By Wendy Lack

Sometimes government pursues bad ideas. Usually the ideas start out bad and then it gets worse. That’s the case with Contra Costa’s interest in “Community Choice” electricity. Contra Costa County is broke. No, to be accurate, it’s actually beyond broke: The County spends more than it takes in, and it owes more than it’s worth.

Now Contra Costa wants to take another big risk with a lot of money – money it doesn’t have but will borrow from future generations. Contra Costa County wants to get into the energy business because everyone knows high-risk business ventures are the best cure for money problems.

Cheerily-named “Community Choice” electricity programs are new to California, with three currently operational: Marin Clean Energy (2010), Sonoma Clean Power (2014) and Lancaster Choice Energy (2015). San Francisco’s Clean Power SF is expected to launch its program later in this year.

Here’s how it works. Local government agencies form a new, semi-invisible government agency to purchase and sell electricity. The local utility company, such as PG&E, provides transmission, distribution, and customer billing services for a fee paid by the new agency’s customers. All people who live and do business in the area become customers of the new agency unless they ask to “opt out.”

The new agency must compete with the local utility company for customers. Government can make everyone their customer for a moment, but then they have to keep them. So what’s their pitch? Is the energy they’re selling greener than, say, PG&E? Is it cheaper? Is it managed by superior experts in the energy industry?

That’s a big nope . . . three nopes, to be precise.

Community Choice energy isn’t necessarily greener.

Most electricity is made from fossil fuels because it’s cheap, reliable and efficient. Wind and solar power are intermittent, so fossil fuels are needed to ensure 24/7 power. In fact, generating more wind and solar energy actually increases demand for fossil fuels.

Advocates of “CCA” (community choice aggregation) programs say their energy is greener, but that’s not always the case. CCAs often buy renewable energy credits to “greenwash” fossil fuel energy. They buy “renewable energy credits” and, like water into wine, this abracadabra makes fossil fuel energy greeny clean. This lowers costs so CCAs can compete on price with utility companies. But the dirty little secret is some CCA energy is green-in-name-only.

So if “Community Choice” energy isn’t as green as we’re led to believe, certainly it must be cheaper. But, alas, CCAs can’t promise cheaper rates.

Marin Clean Energy (MCE) has been operational since 2010. Initially, rates for MCE’s cheapest electricity option were slightly less than PG&E.  Today MCE offers three options, all of which cost more, on average, than PG&E.  MCE estimates its customers pay a monthly average of $4 to $32 more than PG&E, with the “cleanest” energy options the most expensive.