By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Windsor on Wednesday became the first city to join the Sonoma Clean Power Authority, created as an alternative to PG&E to provide a greener product at competitive, if not cheaper rates.
On a 3-2 vote, the Town Council adopted a resolution to join the county in the program that allows local governments to consolidate buying power and sell electricity to a local customer base.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a very long time,” Councilwoman Debora Fudge said, adding that Sonoma Clean Power will provide residents a choice, go further in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and provide jobs to boost the local economy.
“It’s a way to make a big difference,” she said noting that the program intends to start with power that is 33 percent from renewable sources, a greater proportion than PG&E’s 20 percent.
The divided council vote came at the urging of more than a dozen speakers, including climate protection advocates, business owners, residents and county supervisors Mike McGuire and Efren Carrillo.
“By breaking the (PG&E) monopoly this will introduce competition where there has been none,” McGuire told the Town Council.
He said the county has completed a “significant amount of due diligence” over the past two years, including focus groups and market surveys to measure demand prior to deciding to launch the program and ask cities to join in.
But he acknowledged doubts persist, including some cities that have heard the county sales pitch, but not immediately signed on.
“This is a bold proposition and there is some fear and uncertainty,” McGuire said.
“I invite you to join in what could be a clean energy future,” Carrillo told the Windsor Council. “It can be something that transforms what this county looks like when it comes to local power and choice.”
Fudge, a retired PG&E employee, was joined in the majority Wednesday by council members Sam Salmon and Bruce Okrepkie who emphasized the alternative it will provide residents and businesses, who can still “opt out” if they wish and keep PG&E as their utility.
But Mayor Robin Goble and Councilman Steve Allen had doubts about the county program and voted again the resolution.
“There needs to be a stronger, fleshed-out business model before I choose to commit,” Goble said, adding that she would like to see it in existence for a year before deciding.
Allen said competition usually brings lower rates, but the county power agency has not been able to assure a decrease. Instead, it projects residential rates in 2014 would be 1.8 percent lower to 1 percent higher than PG&E’s and for commercial customers 3 percent lower to 0.5 percent higher.
“There’s a lot of things I like about this program. I still have some concerns,” said Allen. He questioned the fact that residents and businesses would have to opt out of the program if they wished to stay with PG&E.
He also had questions about how truly green Sonoma Clean Power will be if it intends initially, at least, to purchase “renewable energy credits,” or power from distant wind or solar farms, for example, that does not actually involve physically moving the electricity across state lines.
On the other hand, Allen also expressed concern that Sonoma Clean Power could cause the proliferation of solar panels in agricultural zones in the county, with vineyards “wiped out by a sea of photovoltaics.”
But Okrepkie said everyone wants the ability to choose, whether it be a supermarket, gas station or utility.
And despite council members receiving numerous emails both for and against joining the county power agency, he said “those who are so adamantly against didn’t show up tonight. That definitely bothers me.”
Woody Hastings, a manager with the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign, noted that in 2010, 70 percent of Sonoma County voters were against Proposition 16, the PG&E-backed initiative that would have denied community choice aggregators such as Sonoma Clean Power.
“It paved the way to make this choice,” he told council members, adding that Marin County operates a program along with its cities.
Deputy County Counsel Steve Shupe said the $180 million that is now paid to PG&E in Sonoma County would no longer go to that company’s shareholders. Instead, net revenues from Sonoma Clean Power can be used to reduce rates or for ancillary programs, he said.
Shupe acknowledged risks, but said they are “minor and small,” such as misjudging power needs and or potentially committing to purchases that are not competitive.
The county has narrowed the list of potential power suppliers to four companies.
Even if Sonoma Clean Power failed, Shupe said customers could return to PG&E.
Under the new enterprise, PG&E would continue to provide all electricity delivery, repair and billing services.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or email@example.com