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Sonoma County kickstarts a public power agency

By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted to implement a public power program for all homes and businesses outside city limits with plans to expand countywide.

The effort seeks to eventually displace Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in the electricity supply business for 220,000 homes and businesses. About 100,000 of those metered customers are in the county’s unincorporated area.

The 4-1 vote sets in motion a series of decisions geared to roll out the power plan in January.

 Operator Tech Mike Taylor stands next to a spare steam turbine used to produce power at the Socrates geothermal plant at the Calpine facility in the Geysers. Calpine is one of several companies bidding to become part of a partnership with Sonoma County's new power agency. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)


Operator Tech Mike Taylor stands next to a spare steam turbine used to produce power at the Socrates geothermal plant at the Calpine facility in the Geysers. Calpine is one of several companies bidding to become part of a partnership with Sonoma County’s new power agency. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

Unless customers formally opt out, they would receive power from the public agency. PG&E would continue to handle transmission, billing, metering, customer service and grid repair.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who pushed for the launch, called it “the county’s moment.”

“We have done our due diligence,” he said. “I believe we have to send a message about this: We are ready to play.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt cast the lone no vote on implementation — a formal step he said he did not oppose but was not ready to approve.

He said the vote was premature, coming just a week after potential rates were unveiled and with several crucial decisions still to be made.

“There’s a lot of angst in the community about selling this project,” he said.

The go-ahead comes months before the agency has a power supply contract or final electricity rates for customers. The county is set to narrow a field of 11 power-supply bidders — said to include a core group of five or six energy companies — and begin final contract talks this summer.

Cities also have yet to say whether they’ll sign up and allow their residents to be served. Their deadline to do so for next year is June 30.

A final sign-off by the state Public Utilities Commission and the agency’s administrative entity, the Sonoma Clean Power Authority — for now governed only by the Board of Supervisors — also is needed before roll out.

Supervisor Mike McGuire said Tuesday’s vote set up “the bones of an initiative.”

“Until we have a final rate that we’re ready to hit the street with, we don’t have a viable program,” McGuire said.

Supporters, including environmental and business interests who packed the board room Tuesday, touted benefits they said would bolster the local economy and reduce the county’s carbon footprint. The proposal has been under consideration since an initial county study in March 2011.

The program proposes to immediately offer a higher share of renewable power — 33 percent, versus the roughly 19 percent now provided by PG&E. Renewable sources include wind, geothermal, solar, biomass and small hydroelectric projects.

Business leaders said it would encourage them to invest in renewable energy projects with greater opportunities to sell their excess power back to the grid.

“It’s inviting you to do something that’s potentially profitable for your business,” said Christopher Silva, president of St. Francis Winery and Vineyards.

Others from the local wine and building industry, retail and food manufacturing businesses also spoke in support. They included representatives of Amy’s Kitchen, the natural frozen foods maker, Oliver’s Market grocery chain and BoDean Company, the Santa Rosa asphalt producer. The hearing took place over four hours, with about 20 speakers and a lengthy period of board questions and deliberation.

The program is built on the proposition that customers prefer an alternative to PG&E that is designed to supply a greater share of renewable energy, provide revenue to support local power projects and reduce greenhouse gas emissions tied to the county’s power needs.

But opponents and others skeptical of the program said the details on how the county will add new local energy projects are not spelled out and that the promise of local jobs could be illusory.

They said similar project and job promises have not been kept in Marin County, which pioneered the use of a 2002 state law that allows local governments to buy and develop wholesale power to homes and businesses. Marin’s main power supplier is Shell Energy North America. San Francisco also is considering a contract with the fossil fuel giant for its program.

“We don’t want to partner with Shell,” said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, a coalition of labor groups.

Opponents also highlighted risks to ratepayers of getting into a complicated, often-volatile business, and to taxpayers from what could be up to $23 million in start-up costs supported by government borrowing.

“We need to see those pie charts to see that what’s proposed is greener than what PG&E has,” said Rich Harkness, a Santa Rosa resident. “It could be that we’re doing the wrong thing for the very right reason.”

