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Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, second from right, joins a group of about 50 others during a protest in front of the PG&E service center on Webster Street and 19th Street in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, June 19, 2014. Activists are calling on state senators to oppose the AB 2145 bill that would help PG&E and other investor-owned utilities by making it harder for new public power agencies to enroll customers. The state Senate is holding a hearing on the bill Monday. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- As Alameda County charges forward with a plan to form its own public energy agency to buy and sell greener power to residents and compete with PG&E, environmental advocates are fighting to make sure the state doesn't block the way.

About 50 activists rallied Thursday outside a Pacific Gas and Electric customer service center in downtown Oakland to protest a bill that the state Senate will take up Monday.

The Assembly has already passed AB 2145, which proponents say protects customers by giving them the choice to stick with their current utility -- in most Bay Area cities, that's PG&E -- instead of automatically rolling into a new startup utility formed by Alameda County or other public agencies.

Opponents who protested Thursday say that by making every resident "opt in" if they want to be served by a new clean power agency, the bill will effectively derail the state's fledgling "community choice aggregation," or CCA, movement that allows public agencies to choose their own sources of electricity and set their own billing rates.

"Community choice is the single most powerful tool available to local government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Woody Hastings, who helped launch a Sonoma County clean energy agency earlier this year.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to launch a $1.3 million feasibility study that could end with the creation of a local energy authority encompassing all the cities that care to join.


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Several city leaders in Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward are already on board; the city of Alameda already has its own 127-year-old municipal power company.

"The real purpose is, we think climate change is a serious problem," said Hayward Mayor-elect Barbara Halliday, a supporter of the concept.

Of PG&E, she added, "Give them a little competition and give people more of a choice in how they get their energy."

County officials believe a startup agency could help the environment and create more local jobs installing rooftop solar panels and retrofitting homes to make them more energy-efficient. The county agency would also be able to buy its own electricity on the market or from local sources, such as the wind turbines on the Altamont, selling it to customers at competitive rates.

Marin County was the first to launch a CCA authority in 2010 and now boasts a portfolio that is 80 percent renewable energy and bills that are lower than PG&E's for many residents. Richmond joined the Marin agency in 2012, though a survey cited by state lawmakers says 75 percent of Richmond residents don't even know they are part of a CCA because PG&E still distributes the energy and sends the bills. The bill demands more transparency and information from public power agencies.

Sonoma County began the state's second program this spring. Plans have also emerged in San Francisco, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Lancaster and along Monterey Bay, but advocates say all are imperiled by the state legislation.

Even if the bill is passed, Alameda County could create its own power agency, but Hastings said the bigger question is "Would they bother to?"

It would cost too much money for the county to persuade each resident to opt in to the program, he said.

The Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of the "opt in" bill in late May with little public debate. Of the five Assembly members representing parts of Alameda County, three voted in favor of the bill: Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, and Joan Buchanan, D- Alamo. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, voted against it. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, did not vote.

As the state Senate's 11-member energy and utilities committee prepares to vote on the bill Monday afternoon, activists spent Thursday calling each senator from the sidewalk outside the PG&E office. Among the protesters was Corrine Van Hook, of El Sobrante, who painted a "no asthma" logo on her pregnant belly.

The movement to reduce fossil fuel emissions is personal for Van Hook, who says two of her children have asthma.

"If PG&E was moving fast enough, I'd want to work with them, but that's not the case," said another activist, Jay Jones, of People United for a Better Life in Oakland.

About 20 percent of PG&E's portfolio now consists of renewable sources, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. The company is also heading toward the state's 33 percent benchmark by 2020. Adding its nuclear and hydroelectric sources, PG&E describes more than half its portfolio as carbon-free.

Jones believes Alameda County can do better, creating more local jobs in the process.