By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The concept has drawn strong support from environmental groups, organized labor and most local elected leaders, who see it as a key way to boost investment in clean renewable energy sources, create jobs and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
But the cost to ratepayers has remained a central issue in the debate on whether to move forward.
Supporters say the county can deliver stable, comparable rates to those provided largely by PG&E. But a county study last year found the typical customer could pay on average $4 to $10 more per month over 20-year period for county-supplied power.
Opponents, including some business interests and taxpayer advocates, have hit on those higher cost projections and other worries.
Tuesday’s decision, set for a 10 a.m. hearing at the Board of Supervisors, is the most significant one to date for the county proposal and could set in motion future votes by the county board and local city councils that would go toward formal approval of the effort, spearheaded by the county Water Agency.
Supervisors are being asked to authorize six months more of work on an implementation plan, including study of start-up costs estimated at $2 million to $6 million — money likely to come from bond financing — and formation of a joint-powers agency made up of the county and up to eight local cities.
That joint agency would be responsible for formal approval of any final program, a step that could come in 2013 or 2014.
Healdsburg is not expected to participate because it has its own municipal utility district. Billing, metering and transmission would remain with PG&E under any new public venture, and individual customers would be allowed several chances to opt out.
The vote follows more than a year of study, including last year’s evaluation of potential ratepayer costs. It showed the difference between county and private utility rates could be greater in the short term, rising to $15 more per month in 2017 for county-supplied power in one scenario before dropping to as low as $1 more per month in 2032 under a different scenario. Actual rates would subject to power contracts, a step that could be more than a year and a half away.
Those higher rates could support the purchase of greener, renewable power, help build and operate local energy projects — a potential source of hundreds of jobs — and help make faster cuts in greenhouse gas emissions than any moves by private utilities, the report showed.
Two county-sponsored surveys showed 79 percent of 4,344 residents surveyed — and about two-thirds of 990 businesses polled — support a locally controlled electricity provider.
Nearly 60 percent of residents and two-thirds of businesses, however, also said they were either unwilling to pay much more, or anything extra, for renewable power supplied by a local provider — a message county officials say they heard.
Supervisor Efren Carrillo, a key backer of the proposal, said the study work — accounting for about $120,000 in county Water Agency funds, plus staff time — represented a careful approach to a bold public initiative.
So far, Marin is the only California county supplying power under the 2002 state law that lets local governments buy energy on the wholesale market.
“Our research indicates we have something good here,” Carrillo said.
But some critics who fought Marin’s program have taken aim at Sonoma County’s proposal. They have voiced concern with ratepayer costs, preference for an opt-in choice for customers — rather than the state-mandated opt-out — and fear of a new government bureaucracy.
The joint-powers agency would be subject to state oversight, but unlike privately owned public utilities, its rates would not be subject to approval by the state Public Utilities Commission. “This is just not, we think, the way to go,” said Cynthia Murray, president of the North Bay Leadership Council, a business group.
The board vote today would authorize about $65,000 in additional spending by the county Water Agency on planning and outreach to cities and commercial customers. If advanced, the program could come back to the board before the end of the year.