About half of the renewable power would be obtained through the purchase of offsets, called renewable energy credits, that one critic called a “feel-good scam.” They would allow the county to claim green status while getting the power off the grid from standard sources, including fossil-fuel-based suppliers.

The credits can help reduce the overall cost of renewable power, which generally is more expensive than conventional sources. But some critics have called them “empty bragging rights” that don’t spur investment in renewable energy as do contracts for delivered power.

Supervisor Susan Gorin pressed county staff for further details on just how heavily those credits would be relied upon in the short term and how the power program would ultimately trigger local power generation.

“We want to make sure we are producing projects and jobs,” said Gorin.

County staff said further details would be available as the program evolves over the next six months and over the three-year rollout.

The board discussion came after the county last week unveiled potential customer rates they said would make its electricity prices competitive with, if not cheaper than, PG&E rates.

Monthly bills in the first year could range from $1.73 less to $1.02 more — or 1.8 percent less to 1.1 percent more — than a PG&E bill for a 2,000-square-foot single-family home, according to county projections. For a mid-sized commercial customer such as a restaurant, large convenience or retail store, the monthly bill could be $80 less to $13 more — 3.1 percent less to 0.5 percent more.

Zane, who joined Carrillo in pushing for Tuesday’s vote, said she was comfortable that the recent county rate analysis and prior county studies justify advancing the program. Her comments and those of Carrillo were tinged with strong criticism of PG&E, the dominant power supplier in northern and central California.

“We have debated this quite frankly to death. I think it’s time to implement it and move forward,” Zane said. “The question is can we compete with PG&E? That has been answered. And matter of fact, we’re going to beat them.”

No representatives from PG&E spoke at the meeting.

The board vote authorized talks with First Community Bank on the start-up financing, including a $2.5 million line of credit and up to $20.5 million in bridge financing to support power purchases over the first three years.

It approved a $258,000 contract with the Berkeley-based consulting firm MIG for marketing and public outreach.

It also approved a payback plan to the county Water Agency, which expects to have spent about $1.2 million this fall on studies, staff time and consultants for the power proposal.





23 Responses to “Sonoma County kickstarts a public power agency”

  1. Stephen says:

    I believe the county needs to fix the roads before they commit us to another project that, several years from now, when they are no longer serving, we will learn that this project added millions to our public employee pension liability.
    FIX THE ROADS THEN TALK ABOUT A NEW AGENCY!

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  2. andrew simpson says:

    re: County of Sonoma Whistleblower Smart Phone App

    A further thought: in order to ensure we get maximum crowdfund support for a Sonoma County Government Whistleblower campaign, we might give this a little bit of national appeal–take advantage of our amazing local homegrown products.

    Here’s one way.

    When you do Kickstarter funding, you have to give folks a reward. So if somebody sends in $5 on their visa we might ask them to send a photo and we send them back a certificate with a hand drawing of their image dropping, say, some Sonoma COunty Supervisors into a foot-crush wine vat; then they could download this and print this out; and for an extra $50 we would send them the original drawing framed so they could stick it on their desk or wall with an embossed seal and authentication that they are Certified Wine County Anti Corruption Supporters.

    Or for a donation of $500 we would send them a case of County of Sonoma Corruption Cabernet with the images of their favorite County officials in various appealing circumstances.

    And for $1000 we could send them a photoshoot fashion special: a group shot of your favorite Supervisors, Auditor Controller folks, County Counsel folks or Water Agency folks, wearing orange jumpsuits, handcuffed, at the front gate of Alcatraz or similar seaside venue; accompanied by a designer-signed actual orange jumpsuit, S-M-L-XL, emblazoned with the name of your favorite County public official.

    And for $5000 we could create a 25 pound “Big Cheese” wheel out of genuine Sonoma County cheese, showing one’s favorite County of Sonoma celebrity public official.

    And for $10,000 we could create a custom labeled barrel of olive oil, the better to grease the Supervisors. And so.

