By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With four cities down and four to go, Sonoma County officials this week enter the second half of their roadshow to convince cities to take part in the county’s planned public power agency.
The presentations are intended to tout benefits and answer questions about the effort to displace Pacific Gas and Electric Co. with an alternative that offers a higher share of energy from renewable sources.
Sonoma County supervisors have voted to launch the agency on Jan. 1 encompassing — at a minimum — the unincorporated areas of the county.
So far, they’ve successfully enlisted one city — Windsor — while two others, Rohnert Park and Sebastopol, could decide to join next month. The Cloverdale City Council has decided the city will sit on the sidelines for now.
Next up are the two largest cities, Santa Rosa and Petaluma, which together account for nearly 48 percent of the electricity use in the county. Alone, Santa Rosa’s share is nearly 35 percent.
The public presentation before the Petaluma City Council is Monday evening and Santa Rosa council members are to hear the issue Tuesday afternoon.
Participation by the cities — and power bills from their residents and businesses — are a key if not critical part of the county’s plan, which aims to serve 80 percent of PG&E’s local customers. The higher the participation — customers would be allowed to opt out and stick with PG&E — the sooner the program will have a positive cash flow and be able to plow money back into rate stabilization, energy efficiency programs and local generation projects.
“You work with the revenues you generate,” said Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer for the county Water Agency and the lead staff member on the proposal. Without Santa Rosa and Petaluma, he said, “we may not be able to do things we would have been able to do with all of the cities’ participation.”
Santa Rosa and Petaluma also would add political momentum to the program, which is set to begin serving homes and businesses Jan. 1. County officials and supporters insist it would be viable without urban customers, but they want all cities, and especially the biggest ones, onboard.
“We can have this going without any of the cities, but that’s not what we want,” said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Climate Protection Campaign, the main advocacy group behind the power proposal. “We’re looking for a nod from all of them, and we’re putting a lot of work into Santa Rosa.”
Supporters, including environmental and business leaders, have been lobbying council members heavily in recent weeks, honing a message that focuses on consumer choice, shrinking the county’s carbon footprint and the promise of economic development through construction of local energy projects.
They’ve sent out notices that signal they intend to pack council chambers this week.
Opponents, including fiscal watchdogs and critics of government, argue that many of the touted benefits could be illusory. In emails and newspaper opinion pieces, they have been getting their points across, too.
The tug-of-war means the proposal could face a stiff challenge in the remaining cities. After the presentations in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, the roadshow rolls on to Cotati on Wednesday and Sonoma on June 3.
Some city officials have been vocal about their desire to see final numbers on customer rates and greenhouse gas emissions before they sign on.
Those answers are not expected prior to a county-imposed decision deadline of June 30, leaving some officials saying the process is being rushed.
“I think it’s going too fast,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Jake Ours, who has served on a public-private steering committee providing input on the plan. “We’re not going to have time to make a decent decision.”
County officials have begun negotiations with a final group of four companies competing for the initial energy supply contract. They’ve also begun a search for an interim chief executive to lead the power program and started work on a branding and public relations campaign.
In the meantime, they have reiterated initial figures they say would make the program competitive if not cheaper than PG&E and immediately greener, drawing 33 percent of power from renewable sources such as solar and wind versus the 20 percent portfolio projected for PG&E next year.
Program skeptics have questioned those numbers, disputing especially the emissions comparison because about half the public power would initially come from renewable energy credits packaged with conventional power sources, a tool they deride as “greenwashing.”
But city officials have focused most on the rate implications, both for their residents and businesses and for City Hall.
In Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city with almost 170,000 residents and 97,360 electrical meters, city government is the biggest power user, with more than 700 PG&E accounts.
Some of those accounts, such as the city’s wastewater treatment plant on Llano Road, pay wholesale power rates that are “dirt cheap,” Ours said, while others pay far higher rates.
That’s why the initial rate range provided by the county is insufficient to help the city understand implications for its bottom line, Ours said.
“I think everyone in the city wants it to work, but we don’t know how it’s going to work,” he said. “The devil is in the details.”
Supporters cheered Windsor’s decision last week to formally join the county power agency. The move gives them a seat on its governing authority, alongside county representatives. The entity is designed to have nine voting members — one from each of the eight participating cities, plus the county.
Healdsburg is not a candidate for the system because it already has a municipal power agency.
County officials have touted that seat at the table in their pitch to cities.
But the bigger cities, especially, have lingering questions about governance, including how much sway they would have on the authority board.
“I don’t want to be taking part in something that hasn’t had all the wrinkles run out,” said Petaluma Mayor David Glass, discussing a number of questions he has about the program. “The prudent thing is to wait and see how it plays out.”
Politics could be a significant factor in the larger cities’ decisions. Support for the power venture now cuts across the county’s main camps, shaped by environmental and business interests that commonly duel over elected seats in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
But that assessment made one politician uneasy last week.
“We need to spend less time on politics and handicapping whether a city is going to come on board or not,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire, one of the four-member majority that last month backed the program’s launch for the unincorporated area; Supervisor David Rabbitt was the lone no vote.
Politics, McGuire said, should take a back seat to the program’s business plan, which he repeatedly called “solid.”
“There’s no doubt we’d want Santa Rosa and Petaluma to join now,” he said. “But because we have this solid business plan, if they join later, we’d welcome them.”
Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.