By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County officials are touting survey results released Wednesday that they say show further support for a county bid to form a public power agency.
However, the feedback also showed support for any county move is tied to widespread concern about maintaining stable and comparable electricity rates now provided largely by PG&E.
Leaders acknowledged that finding.
“If we’re not cost competitive we won’t be successful,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire, who has overseen the issue along with Supervisor Efren Carrillo.
The results came from a Feb. 7 telephone survey that gathered input from 4,344 county residents and an online survey involving 990 local businesses.
Among residents polled, 79 percent supported a locally controlled electricity portfolio, with more more than 80 percent supporting greenhouse gas cuts and having a choice in how their electricity is generated.
Among businesses, about two-thirds gave at least moderate support for locally produced power from renewable sources such as solar and wind. About three quarters provided at least moderate support for emissions cuts and having a choice in power source.
Carrillo, who has called the county effort an “imperative,” described the margin of support among both groups as “remarkable.”
“It tells us people do care about investment in renewables, and that they also care about pricing,” he said.
The results come before an April 10 vote by the Board of Supervisors on whether to move ahead with a bid to become a power supplier to homes and businesses.
Cost remains a key concern for customers, the studies showed.
Nearly 60 percent of residents surveyed said they were either uwilling to pay much more, or anything extra, for renewable power supplied by a local provider.
Among business representatives that figure was higher. Two-thirds said they were either unwilling to pay somewhat more or anything extra for renewable power; only a quarter said they would be willing to pay even somewhat more.
Only about half of businesses expressed strong support for a local power provider.
“Its obvious from our survey that we need to work with the business community,” McGuire said, adding that further outreach is being made this month to community groups.
A county-ordered study last year found the typical customer would pay on average $4 to $10 more per month over a 20-year period for power provided by the county versus power supplied by PG&E, the region’s main utility.
The difference could rise up to $15 more per month in 2017 — the peak year under one county scenario — before dropping to as low as $1 more per month in 2032 under a different scenario.
Supporters of the county bid argue that those cost differences could be erased by annual PG&E rate hikes and offset by long-term county power purchases offering stable prices.
Also, a county agency could draw more power from renewable sources, some of which could be built locally, providing a source of jobs, supporters claim.
The effort is backed by nearly all local elected leaders, environmental groups, public and private sector labor groups and some developers.
The survey results provide evidence of wider support among customers, one of those backers said.
“It really confirms what we’ve been sensing all along, that there’s support for this in the community,” said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign.
Some business leaders, government watchdogs and taxpayer advocates remain skeptical, saying they are concerned about the risks for ratepayers and public treasuries.
In California, only Marin County has taken on the role of power supplier, a move authorized under a 2002 state law that lets local governments buy energy on the wholesale market and sell it to residents and businesses.
In Sonoma County’s case, the law gives cities first say on whether they’ll participate and then lets individuals opt out of any public power entity.
Billing, metering and transmission would remain with PG&E under any new public venture.
County officials have estimated start up costs at up to $3 million. A joint-powers agency would oversee the effort, shielding the county and any participating cities from general fund costs.
Of the 220,000 customers eligible for participation in Sonoma County, an estimated 164,000 might be expected to participate, based on a 20 percent opt-out rate, county consultants have said.
Healdsburg has its own municipal utility district. McGuire, a former Healdsburg mayor, said he did not expect the city to participate in any county effort.
The residential survey did not ask specifically about the county’s proposal, dubbed Sonoma Clean Power. Instead, it posed general questions such as “How important is it that your electricity comes from clean sources like solar and wind as opposed to fuels like nuclear and natural gas?” and “How supportive are you of electricity produced locally if you knew the revenues would be invested back in the local economy?”
The survey was conducted by Windsor-based Data Instincts with help from Delphi, the company owned by Santa Rosa political consultant Herb Williams, a supporter of the county’s proposal.
Carrillo and McGuire said they were comfortable with the methodology.
“We did our very best to not try and sway respondents,” Carrillo said.
The commercial survey was conducted by Petaluma-based Creative Systems Research.
The county Water Agency is spearheading the effort and the survey results can be found on its website, www.scwa.ca.gov/cca/.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.