    If this goes viral, we might raise enough money not only for a good lawyer to oversee the County of Sonoma Whistleblower app, we might be able to ask this public interest lawyer to hire a forensic accountant to do professional analysis of whistleblower complaints so that anything they later published was bullet proof in terms of accuracy.

    My email is aksimpson8@hotmail.com

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  3. andrew simpson says:

    Dear Mockingbird:

    Your observation that one of our esteemed leaders was paid $20,000 by a big waste management company for a Supervisors vote on a waste contract was helpful.

    I have an idea for you. And anybody else who wants to participate. It’s smartphone whistleblower app for Sonoma County.

    With this preface.

    1)The Supervisors, County Counsel, Auditor Controller and Water Agency managers aren’t the embodiment of evil. They’re little folks. They’re just trying to get ahead in the world. They’re hired help: “ I was only following orders….”.

    2) Sonoma County is a media desert. The PD is also hired help. The publisher and the editor of the PD are also, “only following orders”. (Is this starting to sound like Franz Leibkind in the “Producers”? Life imitating art?)

    3) The Grand Jury is a dog that seldom barks and never bites.

    4) So: the Supervisors and senior County officials are supposed to act in the public interest. But can’t. The PD is supposed to act in its historical role as the Fourth Estate (i.e., we not only have the executive, the legislative and the judiciary…) but can’t. The Grand Jury is supposed to be our court of last resort but is either sleepy; or is also, just following orders.

    So maybe it’s time we did something about it.

    What if you and everybody else who wanted to point out that a Supervisor just sold a key vote for $20,000 (a $500 million contract for $20,000? Gee, times must really be tough for our Supervisors); or wanted to point out that the Water Agency just defrauded the County Pension Fund by forgetting to report that the money they took from the Pension Fund ended up in a bad deal that’s triggered an unreported loss to the retirees?

    What if you had a smart phone app called Report County of Sonoma Fraud? So you’re sitting there during your lunch hour and you just hit the Fraud icon on your phone, then take two minutes to fill out a little text message—like doing a Twitter, for lies, law breaking, theft and fraud by our County leaders—and then hit the “send” button? This message would go to a public interest group run by a well reputed attorney. He would keep your identify secret. He would not publish the whistleblowing complaint until he verified it with public documents or other means. But once he verified it, it would show up in a website called something like County of Sonoma Lies, Law Breaking, Theft and Fraud.

    This is crowdsourced democracy. And by the way, we can crowdfund this in Sonoma County alone with Kickstarter. We would ask everybody in Sonoma County to send us $5 on their visa card. Say we got 20,000 people sending us $5. That’s $100,000. That’s enough to pay the lawyer for a year and set up the smart phone app. If you think is potentially useful, kindly email me at aksimpson8@hotmail.

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  4. Mr. Obvious says:

    Opt out? I would like to opt out of SMART. But that possibility is about as likely as opting out of the power SCPA. We’ll all be paying for that one too, no matter how much we express our desire to “opt out”.

    In fact, each of us are already paying for it. Look how much the County has already spent (of your tax dollars). And, just like SMART, when SCPA fails to self-sustain it will raid other agencies for supplemental waste.

    Yes sir, you may “opt out” of SCPA but you are still going to get stiffed for the cost anyway. Kinda like Hotel California . . . . this thing is a really bad hallucination! Somebody wake me up, please!

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  5. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Andre Simpson-thanks for the well deserved kudos for the rank and file workers. I find great irony that they want to have their own power company but they want to contract out the dump to a bunch of shysters. (look Republic up on the internet if you don’t believe me). Nothing to do with the $20,000 that Zane got from Republic. No way would THAT have any influence. And all those skilled rank and file employees getting laid off. Don’t be fooled by the PD articles that says they’re being hired by Republic or placed in jobs elsewhere in the county.

    I am so disappointed in the supervisors that I helped get elected . Zane told me personally and I quote “I am totally against contracting out good county jobs. Now she is the queen bee, her, Castillo and Rabbitt leading the charge.

