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Buena Park becomes first city in O.C. to choose 100% renewable energy

A large crowd gathered in Orange County to call for political action to counteract climate change in September 2019.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Buena Park is now the first city in Orange County to choose to receive its energy from 100% renewable sources.

The Buena Park City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday night in favor of the resolution, becoming the first member of the Orange County Power Authority to decide its renewable energy rates. Irvine, Huntington Beach and Fullerton will be deciding how much of their energy they want to receive from renewable energy sources early next month. They can choose either 100%, 70% or 38% renewable energy.

The Orange County Power Authority is the county’s first iteration of community choice energy, or CCE, which is at the forefront of a California energy revolution. CCE programs provide cities with an alternative to major energy providers like Southern California Edison, the energy titan serving most of Orange County and the region.

Through a CCE, local governments can retain control of purchasing power, setting rates and collecting revenue, though the local utility still maintains the electrical grid. A CCE can choose to purchase more renewable energy sources.

As California begins exploring ways to become carbon neutral by 2035, cities are faced with quickly finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The issue has become all the more crucial following a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which called climate change a “code red for humanity” that is already being felt across the world and will only continue to accelerate.

Orange County cities have for the last year been considering CCE programs as climate change has become a more important issue for residents. A Chapman University survey found this year that 79% of respondents consider the threat of climate change to be a serious problem.

The authority will begin providing commercial service to the four member cities in April and will launch residential service in October. Last month, the county of Orange also became a member of the authority. The unincorporated areas of the county are slated to receive service in 2023.

“This will make Buena Park a leader in Orange County for environmental issues,” said Councilwoman Susan Sonne. “It makes me very proud to know that we have that kind of championship of stewarding a place that our children and our grandchildren can grow up with clean air.”

Councilman Connor Traut called the council’s vote a “monumental decision” that makes Buena Park “the greenest city in Orange County.”

Climate change is causing plant die-offs in Southern California, - Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center.
Climate change is causing plant die-offs in Southern California.
(Sicco Rood)

At its last meeting in early January, the council initially selected 70% renewable energy and directed staff to draft a resolution for the next meeting. Before council members spoke on Tuesday night, a few environmental advocates spoke in favor of 100% renewable energy and the council received 38 emailed comments in favor of that energy rate.

Many of those emails were sent by community groups, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County.

“As you revisit your earlier decision on this item on Jan. 25 and in light of the unimaginable human suffering that the climate crisis will bring, we send this letter to request that you consider making 100% renewable energy the default for Buena Park in 2022,” wrote Greg Walgenbach, director of the Office of Life, Justice, and Peace at the diocese. “Climate change will amplify hunger and poverty, and increase risks of resource scarcity that can exacerbate political instability, and even create or worsen refugee crises.

“Climate change will also worsen pollution, biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation and species extinction. These facts demand urgent action by everyone, particularly policymakers. By choosing 100% clean electricity, Buena Park would reduce emissions by 196,000 metric tons per year. We are not aware of any other action the city could take to so drastically reduce its carbon footprint.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Swift was not swayed by the comments. The lone dissenter on the vote, Swift contended that the council should choose a 70% rate, and that increasing it to 100% would cause residents to opt out of the program.

Swift questioned whether Buena Park residents sent the emails in favor of total renewable energy.

“I’m guessing the vast majority were not,” she said. “I think we need to hear more from the residents ... You’re going to lose more people if you vote for 100%. More people are going to opt out, including me.”

Firetrucks convoy through thick smoke on the 241 toll road to battle the advancing Silverado Fire fueled by Santa Ana winds
Wildfires are expected to become more common as climate change intensifies.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The renewable energy rates set by each member city are meant as a default option. Residents can still choose their own renewable energy rates or can completely opt out of the program and stay with Southern California Edison.

Sonne pointed out that more than half of the Southern California cities and counties in the Clean Power Alliance have 100% renewable energy rates, and there is very little difference in participation rates between the three renewable energy rate tiers. As of October, the participation rate was around 95% compared to 96% for the other two tiers.

“What we know is that most people do not opt out,” Ayn Craciun, a policy advocate with the local Climate Action Campaign, said over the phone after the meeting. “Most people stay with the default selection that their city makes for them, which is why the default choice is so important.”

Craciun said the council’s decision was “historic,” and that choosing clean electricity is one of the quickest and most effective ways that a city can reduce emissions.

“We think it’s incredibly exciting that Buena Park has made history by voting to slash emissions by becoming the first Orange County city to make 100% clean electricity their default,” Craciun said. “This is exactly the kind of change that we need to meet the climate crisis.

”... We need to slash emissions as soon as possible, and 100% renewable energy through community choice energy is the fastest way to do that. We hope that these other cities will take advantage of the opportunity that’s available to them and choose 100% as soon as possible.”

Craciun also mentioned that the decision will have major impacts for health and environmental justice in the city.

Under the fossil fuel-powered economy, specific communities in Buena Park have been disproportionately affected by pollution, Craciun said. According to Cal Enviro Screen, a tool that identifies the most polluted communities in the state, much of Buena Park is in the 99th percentile of pollution burdens. Craciun also said that asthma and cardiovascular disease are prominent in the city.

“We see this reduction in emissions as a way of putting the health of Buena Park families first and addressing those health disparities, which is tremendously important,” she said.

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