Action Campaign is also suing El Cajon for having a plan that doesn’t do enough to lower power-related emissions.

Capretz said to deal with climate change, governments need to work together, move in the same direction and that the experience of the 19 existing community choice agencies in California shows that larger ones can do more than smaller ones.

It all raises the question: If local governments in San Diego can’t work together to do something they mostly agree is worth doing, what hope is there for the world?

City of San Diego officials are using more practical arguments. Mayor Kevin Faulconer has met directly with elected leaders across the county to share his take on why a regional energy agency is a good idea.

At the heart of his pitch is an argument that could appeal to conservatives: Smaller cities will be duplicating expenses by hiring their own staff to run parallel agencies with the same mission.

“You’re duplicating your costs and you’re cutting into the excess revenues that go back into your customer programming and customer benefits,” said Cody Hooven, the city of San Diego’s chief sustainability officer.

Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president for government affairs, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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