When the Orange County Power Authority launched earlier this year, it wasn’t the best timing.
The war in Ukraine had started just a few months earlier, driving up natural gas prices nationally as a series of volatile market conditions made it difficult for anyone to purchase power, including the fledgling agency committed to bringing more renewable energy to Orange County.
Despite that, there isn’t any evidence the board of directors or staff ever discussed delaying the launch, or altering any of its schedule to respond to the shifting market.
The agency came online shortly after Western Community Energy, a similar program based in Riverside County, declared bankruptcy, citing an over reliance on consultants as one of its problems.
Power authority leaders pushed ahead, describing their dependence on outside consultants as a “risk management strategy,” instead of an issue.
These are just some of the examples laid out in a series of scathing reports over the past year about the county’s green power agency that led county supervisors to withdraw this month, as questions about the agency’s ability to succeed continue growing.
Supervisor Katrina Foley, who was the deciding vote, said she wanted to start looking at joining a different program that would still let unincorporated Orange County receive renewable energy, but that the OC Power Authority was not in the residents’ best interests.
“I was so hoping I wouldn’t have to make this vote,” Foley said. “It boils down to trust and transparency for me, and I don’t trust the information. I don’t think we’ll be able to fix what I think are systematic operational issues.”
Those reports cap off a year of uncertainty at the power authority that saw a failed public rollout advertising campaign, repeated questions surrounding the CEO’s tenure and multiple members saying they’re looking at pulling out as the agency wraps up its second year.
While staff from the power authority have yet to disprove findings in the audits, they claim they’re the target of a “political misinformation campaign,” and that they have no issues with transparency.
Failing Grades on Audits
The power authority has been through three audits from outside agencies this year, and all three gave them a failing grade.
The first audit came from the OC Grand Jury, which published a report titled “Orange County Power Authority: Come Clean,” that questioned the agency’s transparency record and whether or not Probolsky was qualified to lead it.
To read the grand jury report, click here.
Board members disagreed with the report’s findings, claiming the agency was perfectly transparent on the same day they spent $200 million on power contracts with minimal discussion.
The other two audits were commissioned by the county government before they pulled out, and detailed a series of new transparency problems alongside concerns that the agency was failing to properly vet contracts.
Irvine Councilman and former chair of the agency’s board Mike Carroll declined to comment on the report.
Failure to Inform Public During Rollout
While the power authority board held its first meetings in December 2020, the switch was officially flipped in April 2022, sending out power to the cities of Irvine, Fullerton, Huntington Beach and Buena Park for the first time.
But many of the residents getting that power had no idea what was happening, and many opted out of the agency.
According to a report from the county auditor’s office, nearly three times the statewide average of customers have opted out of the OC Power Authority, leaving it with one of the highest opt out rates in the state.
The agency also spent $1.2 million on public relations and advertising contracts in the lead up to the launch in a public awareness campaign some of their own board members have admitted failed to work.
Fullerton City Councilman Fred Jung, who served as vice chair of the agency over the past two years, said the agency had “obviously,” failed to inform the public.
“Where there’s an empty space, somebody fills it, most of the time with information,” Jung said in an interview. “I would expect information to be plentiful and often for the public going forward.”
Controversial CEO Hangs Onto Position
One of the biggest questions over the past year was whether or not the agency’s controversial CEO Brian Probolsky would keep his job, but after months of debate he appears poised to stay in power.
Board members announced plans to discuss firing him in June, at which point he filed a whistleblower complaint alleging board members were trying to get rid of him to enact their own corrupt scheme.
The board put a hold on any potential firing of Probolsky at that point, and brought in an outside auditor to review the complaint.
The auditor completed their investigation into Probolsky’s whistleblower complaint according to Jung, but so far there’s no indication it will be released publicly.
At the board’s Nov. 7 meeting, they decided not to fire Probolsky and instead give him “measurable objectives and directions for the agency,” but the exact directions given to him were never released publicly.
The Year Ahead
While the county is the first public agency to withdraw from the power authority, they may not be the last.
At a meeting on Dec. 20, a newly elected majority on the Huntington Beach City Council voted to begin looking at withdrawing and potentially drop the automatic opt-in rate for customers from the most expensive 100% renewable energy to the basic, dirtier power option.
“It’s been well documented in the press of how much of a dumpster fire the Orange County Power Authority is,” said Councilman Casey McKeon at that meeting, who was also appointed to the agency’s board as Huntington Beach’s representative that same night. “The CEO has zero experience.”
The agency is also set to drop its rates in mid-January, delivering on one of the original promises to undercut Southern California Edison’s basic rates.
The new rates will be almost 1% cheaper than Southern California Edison at the cheapest rate, and almost 4% more expensive than Edison at the most expensive rate according to staff reports from the agency.
While the audits from the county have concluded, state auditors and the city of Irvine are still auditing the power authority.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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