WatchSonoma Watch

Sonoma County takes another step toward public power agency


The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to push forward toward formation of a countywide public power agency.

The 4-0 vote marked the most significant move yet on the proposal, which has been under review since last year. At least an additional 18 months of work is envisioned before a final decision to launch the effort.

Tuesday’s vote signaled the Board of Supervisors is likely to stand behind the initiative, which supporters tout as both a needed alternative to PG&E, which serves most homes and businesses in the county, and as a key way to boost investment in clean, renewable energy sources, create jobs and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“We still have a lot of homework to do,” Board Chairwoman Shirlee Zane said. “But this is a real opportunity for us. A fantastic opportunity.”

The board authorized preparation of an implementation plan, including a study of start-up costs estimated at $2 million to $6 million — money likely to come from bond financing — and other work geared toward formation of a joint-powers agency between the county and up to eight cities in the county said to be considering participation in the venture.

The two-hour hearing came before a packed audience, most of them supporters of the plan.

The backers included elected leaders of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Windsor as well as environmentalists, developers and energy consultants.

Many cast the issue as boon to economic development and environmental sustainability. PG&E collected more than $220 million from Sonoma County power customers in 2010, money that supporters argue could be going to closer-to-home, greener energy sources that help meet climate protection goals.

“Santa Rosa residents see the benefit to the community and the environment and are willing to invest in the program,” Santa Rosa Mayor Ernesto Olivares told the supervisors.

Electrical contractors also pledged their support, seeing the venture as a potential source of jobs. While most of the power supply initially would be provided through wholesale contracts with outside suppliers, supervisors endorsed goals that by 2030 would meet about a third of current countywide power demands through local energy projects, including geothermal, solar and biomass.

“We support this program wholeheartedly,” said John Lloyd, owner of a local lighting business. “We want you to move forward with this.”

Several speakers urged the supervisors to shelve the effort, saying the power supply business was better off left to private utilities. Others urged caution, arguing county studies underplayed risks to taxpayers.

So far, Marin is the only California county supplying power under a 2002 state law that lets local governments buy energy on the wholesale market. Under those Community Choice Aggregation programs, billing, metering and transmission remains with the existing utility — in the county’s case with PG&E — and individual customers are allowed several chances to opt out.

Still, public investments in a volatile energy market could hurt taxpayers, critics say.

“My interest usually gets piqued when I see governments getting into a private enterprise-arena,” said Bob Williamson, a Mark West-area resident active on government fiscal issues and one of several speakers who urged supervisors to take another look at risks.

The envisioned joint-powers agency would shield the county and participating cities from any general fund impacts, county staff noted.

Still, several board members said they shared critics’ concerns. Foremost on that list are worries about costs for ratepayers.

A county study last year found the typical customer could pay $4 to $10 more a month over 20-year period for county-supplied power. After 20 years, the rates are projected to be nearly equal, with PG&E rates exceeding those for public power thereafter.

Zane called the extended wait time “a really hard sell after three years of economic recession,” adding “we need to get (rates) lower sooner than that.”

Supervisor Mike McGuire echoed his past comments, linking the project’s success to achieving comparable rates to PG&E.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo urged the board to stick to a project goal of providing at least 50 percent renewable power at the outset, more than double the share PG&E now provides. The benchmark is 17 percent higher than a 2020 state mandate for private utilities. County studies suggest it could drive short-term rates up, but Carrillo called the goal a “bold vision.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt voiced the most skepticism, posing questions about county-sponsored polls showing public support for the effort and poking at the estimates on job creation and the ability of the county to pursue energy projects given the lengthy fights often encountered in land use issues.

Rabbitt also urged county staff and consultants to be more upfront with rate estimates and risk assessments in outreach to businesses and cities — moves approved Tuesday as part of an additional $65,000 in county Water Agency work on the effort. To date, not including staff time, about $120,000 in Water Agency funds have been spent on studies and surveys.

“I’m fine with proceeding,” Rabbitt said. “I’m not saying we haven’t been already, but through this whole process we really need to be open, honest and transparent and ask ourselves the tough questions and not get carried away because we’re doing this great, innovative green thing … Remaining slightly skeptical in that path is going to be healthy. We need to make sure that everything is realistic.”

