By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday authorized further study of the possible formation of a public power agency.
The board voted unanimously to move ahead with six more months of work focused on what a program would look like, a step that all supervisors said was needed before a final decision is made to become a power supplier to local homes and businesses.
The strongest backing came from Supervisors Shirlee Zane, Valerie Brown and Efren Carrillo. At the end of the hearing, the trio even gave the proposal a name, dubbing it Sonoma Clean Power, the brand originally given by supporters.
“This is incredibly exciting,” Zane said. “We obviously have some work to do. But what this (proposal) does is reflect the values of Sonoma County.”
Supervisors Mike McGuire and David Rabbitt gave their endorsement but offered more pointed comments, requesting a survey to verify that demand exists for a public power bid, and asking for assurances that both customer rates and county costs would be contained.
“Before we move forward on this type of bold investment, we need to be sure that folks in Sonoma County are ready to move with us,” McGuire said.
Among other things, the vote authorized the market survey McGuire requested, an exploration of potential partnerships with other public power agencies, additional outreach to local cities and community groups and further study of the implications for customers and county coffers. County Water Agency officials are set to return to the board in April to report on the work.
The board’s endorsement came before a near-capacity audience, most of whom stood at one point to demonstrate their support of the county getting into the power business. Audience members included at least eight current and former elected officials, candidates for local office, environmental and labor leaders and business and political consultants.
Most speakers touted the reported benefits of a public power agency, including the boost it could give to investments in greener, renewable energy sources, faster greenhouse gas reductions and the possible creation of hundreds of local jobs through the construction and operation of local energy projects.
Andy Simpson, a Rohnert Park energy software professional, called the effort “transformational.”
“The key word is choice,” said Jane Bender, a former Santa Rosa city councilwoman and mayor. “Right now customers have no choice with who supplies their energy. Let’s give to every citizen the opportunity to choose clean energy production.”
Before their vote, supervisors discussed a recently completed county report showing a move into the power business would come with tradeoffs, including a projected higher monthly bill for the average rate payer.
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 higher rates would be more pronounced in the short term before converging and possibly crossing over and becoming cheaper than PG&E’s rates in the long term, the report showed.
The trend was driven by the higher immediate cost of energy from renewable sources, which over the long term could prove more stable than fossil fuel sources, a county consultant said.
Marin County is the only jurisdiction supplying power under the so-called “community choice aggregation,” or CCA, programs that were authorized by a 2002 state law. It lets local governments buy energy on the wholesale market and sell it to residents and businesses. The law allows both cities and individuals to opt out of any public power entity.
Billing, metering and transmission remain with the existing private utility under new public ventures.
In Sonoma County, of the 220,000 customers eligible for participation, an estimated 164,000 might be expected to participate based on a 20 percent opt-out rate, said John Dalessi, the county consultant.
He outlined four scenarios that a county power agency might develop to meet its supply needs. One represented the status quo, similar to the PG&E’s current portfolio. The other three would feature increasingly higher dependence on renewable energy, including geothermal, wind, solar and biomass sources, and would return greater greenhouse gas emission savings.
Brown said if she were vote today, she’d vote for the most aggressive portfolio, which called for 85 percent renewable energy by 2020, more than two and a half times greater than the 33 percent standard required by the state for the same year.
“It doesn’t matter what it costs. It is the long-term greenhouse gas reductions. That is the impetus. That is who we are in Sonoma County,” Brown said.
Zane pledged her full support after throwing a barb at PG&E, which in the past fought CCA programs, spending $46 million on a failed 2010 ballot measure that would have limited them. A PG&E spokeswoman said on Monday that the utility would not stand in the way of any county program.
But Zane didn’t appear to believe it. “The fact that PG&E is out there in the bushes lurking tells us everything. They are threatened by what we are doing here today,” she said to hoots from the audience.
Rabbitt was the most circumspect of the board members. He asked for clearer job creation and greenhouse gas savings projections, and a tighter focus on limiting customer rates. “Some percentage of people are really willing to go deep green no matter the cost, and God bless them,” he said. “What I worry about is that family sitting there at the table scraping to get by. Price does matter. So we need to address that.”
Supporters welcomed the vote but acknowledged that “money issues” — rates, financing, start-up costs, the last of which is pegged at $1.7 million — would all be hurdles to launching any program.
“We think it’s going to come out well, but obviously these are huge challenges,” said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign.