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GUEST OPINION: The best response to defeat of Prop. 16

Dick Dowd

Dick Dowd is vice president of Pinnacle Homes, a local builder specializing in making existing residences more energy efficient through retrofitting. Ann Hancock directs the Climate Protection Campaign based in Sonoma County.

David beat Goliath in the Proposition 16 battle just waged at the ballot, despite being outspent 500 to 1.

Sonoma County voters rejected PG&E’s initiative by 66 percent, signaling this community’s readiness for bolder steps toward energy independence. Leading up to the vote, the county and all Sonoma cities except Windsor passed resolutions opposing Proposition 16.

But it’s not enough to be against something. The need for local action intensifies with each national and state setback. The gulf oil spill, stalled federal climate legislation, PG&E’s failure to meet the state-mandated renewable target and increasing attacks on California’s climate protection laws underscore this point.

Additionally, PG&E seeks authorization to raise rates by $4.6 billion over the next three years. Its centralized, mega-project model relies on exorbitant transmission costs and a bureaucratic maze of permitting requirements. Ratepayers bear the cost for PG&E’s financial exploits — its CEO’s $10.6 million annual salary, shareholder demands, old and projected debts, boondoggles such as the $46 million spent on Proposition 16 and the troubled rollout of SmartMeters.

Ann Hancock

Because Proposition 16 failed, California communities retain a viable alternative to corporate energy utilities like PG&E. State law gives local government the right to pool community purchasing power, decide how much green energy to buy and what rates to charge. This alternative structure, called Community choice aggregation, empowers communities to incentivize property owners to produce solar power to feed into the grid.

Most important, local governments can issue low-interest revenue bonds to build energy facilities that generate green jobs and green power. Bond repayment occurs through our energy bills, similar to the way we repay the debt PG&E incurred to build facilities such as the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, so government general funds are untouched.

Community choice aggregation does not create giant government bureaucracies. People of Sonoma County will spend the same utility dollars or quite possibly less through this new structure that aligns with our values, not PG&E shareholders’. More dollars will stay in Sonoma County.

Tapping Sonoma County’s rich renewable energy, such as geothermal and solar, will yield enormous benefits. We will generate local jobs during the construction phase and for ongoing operations and maintenance, spurring the economic recovery we want and need. We can enable the switch to electric vehicles by financing batteries charged with locally generated renewable electricity, making them dramatically more affordable. Plus, we can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Community choice aggregation is the most powerful tool under local control for doing so.

Tough economic times can make us afraid of bold initiatives. Many individuals, business owners and government folk, hurting from the economic downturn, worry about the future. But the Golden Gate Bridge was built during the Great Depression, proving that even during tough times we can rise above our fears and circumstances.

In fact, community power promises to be one of the remedies for our economic woes.

Let’s get going on a rigorous assessment of community power for Sonoma County. We can learn from other states where this model has been proven and from Marin County and other California communities that are blazing the way. We can also learn from Healdsburg and other municipal utilities that provide electricity to 25 percent of Californians with lower rates and greener energy.

Our dependence and reliance on the PG&Es and BPs of the world must end. Sonoma County’s greenhouse gas emissions decreased very little in 2009, despite noble efforts, new programs and policies. Let’s harness the entrepreneurial spirit that birthed Sonoma County’s Energy Independence Program in 2008, now a national model.

The newly formed Friends of Sonoma Clean Power along with a dozen business, government and nonprofit leaders, call for assessing and, if favorable, implementing Community Power for Sonoma County. Let’s realize the potential for generating green jobs and green energy, reducing emissions and maintaining competitive utility rates. We cannot afford to ignore this powerful option any longer. Now is the time to act.

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