RICHMOND -- Representatives from Marin Energy Authority told the City Council this week they plan to ramp up efforts this year to educate the public about plans to automatically switch residents and businesses to the renewable energy provider.

"The community outreach is critical," said Alex DiGiorgio, MEA community outreach representative. "The purpose is to empower people with a choice they didn't have before."

Per state law, residents and businesses must opt out of the Marin Clean Energy program's electricity by mail, email or phone, or will be enrolled in the new program in July.

The council voted in June to join a consortium of cities switching residential and commercial electric service from Pacific Gas & Electric to MCE, which derives 50 percent of its energy from wind and solar sources.

The goal of the community outreach plan is to inform customers of their choice to purchase electric energy from MCE or continue with PG&E. Customers would continue to receive their gas service from PG&E, and their MCE charge would be included in their PG&E bill.

A total of five opt-out notices will be mailed to each customer this year, with the first coming in April, according to a city staff report.

DiGiorgio said MCE electricity is slightly cheaper, with the average resident paying $81.30 per month, down from $82.90 for PG&E.

Councilman Corky Boozé noted that MCE could not guarantee that in the future its rates will not exceed those of PG&E.

"When you want to raise your rates, you can do it," Boozé said.

But DiGiorgio said PG&E also can raise rates, and that Richmond will be guaranteed a member on the MEA board to provide input on rates. Residents can also switch back to PG&E.

DiGiorgio said that after a scheduled rate hike in April, MCE could cost the average household a few cents more than PG&E. MCE adjusts rates once a year, while PG&E adjusts rates at least three times a year, DiGiorgio said.

"Competition can restrain prices," DiGiorgio said.

DiGiorgio said that in addition to mailers, MCE will host two town-hall meetings to spread the news to the public between now and April, along with numerous presentations to neighborhood councils, community groups, business organizations and churches.

Customers who do not opt out of the new plan will be automatically enrolled in MCE's "Light Green" 50 percent renewable energy program, with the other 50 percent coming from existing electricity on the energy grid. For an average of less than $5 more per month, customers may also choose to enroll in MCE's "Deep Green" program, which provides energy from 100 percent renewable sources, he said.

A PG&E spokeswoman on Wednesday said the energy provider would not stand in the way of the transition to MCE.

"We respect the energy choices that are available and will continue to cooperate with local governments" that opt to go with MCE, said Nicole Liebelt. "We also have dedicated customer service representatives who can answer any questions."

Liebelt also confirmed that PG&E will continue to provide energy maintenance services to all local customers.

"We maintain transmission and distribution systems," Liebelt said. "MCE would only be responsible for the generation of (the electricity), but PG&E will continue to deliver the energy through our system."

MEA is a nonprofit public agency that provides energy to 13 cities and counties: San Rafael, Novato, Sausalito, Larkspur, Corte Madera, Belvedere, Fairfax, Mill Valley, Ross, Tiburon, San Anselmo and Marin County. Richmond is the largest member and only one in the East Bay.

Although there was vociferous community concern before the council vote to join MEA last year, there was little Tuesday.

"I welcome this organization because they challenge the status quo," said Dameion King, a local business owner. "We are embracing innovation."

For questions about the program, residents can contact MEA officials at info@mcecleanenergy.com.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow Twitter.com/roberthrogers.