Santa Cruz Councilmemeber Ryan Coonerty is one of the local leaders excited by the possibliities of Community Choice Aggregation.

Santa Cruz’s ambitious plan is to reduce its emissions to 15 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, well in excess of what the Global Warming Solutions Act suggests. And the county aims to cut emissions 42 percent below 2009 levels by 2035.

The question, of course, is whether it can really be done, and while a number of solutions have been targeted, some believe Santa Cruz may have found a magic bullet in Community Choice Aggregation, CCA for short. The emerging idea involves Santa Cruz County playing the part of the electric company—distributing energy directly to residents.

Paia Levine, principal planner for the county, says a CCA program could be a very important piece of the puzzle.

“The analysis we’ve done is that a CCA could yield more dramatic greenhouse gas reductions than any one strategy,” Levine says. “It’s important to say that no studies have been done, and we don’t know how feasible it is for us. But it is one of the most promising strategies out there.”

People Power’s Micah Posner supported a CCA in his successful city council bid. And the basic concept has the blessing of people like County Supervisor John Leopold, Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane and Councilmember Ryan Coonerty.

“I’m really happy about it,” Coonerty says. “And I’m really excited about the opportunity for a project that reflects the culture of the community and is owned by our community.”

So if it works, how would it operate?

First, a county starts looking for suppliers that sell energy, and becomes a distributor. Next, staff starts competing with the electric companies to send power down the local lines and pylons—infrastructure already in place and set up by PG&E—and directly to consumers at competitive rates and with a focus on renewable energy.

After the CCA has built up enough capital, county staff can call up companies like Alterra Solar and install solar panels or wind turbines with the new funds. Ultimately, that energy goes right back to the CCA’s customers. 

“It would bring people closer to how their energy is generated and start thinking, ‘How can we make it better?’” says Alterra marketing manager David Stearns.

On paper, the idea of cutting carbon emissions, supporting local jobs and even saving customers money is any politician’s dream come true.

And 90 percent of city residents said they were at least “somewhat likely” to support a CCA according to surveys done by Santa Cruz-based Civinomics. The county hopes to soon start studying whether or not a CCA could work in Santa Cruz and is holding a meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 5.

It’s caught on in other places. Marin County got its CCA running in May 2010, which put it on track to meet its similarly ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions 25 percent by 2016. San Francisco and Sonoma County have both approved plans. Berkeley, Oakland and San Luis Obispo County are looking into them also.

So far, it looks like most of the known hurdles are related to start-up costs. Virginia Johnson, former Ecology Action CEO, will be leading fundraising efforts for the feasibility study.

There would also be costs for planning and legal fees. But it should help, says Councilmember Coonerty, that county staff can follow the lead of Marin. “It helps that they’ve worked out the legal and scoping processes,” Coonerty says, “so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Johnson, who will speak at Wednesday’s presentation along with Levine and others, is only thinking about phase one.

“I’m keeping my eye on the first stage we have to do, which is the feasibility study,” she says. “We have to focus on that and can’t make any assumptions.”

A presentation on Community Choice Aggregation to the Commission on the Environment is Wednesday, Dec. 5, at 5pm at the County Governmental Building, 701 Ocean St.,5th floor.