Santa Barbara Clean Energy, a long-held dream of Santa Barbara’s officials, launched Oct. 1 — in the midst of a global pandemic, a drought, shortly after an oil pipeline burst in Arizona and during an infrastructure-rebuilding year for Southern California Edison.
It’s an expensive time for energy. Even so, SBCE said customers’ bills shouldn’t increase more than an average of $5 from Southern California Edison’s costs when auto-enrolled in the 100% green plan. (Per California law, customers are automatically enrolled in community-choice-aggregation services.)
But residents noticed charges larger than anticipated when bills arrived at the beginning of November. Alelia Parenteau, acting sustainability and resilience co-director, said SBCE’s prices were below that of SCE’s. The cost increased because of another line item: SCE’s delivery charge.
SBCE, a community-choice aggregator, procures the energy, but SCE delivers the energy using its existing lines and bills customers.
Oct. 1, SCE increased its delivery rate by two cents per kilowatt hour — over double the premium for 100% green, Ms. Parenteau said in the Nov. 9 City Council meeting. The charge increased for all of SCE’s customers, which encompasses a 50,000 square mile area.
Diane Castro, SCE spokeswoman, told the News-Press the charges fund infrastructure upgrades.
“From upgrading our equipment to investing in advanced technologies, we are taking steps every day to protect the safety of CCA and SCE bundled customers and communities. The rate increase implemented across our service area on Oct. 1 was related to our wildfire risk mitigation programs which includes covered conductor, vegetation management, inspections and maintenance and advanced technology solutions,” she said in a statement.
SBCE and SCE are separate items on the bill now, whereas charges previously were altogether. Customers would not have seen itemized procurement and delivery fees prior to SBCE.
“People are certainly confused,” Ms. Parenteau told the News-Press. “They say my bill has skyrocketed, but when I walk them through the part of the bill that has increased, they realize it is Edison. It shows up as a separate charge, which is confusing because they’re used to seeing one.”
Still just 3.5% of customers have opted out from the program and returned to SCE. An additional .3% have “opted down” to the “Green Start” plan, which powers a residence with at least 50% green energy for a lower cost than the 100% green plan.
Officials initially estimated a much larger portion of customers would opt out of the program.
A letter sent by SCE in late August stirred confusion among residents. Around 9,000 letters were sent titled “Rescheduling of Community Choice Aggregation Service Request.”
Customers called SCE’s call center about this service request that they never made. Some were directed to call Santa Barbara City Hall and opt-out of SBCE.
Two smaller batches of letters were sent out, and SCE representatives told the City it was an automatic letter sent during a glitch in the system.
“SCE remains committed to supporting our customers’ right to purchase power from a community-choice aggregator and working closely with SBCE and other CCAs on customer communications. We regret any unintended confusion caused when an auto-generated letter from SCE was sent in error,” Ms. Castro said. “SCE took immediate steps to correct this issue and will continue to coordinate with SBCE to facilitate a smooth customer transition and continue to meet weekly to coordinate implementation.”
The City of Santa Barbara sent a demand letter to SCE Nov. 10 reviewing the conflict and asking that the company fix issues before phase two. Ms. Parenteau said she hasn’t noticed any changes in SCE’s operations, but the company agreed to stop automatic letters.
Meanwhile, City Hall gets a couple calls each day from customers who do not have SBCE’s correct phone number. Ms. Parenteau says SCE’s call center gives out the City Hall number, which is not correct. She believes some agents aren’t familiar with SBCE, two-three months after the City warned the company about the call center’s shortcomings.
“Ultimately, their misbehavior hasn’t resulted in significant opt-outs because our community has been asking for this program for a significant amount of time,” she said.
The City contacted the Public Utilities Commission, alleging SCE violated the Code of Conduct. The commission wouldn’t rule given the few number of opt-outs.
Ms. Parenteau doesn’t anticipate any legal action.
“This is going to be a long and collaborative partnership, so we’re trying to come to a solution together,” she said.
She welcomes calls if residents have questions. More information, including incentives for customers, is online at sbcleanenergy.com.
SBCE users can fill out a form online and receive a voucher for incentives from local businesses. Bunnin Chevrolet offers participants $1,500 off a Chevy Bolt EV or $1,000 off other electric or hybrid vehicles.
“I wholeheartedly support the program because it gives our residents the opportunity to use the cleanest, most earth-friendly electricity we can purchase on their behalf. I know people are concerned about climate change and reducing their carbon footprint, and I appreciate they are also concerned about their household budgets,” Mayor Cathy Murillo told the News-Press. “Our clean energy program provides options.”
The “Green Start” plan is $0.012 per kilowatt hour less than the 100% green plan and is priced at SCE’s rates.