    Contracting out county jobs is more expensive because the county hires more managers to manager those contracts. Rank and file employees are cheaper than a private company that is more interested in their profit than services to the public. And oversight will be iffy.

    I’ll be looking for replacements for Castillo, Rabbitt and Zane during their next elections. I will be working my butt off to get them elected. I hope they don’t plan on getting a union endorsement next time because my vote WILL BE NO.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 4

  6. FedUp says:

    It would be nice if they’d figure out how to support the infrastructure we already have before opening up a new frontier. Fix the damn roads. Prove you know how to govern effectively and then get back to us.

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  7. Beef King says:

    Join New Sonoma and help stop yet another Supervisor boondoggle.

    Go to: http://newsonoma.org/

    Get the facts.

    The link between the County Pension Failure and Sonoma Clean Power is real, and nothing but trouble for all Sonomans.

    Vallejo is Bankrupt.
    San Bernardino is Bankrupt.
    Stockton is Bankrupt.
    Bad Government results in FAILURE.
    The slow-motion train wreck of Progressivism is coming directly at us.

    Sonoma County is on the path to bankruptcy over Union Employee Benefits, and the Clean Power debacle will put us over the edge.

    Opt OUT.

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 2

  8. GAJ says:

    No SteveGuy, you don’t get it, the electricity is sent down to San Diego and then an identical percentage of green/non green electricity is sent back up to all municipalities!

    Of course, that notion is preposterous because it is estimated that 7% of electricity is lost in transmission so, obviously, electricity is distributed to minimize that loss which means, yes, all of our electricity is indeed coming directly from The Geysers.

    Thumb up 21 Thumb down 0

  9. Steveguy says:

    I have a PG&E bill. I get 100% of my electricity from the Geysers Complex.

    They may have some scheme that trades power, but I can see the actual wires. None of mine comes from a long distance, sure the ‘grid’ is there but the ACTUAL electricity that I use is 100% green and renewable.

    Just one source is the wiki page.

    “The Geysers geothermal development spans an area of around 30 square miles (78 km2) in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties in California, located in the Mayacamas Mountains. Power from The Geysers provides electricity to Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Marin, and Napa counties. It is estimated that the development meets 60% of the power demand for the coastal region between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oregon state line.[5]”
    ____________________

    They live in a dream world, with seemingly outright lies . 19% my azz

    Thumb up 13 Thumb down 2

  10. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    Nothing in the constitution says they can’t do it. Start a lawsuit if you don’t like it.

    The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced. ~Frank Zappa

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 10

  11. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    Nothing in the constitution says they can’t do it. Start a law suit if you don’t like it.

    The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced. ~Frank Zappa

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 10

  12. andrew simpson says:

    Dear Mockingbird:

    RE: SEIU pay cuts

    I’ve had contact with 50 or so rank and file County employees. Personal acquaintances; neighbors; and folks you run into when you visit the Water Agency, the County Administrator, the Supervisors’ offices. It seems the people who run this County day to day like their jobs, are good at what they do, and believe in the idea of public service.

    Their hearts in the right place.

    Blaming the rank and file County employees for the County’s fiscal illness doesn’t fit.

    Conversely: I’ve had contact with the Supervisors, County Auditor Controller senior ranks, Water Agency senior ranks and indirect contact with County Counsel’s attorneys advising on Water Agency matters.

    Here’s the distinction.

    The rank and file render public service.

    The County’s senior people don’t.

    The County’s senior people are engaged in something called a Ponzi scheme.

    A Ponzi scheme is where you keep taking in new money to cover up theft, fraud and incompetence with earlier money. Ponzi schemes can be used for $65 billion dollar scams like Bernard Madoff’s heralded meltdown on Wall Street, where 5000 individual investors were left with massive losses. Or can be used to milk the County treasury; so that County retirees and current employees will be left with diminished futures.

    But why would our seemingly right-minded, progressive leadership cadre—our Sonoma County leaders—engage in such destructive behavior?

    “It’s obvious: these people are crooks!”

    Not quite. They’re nice people. They’re educated. They live in nice houses. They speak and dress nicely. You see them at the Cineplex or in the checkout line at Safeway.

