By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.