By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A move by Sonoma County government into the role of power supplier to homes and businesses would come with trade-offs, including a higher monthly bill for the average rate payer, according to a report being presented today to the Board of Supervisors.
Over a 20-year period, the typical customer would pay on average $4 to $10 more per month for power provided by the county versus power supplied by PG&E, the report showed.
The difference would be greater in the short term, rising up to $15 more per month in 2017 — the peak year in one county scenario — before dropping to as low as $1 dollar more per month in 2032 under a different scenario.
On the plus side, those higher rates would be supporting the purchase of greener, renewable power, and helping make faster cuts in greenhouse gas emissions than any moves by private utilities, the report showed.
Hundreds of short-term and long-term jobs could also spring from a county move into energy generation. County officials cautioned those estimates were preliminary.
Supervisors are set to discuss the findings today before they vote on whether to continue with further study geared toward the formation of a public power agency.
A majority of the board supports the effort, seeing it as a bold follow-up to previous county energy initiatives, some of them the first of their kind in the country.
So far, only one California county — Marin — is supplying power under a 9-year-old state law that let local governments buy energy on the wholesale market to sell to residents and businesses.
“I think it’s a challenge that this county is up to,” said Supervisor Valerie Brown, who authorized some of the earlier energy initiatives in the last decade.
Chairman Efren Carrillo, seeking perhaps to put the current board’s stamp on the issue, has called the power effort “an imperative” for the county.
“What this report tells me is the program is feasible and that it’s time to take the next step,” he said Monday in an interview.
The report evaluated rate implications for customers under four different scenarios, each with a higher percentage of power in renewables, including wind, solar, geothermal and biomass generation. The two scenarios with the most aggressive renewable push — resulting in more than double the state’s mandated 33 percent standard by 2020 — saw the largest short-term rate hikes with lower comparable rates in future years.
Carrillo and other supporters said cost figures presented in the report were not definitive and would be studied further.
The county’s public power bid enjoys wide backing from environmental groups, public and private sector labor leaders, some former county supervisors, developers and a pair of high-profile Santa Rosa consultants — Herb Williams and Terry Price — who work for the county’s opposing political camps.
But opinion is not unanimous in the community or on the board.
“We need to know the economic impact,” said Lisa Wittke Schaffner, executive director of the Sonoma County Alliance, a coalition of business, agriculture and labor interests.
“We absolutely believe Sonoma County is great about being first on environmental and energy issues,” she said on Monday, before looking at the report. “The bottom line is how this is going to affect taxpayers.”
Risks include a possible hit to county coffers if a program were to fail immediately after start-up and be unable to otherwise repay financing.
The initial estimated outlay of $1.7 million — the only money that would come from the general fund, although it could also come from private loans — has also been eyed as too high.
Sonoma County Water Agency officials, who are overseeing the study work, said a partnership with Marin County’s power program could reduce those start-up costs by up to $1.5 million and annual costs by $2.6 million thereafter.
The Marin Energy Authority, which launched last year, is set to serve up to 130,000 customers and at least 11 of county’s 12 cities by next year. Its $16 million budget supports a staff of six and power purchases of $12.3 million.
Residential rates offered by the program are generally higher than PG&E while commercial rates are lower, said Jamie Tuckey, communications director for the Marin agency.
Billing, metering and transmission remain with the existing private utility under any public power entity. Supervisor David Rabbitt, especially, said he has concerns about the extra costs that would be asked of customers by a public power agency.
Also troubling, Rabbitt said, is the way that so-called “community choice aggregation” programs, or CCAs, allow customers the choice to opt out of any public program, rather than allowing them to opt in.
The process, which requires four separate notices to customers, is standard under the 2002 California law that authorized CCAs.
But Rabbitt said the approach results “in a business model predicated upon a significant amount of people not knowing they’re in the program.
“From a government standpoint, that’s not a good place to be,” he said.
Supervisor Mike McGuire said he was interested in a program with an efficient, low-risk governing structure, reduced start-up costs and lower customer rates.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the higher power rates would eventually be outweighed by long-term energy supplies from renewable sources less vulnerable to the political forces that affect fossil fuel prices.
Both supervisors said low-income county customers would qualify for a government program that helps cover power bills.
PG&E says it will not stand in the way of a county power effort. The utility lashed out at CCA programs in the past, pouring $46 million last year into an unsuccessful ballot measure that would have limited such efforts, requiring their approval by two-thirds of voters.
A new state law requires utilities to cooperate with public power efforts.
“We respect the energy choices that are available to our customers and will continue to cooperate with local governments as they consider pursuing or developing a CCA program,” said Brandi Ehlers, a PG&E spokeswoman.
The same state law expanded the list of government entities that can run CCA efforts, calling out by name the county Water Agency. If its work is endorsed today, the agency would study the effort further and come back to the board in six months.
Supporters said they were encouraged that an effort long in the making appeared finally to be falling into place.
“We believe it will pay off,” said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Climate Protection Campaign, a Santa Rosa-based group that has pushed for the power program. “This is a worthy pursuit.”