County supervisors this week are considering leaving Orange County’s new green power agency, citing concerns about pricing and transparency.
It’s the most recent challenge facing the Orange County Power Authority just months before it automatically takes over electricity service for thousands of households across the county.
OC’s top elected leaders plan to vote Tuesday on withdrawing the county government from the Power Authority altogether.
And their chairman says he thinks it will be approved.
“I suspect it will pass,” said Doug Chaffee, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, when contacted by a Voice of OC reporter Friday.
The county joined the Power Authority last November on a razor-thin margin of 3-to-2, with Chaffee casting a deciding vote at the time in favor.
But he now supports a last-minute public proposal by his colleague, county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, to withdraw.
On Wednesday evening, Bartlett sent a memo with Chaffee’s support adding an item to this week’s public agenda seeking to withdraw the county from the Power Authority.
The proposal doesn’t say why she’s suggesting the move, and Bartlett didn’t return phone messages asking about her reasoning.
In an interview, Chaffee said the agency turned out different from what was promised – going so far as to call it “misleading.”
“One thing that I feel was misleading is, consumers were supposed to be allowed a choice. And the way it’s turned out, they’re automatically put into the program unless they opt out,” Chaffee told Voice of OC.
“That’s not how I understood the choice would work. And then I’ve heard from some that have opted out that it was not easy to do. And that’s not right either,” he added.
Chaffee said another item “misrepresented” was that the Power Authority’s power would not cost more than the equivalent green power from Southern California Edison.
“It turns out that green power is more expensive,” he said.
“You’re put in it unless you opted out. If it were cheaper that’s one thing, but it’s not.”
Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, who is on the Power Authority’s board and was one of its early proponents, disputed Chaffee’s characterizations and said the county is free to leave.
“The county can take whatever decision they want. At this point I’m not interested in working with folks that want an easy way out. And I see a lot of our leaders – whether they’re some of our activists, or whether they’re elected officials, they’re looking for an easy way out,” Khan said in an interview with Voice of OC.
Don Wagner, the county supervisor who serves on the Power Authority board who also voted to join up, called the withdrawal proposal “disappointing.”
“It’s disappointing because it seems, if nothing else, premature because the board voted a few meetings ago to do an ‘audit,’ which has not yet been done. The county and our residents are not at any risk that requires such immediate action,” Wagner said in a text message to Voice of OC.
Power Authority CEO Brian Probolsky and the rest of the agency’s board didn’t return phone messages or said they were unavailable for comment.
Wagner said the county could face financial penalties for withdrawing from the power agency, which has been pre-purchasing power on behalf of its member agencies.
“I’m hearing about financial penalties as well and still trying to run down the potential county exposure, if any, to a sudden pull out like this. This doesn’t make any sense to me at this time,” Wagner wrote.
But Chaffee says the county was promised something very different when it joined.
“What was represented when I voted for [joining the Power Authority] was that we had no financial liability, that only the City of Irvine, [which] started the program,” would have liability, he said.
“If that turns out to be the case [that the county has financial penalties], then I consider that to be another misrepresentation.”
Khan also said that while there wasn’t any financial obligation to join the agency, there is an obligation if the agency has already purchased energy on their behalf.
“If we’ve decided to opt out and we’ve already purchased the energy, yes there is a penalty,” Khan said. “I think the county needs to think this through…it would be a disappointment for people to not be able to take advantage of what the OCPA is going to be able to become.”
Supervisor Katrina Foley, who did not support joining the Power Authority, told Voice of OC she has deep concerns about the agency but leans towards trying to fix them rather than withdraw.
“We did receive a memo, which informs us that if we pull out of the power authority at this time, we will suffer a lot of fines and penalties,” Foley said.
“So I think we have to be very careful about our actions as it relates to the Power Authority, and my preference is that we fix the problems with the Power Authority rather than [withdrawing],” she told Voice of OC in an interview. “That’s where I lean.”
“My top concern is about the management of it, and making sure that the ratepayers have a reduction in their rates for cleaner energy options,” she added.
The county was the most recent authority to join the agency, and was set to start receiving power from them in 2023.
If supervisors move forward with withdrawing, the county could be the first member to officially vote on pulling out of the agency since Lake Forest left in 2021. But they aren’t the first ones to raise concerns with how the agency is being run.
Both the cities of Huntington Beach and Buena Park recently passed votes of no confidence in Probolsky’s work as CEO, and Power Authority board members have tried to discuss firing him multiple times.
Right now, the agency is waiting on the results of an independent investigation into a whistleblower complaint filed by Probolsky, in which he alleged multiple current and former board members were engaged in double dealing and corruption to replace him.
A grand jury report investigating the agency was also critical of Probolsky, questioning his expertise to run the agency and highlighting an ongoing lack of transparency.
That turbulence all comes as the agency is preparing to roll out its services to homeowners in October, with multiple board members saying they feel they haven’t done enough to educate the public on what the program will do.
The agency is set to offer residents a chance to buy more renewable energy with the goal of increasing the amount of renewable power on Orange County’s grid, but the renewable energy is set to come at a slightly higher price, with the agency planning on opting all residents into the most expensive, 100% renewable tier.
Residents who don’t want to pay at the top tier can select a lower tier or opt out of the program altogether.
Khan also said the reason cities chose to set the 100% measure as the baseline was because it was what people asked for.
“We had groups of people who came into the Irvine City Council, to Buena Park, to Huntington Beach asking for 100% renewable default,” Khan said. “The goal is to keep them in by educating them with the info they need.”
While those city councils did get requests to set the baseline at 100%, they were also warned by the agency’s staff that if every city didn’t commit to at least a 70% renewable baseline they wouldn’t be able to compete with Edison.
But some question whether the agency has done enough to educate the public on what they’re bringing to the table.
“I spoke with other folks in the industry and other potential cities who want to join and it became clear we have a public perception problem,” Power Authority board member Dan Kalmick – who also is an elected Huntington Beach councilman – said in a May interview.
“Residents and businesses don’t know who we are, and other elected officials aren’t interested in doing business with us.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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