Is it time to look elsewhere for green power brokers?

Fresh off of pulling the plug on using a controversial local green power agency, Orange County leaders are now studying options in other counties to buy renewable power for residents and businesses.

Among the agencies being looked at is San Diego Community Power, one of the 25 green power agencies across the state that can buy power for residents and businesses.

Following their vote last month to pull out of the scandal-plagued Orange County Power Authority, county supervisors voted this week to have county CEO Frank Kim gather the information they’d need to consider joining another agency.

Several OC cities have expressed interest in joining a green power agency based outside the county, according to a memo from Supervisor Katrina Foley requesting the study.

“[I] really do support us trying to find some opportunity to support community choice aggregation programs,” Foley said at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting before the vote.

“What this item is, is to actually do research…to find out what are some options that we might have. Is there an option to pursue some cities and the county joining a different [green power agency?]”

No other county supervisors spoke on the issue, aside from Chaffee thanking Foley for the item and emphasizing that it “does not commit us to anything,” just a study.

The vetting this time around stands in contrast to the way supervisors Andrew Do, Don Wagner and Chaffee originally got the county into the Orange County Power Authority (OCPA), before later deciding to pull out after a series of scathing audits and grand jury probe into the agency.

That November 2021 decision to join OCPA was done without having county staff vet the idea, but rather through a proposal by supervisors Do and Chaffee.

The Power Authority is run by Do’s former chief of staff, Brian Probolsky, who has been at the center of criticism of the power agency’s transparency and operations.

Now, there’s a potential legal battle looming as the power authority says it will cost the county up to $65 million to pull out – while county officials say the authority is legally obligated to reduce that cost by selling the power it had pre-purchased on the county’s behalf.

On Dec. 20, county supervisors pulled out of Orange County’s first green power agency after years of transparency concerns and a series of scathing audits.

The audits found staff approved contracts without proper bids, failed to inform the public their electricity bills were increasing and had their board approve multi-million dollar purchases without reviewing the contracts.

Most supervisors expressed concerns of whether or not the OC Power Authority will improve their transparency going forward and address lingering questions after the audits. 

It all led to one of the longest public discussions of the Power Authority’s operations in its two-year history, as county supervisors questioned CEO Brian Probolsky and other agency staff about the agency’s failures.

While the Authority began providing power to the cities of Fullerton, Buena Park, Irvine and Huntington Beach earlier this year, the county wasn’t set to begin receiving power until the end of 2023. 

The county’s withdrawal came after the release of two critical audits of the OC Power Authority saying staff approved contracts without proper bids, failed to inform the public their electricity bills were increasing and had their board approve multi-million dollar purchases without reviewing the contracts. 

Those audits were started after news reports and a grand jury investigation pointed out how the agency lacked transparency and failed to hire staff with experience working in the electrical industry. 

[Read: Cloudy Contracts, Audits and Lost County Support: A Rough Year For OC’s Green Power Agency]

Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who lives in the city of Fullerton, said his biggest reason to get the county out was over how badly handled the public rollout was. 

“When I opted out, I found it a very difficult process,” Chaffee said at the Dec. 20 meeting.

“My own experience tells me we need to get out.” 

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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