    And for the most part, they’re not really in charge. They’re just following orders. Almost like, I was only following . . .

    Our elected and appointed leaders work for about two score enterprises and individual string-pullers who are the County’s real owners. These real owners get the good contracts with the County, write the big campaign checks, tell the publisher and editor of the Press Democrat which stories NOT to report, and tell others how to vote.

    That’s how things work in Sonoma County.

    So the next time you’re wondering why the Board of Supervisors would—in the face unfunded pensions and roads exceeding $2 billion; in the face of salary and benefits cutbacks to County employees—launch a brand spanking new Sonoma Clean Power effort, one that offers no rate benefits, no job benefits and no local CO2 emissions reduction, and one which will entail a billion or more in default risk to be borne by rate payers, just ask yourself, who benefits?

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 4

  13. Steveguy says:

    Hmmm, see the response to this and related articles ? I say opt out !

    I would be 100% in support for it if it was rational and SAVED us money. Their numbers are mysterious and seemingly false.

    @ Mockingbird, back in the day, the water and sewer depts were a few Civil Engineers, a Manager, a Supervisor, a Foreman and workers, with many workers per admin. Good rank and file jobs that actually worked great. Now the Admin and consultants and sweet deals ruin it for us all.

    There can be great arguments for public utilities, but the current politicians seem to not care about costs and rates.

    When does molestation become rape ? oh my

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  14. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Joe-rank and file. SEIU rank and file just got a cut in pay. The BOS renegged on their Letter of Intent to SEIU to “share the pain”. They aren’t sharing.

    Also, they are busy contracting out GOOD COUNTY JOBS wherever they can. This will COST MORE since they need to hire MORE MANAGERS to manage these contracts. County rank and file are cheaper.

    Pretty soon there won’t be rank and file employees, they will all be managers padding their pensions so they can retire at more than they made while working. The BOS are already the 3rd highest paid BOS in the state. Yep, this little podunk county voted themselves to be aligned with the judges instead of like county BOS. Nice. They get whatever the judges in raises, then they get the raises the managers get too. They say they aren’t responsible for previous BOS votes and mistakes but they certainly aren’t changing it. WHY WOULD THEY?

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 6

  15. Joe says:

    “It approved a $258,000 contract with the Berkeley-based consulting firm MIG for marketing and public outreach.”

    This is funny!!!!! How is it, our local govt’s cry BROKE, but when these PET projects come around they find boat loads of money? Do they take it from the rank and file workers that have no say and/or from the public? What if everyone Opt out of this?????

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 1

  16. Grapevines says:

    Well just to complete the circle, my BOS representative did get back to me. I was told that we would receive 4 notices informing us that we had an opportunity to opt out of the County Ponzi Scheme prior to it’s roll out. Also if for any reason we didn’t notice them, I was also informed that we could opt out at any time after it initiated.

    Lets see if it follows the schedule that I was told it would.

    Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  17. Elmer F says:

    The thought of Efren Carrillo, Susan Gorin, that wascally Wabbitt, or any of the others on the BOS having ANYthing to do with my power makes me afwaid, vewy, vewy, afwaid!

    Thumb up 30 Thumb down 3

  18. andrew simpson says:

    Ponzi scheme/Bernie Madoff version: a failed investment effort that stays afloat by taking money from new investors who don’t know the original investment failed.

    Ponzi scheme/Water Agency version: The Water Agency took $45 million from the County retirees pension fund. Then invested that money in a bad deal called Sonoma County Energy Independence(“SCEIP”).

    Then covered up that bad deal by taking $15 million more from the ratepayers.

    The Water Agency created the local government version of a Ponzi scheme. To the tune of $60 million.

    This is interesting at $60 million. And 20 times more when interesting when the Water Agency overlays its fraud playbook on the billion dollar plus checkbook it’s being handed by the Supervisors, for Sonoma Clean Power.

    And fatally interesting when the billion dollar fraud in Sonoma Clean Power gets layered on top of the billion dollar mysteries of roads and pensions.