The issue could come back to board in four months, when the start-up plan is set to be complete. Workshops with city councils could take six months and formation of a joint-powers agency about a year, with purchase of power contracts possible in late 2013 or early 2014. Votes at any of those stages could slow, postpone or shelve the project.

Supervisor Valerie Brown was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.


16 Responses to “Sonoma County takes another step toward public power agency”

  1. Jason Valez says:

    This is all Agenda 21 you know. Changing from private to public expands government control. Do we trust a larger, more powerful government to do the right thing? What have they done lately that’s helped anyone but cronies and special interests. Any expansion of government is suspect right now, whether you call it Agenda 21 Sustainable Development or not.

    Have you seen all the resolutions condemning Agenda 21 lately? The cat is truly out of the bag now. You are safe to remove your tin-foil hats now.

    The most important fact about public power is that they don’t need the CPUC to approve what they charge us. That’s scary, I say no way.

  2. Steveguy says:

    @ Joyce–

    I also know better ‘stewards of the land’ than any government can do.

    The powers that be seem to think the rural folks are country bumpkins ruining the land, when they are the ones that love to owls and fox families. They also take care of their creeks, for the most part.

    Is this an Agenda ? Sure seems that the Cities and Counties want to charge you for everything, a lot. The more hundreds a month that they can extract, the better– witness water and sewer rates.

  3. Big Jim says:

    Will pwer supply become the new roads infrastructure – people in outlying areas to drive on gravel and maybe now loose power also? If the county can’t manage to maintain roads, why would we give them control over our power supply also?
    This is just another opportunity for the BOS to create a high paid beauracracy that they can retire into and get a 2nd pension from, ala SMART. Thats the real “jobs” this is about.

  4. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @RC – “Why would Calpine sell thermal power from the geysers to a Sonoma County power district rather than PG&E? Why wouldn’t Sonoma County have to develop their own green power sources?”
    From the article:
    “While most of the power supply initially would be provided through wholesale contracts with outside suppliers, supervisors endorsed goals that by 2030 would meet about a third of current countywide power demands through local energy projects, including geothermal, solar and biomass.”
    And: “…2002 state law that lets local governments buy energy on the wholesale market.”
    I assume Calpine will sell to whoever gives them the best price. It sounds like the state law allows for either buying wholesale, or for creating our own.

  5. Joyce Garcia says:

    @ Hunter, “While it certainly seems like a laudable goal to provide greener and more local energy to the county,”

    While the idea of living responsibly and acting as stewards of this land we depend on for survival is ultimately the goal that we can all agree on, but it continues to baffle me when I hear individuals express their dependence on Government…and reading your comments praising the Government as a goal to “provide” greener and more local energy, is worrisome. Why would people place their trust in Government rather than the people who share the same basic life concerns as you?
    It is not the job of the Government to pick and choose at will, their agenda of the decade. Promoting “green” business (hoping they will be successful)and regulating already successful business causing them to possibly fail does not work and causes the taxpayers to suffer the consequences brought on by the poor judgment of the Government.
    It’s interesting to me that you are aware of Government incompetence, “I have to wonder whether it’s the best idea to let the same folks who can’t afford the pensions they’ve promised and who can’t pave the roads get control of our power grid.”, yet you embrace the intrusive provisions they deem suitable for you to live by.
    We all need learn from our own mistakes and instill in our family the values that were passed down to us. I was taught to conserve energy by my family; I taught my children and forming habits within my grandchildren. We are allowing the next generations to pay for the failed policies and decisions made by Government officials and by embracing the notion that Government’s role is to provide for us, in essence takes away the power from the individual, from the family and from the community. It is not the Government’s roll to provide, teach or control. Leave that to the family…to the individual.

  6. Missy says:

    As I posted before

    SMUD – Sacramento Utilities already do this.

    Their highest tier? .24/kwh

    PGE – Highest 3 top tiers in order – .30, .34, .34 / kwh

    I say BRING IT. PGE is absolutely horrible, and what the county will do is negotiate a price from PGE and give us cheaper power. What’s not to like about this?

    Count me in as a YES for public power.

