USC Price School of Public Policy

Social Impact:

USC Price students envision greener energy for Torrance

May 28, 2015

By Cristy Lytal

The City of Torrance has taken the first step toward securing a greener, more cost-effective electricity supply, with the help of a team of Master of Public Administration students from the USC Price School of Public Policy.

The students undertook the project as part of the MPA capstone course, which provides them the opportunity to engage in field work for public agencies and nonprofits.

In their report, students Nicholas Armour, David Kong, Adam Montgomery and Qian Yang explored the feasibility of Torrance either joining or starting a “Community Choice Aggregation.” These CCAs enable cities, counties or regions to purchase or produce their own renewable energy, which is then delivered by a traditional utility company that maintains the power grid and bills the customers. Their report won the Haynes Award for outstanding capstone project in May.

Capstone catalyst

The catalyst for the CCA capstone project was Torrance City Councilman Tim Goodrich, an Air Force veteran who graduated from USC Price in 2011 with his MPA and certificate in political management.

“One of the things I work on a lot on the council is environmental issues,” he said. “I learned about CCAs, and knowing that no one had done it in Southern California, I wanted to take a pragmatic approach and have it studied and do the due diligence.”

Currently, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Rhode Island have passed CCA legislation. The students did in-depth case studies of the California CCAs, including the implemented ones in Marin and Sonoma counties, the soon-to-launch ones in Lancaster and Monterey Bay, and the suspended ones in San Francisco and the San Joaquin Valley.

The students identified several benefits to implementing a Torrance CCA. First, the it would allow the city to meet and exceed the California state requirement that all electricity retailers serve 33 percent renewable energy by 2020. The CCA would also give Torrance more control and choice over their electricity supply, create clean energy jobs, reduce greenhouse gasses, provide financial benefits to the city, stabilize rates and lower prices.

As Goodrich explained, “When does it happen that you can have the prospect of reducing electric rates, helping your residents, helping your commercial businesses in the city, even helping your government who happens to have a huge electric bill? And, at the same time, you’re helping the environment and stimulating the economy, because a bunch of jobs are going to need to be created to fulfill the demand that takes place when you implement this program? It’s a win-win-win.”

Risk and reward

However, the students also pointed out the risks involved in forming a CCA — which include carrying initial start-up costs, competing with the rates of the incumbent utility, procuring the correct amount of energy, coping with customers’ unpaid bills and dealing with a wide range of unforeseen circumstances.

In light of both the risks and benefits, the report recommended that Torrance move forward with conducting a feasibility study for a CCA. Given that nearby cities such as Carson, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Santa Monica have passed resolutions to participate in a CCA feasibility study, there may even be an opportunity for Torrance to spearhead or join a regional effort.

The report also recommended that Torrance work with the Local Energy Aggregation Network (LEAN), a nonprofit membership organization that supports communities considering or launching CCAs.

The students presented these findings to the Torrance Mayor and City Council, and delivered a 56-page written report, which is posted on the Torrance website.

“The Councilmembers were impressed by the report,” said Goodrich. “We are proceeding with the recommendations in terms of moving forward and continuing with what we need to go through. Our next step is a big symposium that we’re having in downtown LA, where many city staff and politicians can come and learn more about CCAs and see where we are in the process.”

Real-world impact

Adjunct Associate Professor Donald Morgan, who teaches the course, said that many capstone projects achieve this level of real-world impact. Other recent clients include the Clinton Foundation, the Downtown Women’s Center, the Riverside Art Museum, the Port of Los Angeles, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of International and Philanthropic Innovation, and the cities of Burbank, Dana Point, Gardena, Pasadena and Santa Clarita.

“Our projects are meant to be more than a book report, so we work really hard to ensure that they are projects that will hopefully be implemented by the clients,” Morgan said. “More often than not we’ll hear from clients that they actually did and are using the content that the teams presented to them.”

At the same time, the students also benefit from the chance to lend their skills to local communities and put theory into practice.

“The capstone project provided me with an opportunity to see how a study can propel an idea into action,” Montgomery said. “It was valuable to see how our study helped an innovative idea gain momentum and motivate the City of Torrance to further pursue the idea. At the same time, I was able to see throughout the project that our work was just a small piece in the overall process to bring about change in a community.”