Courtesy Marin Energy Authority for Marin Clean Energy

As of May 15, Charles McGlashan's home is 100-percent powered by renewable energy. He has a "deep green" account with Marin Clean Energy (MCE), Marin County, California's own energy authority launched just this month that McGlashan himself helped to create. MCE is an alternative to the state's major utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, and is responsible for sourcing and purchasing the power while PG&E continues to deliver it. The MCE site boasts that the program "supplies nearly twice the renewable energy content that [Marin residents] currently receive - at the same rates [they] currently pay."

Charles McGlashan is a Supervisor in Marin County and on the Marin Energy Authority's Board of Directors. I saw him speak this week about MCE—he was in town because Boulder is considering implementing a similar model.

Now on a national scale, Marin and Boulder counties are pretty small fish, and so likely to adopt progressive policies like these that people in the rest of the country might not feel it's worthwhile to pay attention.

But large utilities control such a large percentage of the nation's power and maintain so much control that while they can talk about increasing renewable energy and you can buy your wind power credits, if that's an option in your area, it's ultimately up to them to determine just how much they push for renewables, where they are sourced and how.

Read from Marin Clean Energy to learn more about how the program works, and from the Daily Camera about how overcoming the large utilities has proved too great a challenge for other municipalities that have tried.

What's here are some of the highlights from the talk earlier this week.

How Marin Clean Energy works

MCE is based on a model known as Community Choice Aggregation, or CCA. As the name suggests, a CCA gives the community the power to choose where its energy comes from—and that can mean harnessing locally-available (untapped) energy sources. So a community can decide to install solar arrays or wind farms, for example, and feed any extra power back into the grid—rather than waiting for the utility company to do so.

People can afford to install solar panels using the increasingly popular model of renting out roof space to solar panel operators, rather than buying them outright.

Because it's sourced locally, money stays within the county for longer (and has the same effect that any 'buy local' movement has—a revenue stream for the county often ten times greater than results from outsourcing the same service).

The success of the program lies in having energy delivered through small, distributed networks—rather than from a single source or delivery route, which is the model that currently dominates the U.S. power grid and is the reason (because of lacking transmission capacity) that renewable energies haven't penetrated more into that grid.

MCE is projected to be an $85 million business this year, and the way it's constructed, McGlashan explained, the idea is to "pay ourselves for the energy we need." It is a revenue-generating mechanism that will ensure customers do not pay more for renewable energy than fossil fuels.

In fact, MCE plans to drive prices down. Because it acts through the market, it can set its own rates and if they set it just one or a few cents lower than PG&E, the idea is that PG&E would follow. And the competition would go on...

Anyone constructing renewable energy technologies is encouraged to build bigger than what they need, so that they produce extra power and can feed it to the grid.

(It's also more satisfying to be a customer of a local company—when was the last time you felt satisfied with a call to your power company? Most company representatives aren't equipped with the authority to act for your benefit, even if they wanted to. The local model that MCE is founded on is the antidote to just that.)

The advantages

McGlashan outlined the advantages of community choice aggregation, the primary one being that there is no obligation to shareholders—so all revenue generated by the county's own energy authority can stay within the county, to maintain or develop more infrastructure, or perhaps more excitingly, to create green jobs. And he's not just talk—MCE has already earmarked $10,000 for skills training programs. Kids from a low-income community in Marin that has had a pretty low graduation rate will be able to enroll and by the time they finish those classes, the need for local, green jobs will be just starting to increase.

Because it's a government agency, there are no taxes to pay and with two and a half employees, it is an inexpensive program to run. The business plan is to grow to 12 employees—not exactly out-of-control spending.

Growing or maintaining MCE does not spend taxpayers' money—the plan simply redirects revenue to where it needs to go, and the rates have been set so that energy customers do not see a cent different in the price they pay for their energy.

Advice for others

When asked for advice (and this does not include the endless warnings he has about how tough the battle with PG&E became—and still is), McGlashan said the key mistake to avoid is not implementing energy audits and efficiency programs as a first step. Because if you install a big solar array on top of a house with leaky windows, you lose a lot of the energy—and the whole reason for installing it at all.

Advising people in Boulder, McGlashan said, you can negotiate with the utility companies, but "at the end of the day, we were better off going straight to the market." Which is perhaps where the greatest surprise came: Marin had put out a request to energy companies for proposals to fulfill the contract, and after receiving bids from the largest energy giants to the small, independent players, the best proposal with the best brokerage capability came from Shell Energy North America. McGlashan commented that to his surprise, the company is focused more on renewables and moving away from oil than he ever expected.

He proved that point by telling of his December visit to Texas to meet with Shell about the contract. He told the CEO that Shell needed to do better than the 25 percent-minumum for renewables that the company had said it was ready to meet—it needed to get to 53 percent non-carbon power, they couldn't use nuclear, and it had to be delivered so that Marin wouldn't charge its customers a cent more per kilowatt hour. They said no problem—and then delivered 78 percent.

So on May 7, Marin flipped the switch on its renewables-powered grid, which in the next year alone will be worth a 175,000-ton reduction in greenhouse gases.