  7. Reality Check says:


    Why would Calpine sell thermal power from the geysers to a Sonoma County power district rather than PG&E? Why wouldn’t Sonoma County have to develop their own green power sources?

    I hope this doesn’t work the way BPA power works in the northwest. Public power agencies are first in line for BPA’s cheap, subsidized power. They then brag about low prices, ignoring the taxpayer costs to build the dams.

    And the ignorant say “see, see, public power is cheaper.”

  8. Hunter says:

    While it certainly seems like a laudable goal to provide greener and more local energy to the county, I have to wonder whether it’s the best idea to let the same folks who can’t afford the pensions they’ve promised and who can’t pave the roads get control of our power grid.

  9. Graeme Wellington says:

    You keep re- electing these people… Sonoma County, it’s your fault.

  10. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @GAJ – “We’re already “green” for crying out loud.”
    There’s a difference between producing green energy and using green energy. This agreement would allow us to buy energy produced from the Geysers. Right now, they sell to PG&E and others. Of course, if we buy from the Geysers, then PG&E will need to develop other sources to meet their 20% requirement. I just wish Santa Rosa had had the forethought to trade our waste water for a portion of the energy it is used to create, instead of just having them pay the pumping costs…

  11. Larry says:

    Just what Sonoma County needs another government agency with a bunch of $300,000 a year Executive Directors running it. We do not need another SMART system with excessive salary and pension benefit packages. Oh I forgot, we need this new agency to provide retirement homes for all the termed out county officials. The only supervisors I respect are Rabbitt and McGuire who at least raised issues with Public Power. Another issue I have is how are they spending Sonoma County Water Agency money on this project. The last time I looked, Water Agency costs are passed on as rate increases to us the taxpayer through the City of Santa Rosa. I don’t want them using my money to force public power down my throat. I THINK THAT A PROJECT AS SIGNIFICANT AS THIS SHOULD HAVE TO BE VOTED ON BY ALL SONOMA COUNTY TAXPAYERS. YOU CAN BET THEY WILL NOT DO THAT!! I KNOW THAT I WILL NOT PAY AN ADDITIONAL $120 A YEAR ON TOP OF A $400 A MONTH BILL NOW!

  12. Joyce Garcia says:

    “Supervisor Valerie Brown was absent….” Well, that goes without saying! Ohhh did I type that out loud?

    Here we go! Another push for the green agenda via yet another public entity (because we all know how well run they are) paid for, regardless of public outcry, by the taxpayers! And for those who are given “chances” to opt out would necessarily pay for the services they opted out of through taxes.

    It would be a service to ourselves, our family, friends and neighbors to take a real close look at this intrusion of Government, educate ourselves and keep our communities informed on encourage them to attend future meetings and workshops…don’t let the special interests, stake holders, staff and officials out number the “community” presence so they can claim this is what the community wants….that is how this works, that is what they expect and that is how they pass regulations, ordinances and laws which restricts us from progress and allows them control over our lives and property.

    Don’t wait till they push the shackles they offer us to be rubber-stamped into law by our officials.

    They call themselves Progressives…while they continue to snuff out our abilities to progress!

  13. Money Grubber says:

    Its simply amazing to me that government types just lack the ability and the courage to admit they cannot do anything well nor better than the private sector.

    The ONLY thing government can do well is to buy weapons and use those weapons upon the peoples of other countries.

    The local government and the state government cannot even manage their tax structure well. Notice in the news that they claim “IF ONLY” they could get tax scofflaws to pay “their fair share” … all the stupidity of deficit spending would go away. (they wish).

    Allow the morons to control your power grid and the cost to you will go up and up and up along with their routine excuses that they mutter and moan.

  14. GAJ says:

    We’re already “green” for crying out loud.

    “The Geysers meets the typical power needs of Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino counties, as well a portion of the power needs of Marin and Napa counties. In fact, The Geysers satisfies nearly 60 percent of the average electricity demand in the North Coast region from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border.”


  15. ExRPeer says:

    Where are we going to build a new dam or better yet who’s backyard can we build a nuke plant in? Or maybe we should just capture all the hot air from the Supes meeting and go with that. They will still have to buy power from someone! we don’t need any more government!!!

  16. Steve Klausner says:

    So who is going maintain the power lines with PG&E out of a job?