SAN FRANCISCO — Officials in Marin County, Calif., have reportedly approved an electricity purchase agreement that marks a major milestone their effort to implement a public power program known as community choice aggregation.

The Marin Energy Authority’s board voted Thursday to approve the master power purchase agreement with Shell Energy North America, according to the Marin Independent Journal.

It’s a key step that prepares the public agency to move toward enrolling electricity customers, according to staff reports prepared for the meeting. Service to the first customers could commence by May, the staff report said.

California lawmakers created the CCA regulatory structure in 2002 as a vehicle to encourage public agencies to investment in power and power generation, without requiring them to go through the process of acquiring privately held electricity assets.

CCA providers are authorized to buy power and build power generation facilities, while delivering electricity to customers through the existing grid of investor-owned utilities, which would be paid for delivery.

The Marin authority has now come closer than any other California community choice effort to actually signing up customers and providing them electricity.

The authority’s officials say the Shell Energy contract will allow it to provide customers with two choices: a “light green” electricity supply, generated with 25 to 50% renewable sources and priced at a discount to the current investor-owned utility supplier, Pacific Gas & Electric; or a “deep green” 100% renewable electric supply at a premium price.

Electricity customers in the authority’s service area, which includes unincorporated county territory and seven incorporated cities and towns, will be automatically signed up with the new authority unless they act to opt out and retain PG&E power.

PG&E has vigorously opposed community choice plans, and has reportedly threatened a lawsuit to block the Marin Energy Authority’s program from taking effect.

The utility is the sole reported financier of the $3.5 million signature gathering campaign that put a ballot measure on California’s statewide June ballot, which if passed will require community choice providers to gain two-thirds approval on a ballot measure in their service area to implement such a program.

By launching its program now, the Marin Energy Authority would not be subject to that requirement should the ballot measure pass, officials said, except to add new jurisdictions to its service area. At least four cities in Marin County have chosen not to participate in the authority.

The authority’s long range implementation plan calls for it to finance its own renewable power projects, likely wind, solar, biomass, or geothermal. That would involve up to $375 million in bond financing that would occur no sooner than late 2012.

The authority has received startup financing for working capital from private individuals who loaned it $750,000, at a maximum 18-month term with a 5.75% interest rate.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors also voted last week to provide a separate loan guarantee to back an additional $950,000 in additional start-up working capital the energy authority needs until it starts collecting revenue from customers.

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