    Thumb up 29 Thumb down 4

  19. Steveguy says:

    @ GAJ, Ya, if we wanted REAL local power, we would all drill some more wells and flush our urine and big pharma meds and get clean power for cheap if done right ! I would be 100% behind it, especially id it saved us 50% off our bill ! Jest dreamin’.

    And as for Hwy 1, my beef was always the gravel on the road, and I called in about it at times. Odd you mentioned the Ferrari crash, and am sure a death investigation will show any road deficiencies whether driver error or not.

    Thanks for reporting, as we are the eyes of the government that is supposed to work for us, not the other way around.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 1

  20. GAJ says:

    Typo fail, obviously my post should say “Rode my motorcycle…”

    Doh!

    BTW, I reported that completely unsafe for motorcycles condition to CalTrans via their online reporting system and got a confirmation that indeed they had logged my complaint.

    At the very least they need to put up signs specific to motorcycles warning them of the trap. I fear for the safety of motorcyclist, especially a tourist in that area riding at night.

    Didn’t a Ferrari just recently crash on that section of road killing both its occupants?

    If the driver was cutting corners and speeding, (unlawful I know), that road condition could easily result in loss of control.

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 3

  21. Steveguy says:

    OK, Let’s fight this power grab. It should be easy to post signs EVERYWHERE that say a simple ” Opt Out”. Or ” Just Say NO to County Power Grab! “.

    There are many words that can describe this total lack of care for the general public. Criminal is one. They seem to have this ‘Network’ or Cabal that all work for an end result.

    The Water Agency had a fuel cell project that cost us more than $150,000 a year than normal purchases for the next 15 years if I am not mistaken. They say they will make it up 20 years from now. Ya right. That sure was a sweetheart deal that was $40 million or so ( Don’t quote me)

    They have planned a $100 Million solar project too. How does that pencil out ?

    I don’t believe a word or number that they put out !

    I sure hope that the Press Democrat comes out AGAINST this scam upon their readership, I hope they STRONGLY come out against it.

    Get the REAL numbers, not the fluffed up ‘other taxpayer money included’ scam.

    Please everyone, do a letter to the editor now. We already have rising water bills, phone bills, TV bills, garbage bills, etc. Why pay for these wasteful frauds to play politics and cronyism ? Why ?

    Thumb up 31 Thumb down 1

  22. Grapevines says:

    I heard that they had rushed through the passage of this boondoggle yesterday and that they were going to enroll everyone in the county into it, and have you opt out individually.

    So I sent my representative on the BOS an email stating that I opted to opt out. I also told him that if I received a bill for power from the county, I would send it to him to roll up and insert. I signed with my name, address and phone number. I’m now waiting to see if I hear anything back.

    Thumb up 33 Thumb down 1

  23. GAJ says:

    Sonoma County has the largest Geothermal energy plant in the world.

    To believe that the “green” electricity isn’t powering all of Sonoma County already is pure fantasy.

    The BOS needs to stop chasing windmills and focus on their number one priority which is road maintenance.

    Road my motorcycle up the coast from Fort Ross to Stewart’s Point yesterday and the road has recently been repaved, but, guess what?

    They screwed it up in the North Bound lane for 8 miles!

    How?

    In the very center of the lane, even through corners, there is a 2 inch rise in the pavement, about 4 inches wide, for about 8 miles.

    There are signs up that say “Rough Road” but you might be wondering why the signs as the pavement is beautiful and new…until you start encountering this rise in the middle of the lane on a motorcycle.

    It forces motorcyclists to abandon the safest method of cornering which involves using the whole lane using the late apex technique which maximizes your vision, (and safety), through a corner.

    For newer riders this is a potentially very dangerous condition.

    Why is this not being repaired ASAP and who the heck is going to foot the bill.

    The contractor who screwed up or us the taxpayer.

    The $23 million being proposed for this electricity boondoggle is almost 6 years worth of the current woeful road maintenance budget for the County.

    The BOS have completely lost site of their priorities.

    Thumb up 35 Thumb down 0

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