By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Starting Tuesday, Sonoma County officials pushing creation of a public power agency face what could be the biggest hurdle yet as they appeal to cities to join the program.
In a series of public meetings that begin Tuesday night in Sebastopol and take place in seven other council chambers this month and next, city officials are set to pepper county representatives with questions about the power program.
It is touted by supporters including environmental and business interests as a greener alternative to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — the region’s dominant utility — that promises an immediately higher share of electricity from renewable sources.
Customer rates are the biggest focus for decision makers, and county officials have sought to allay concerns, saying initial bids show electricity could be competitive if not cheaper than PG&E rates.
But many city representatives say that they are unlikely to give any go-ahead that would effectively enroll customers, who would have the option to opt out, without seeing final rates and having a clearer idea of where the program will get its electricity and how green it will be.
Those answers are not expected before a county-imposed decision deadline of June 30, meaning the county’s request amounts to a leap of faith, city officials say.
“They want us to sign up for something. We want to know the specifics,” said Sebastopol Mayor Michael Kyes, a former energy consultant.
Benefits, including local energy projects that could create jobs, are “intriguing,” Kyes said. “But there really isn’t any information yet that shows that’s more than talk.”
The concerns were echoed in interviews with more than a dozen elected city leaders and administrators, including representatives of the largest cities, which also are the county’s biggest electricity markets.
“I want to make sure that what we’re doing doesn’t turn out to be just a feel-good measure,” said Petaluma Mayor David Glass. “How does this stack up against the record of the current provider? I don’t know the answer to that question. PG&E may be far greener.”
Santa Rosa officials want the so-called Sonoma Clean Power program to succeed, said Councilman Jake Ours, but they don’t have enough information — particularly rate details — to support it at this point.
“Without that cost factor, I don’t think there’s anybody on the council that’s going to go along with it,” said Ours, who has served on a public-private steering committee giving input on the power plan.
Santa Rosa’s participation in the program is seen as key since the city consumes 34 percent of all electricity sold by PG&E in Sonoma County. City officials need to weigh not only whether to give customers the chance to participate, but whether doing so make sense for City Hall, which pays millions of dollars to PG&E annually from more than 700 separate accounts.
The pushback comes at a time when cities are struggling to examine their stake in a complex business deal that would permanently privatize operations at the county’s central landfill. They’re also preparing budgets for the next fiscal year.
The concerns raise the possibility — or likelihood, some sources say — that the county could be jumping alone, or with few cities, into one of the biggest initiatives it has ever taken on.
It would diverge from the model used by Marin County, where a public power agency was launched in 2010 with eight of 12 municipalities. The agency had all municipalities on-board by late 2011.
But Sonoma County officials have rejected assertions they are pushing cities into rushed decisions.
“I don’t think we’d classify this is a leap,” said Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer for the county Water Agency and the lead staff member on the proposal. “We’ve spent more than two years studying this. We have a good idea of what the rates will be. It’s time to go.”
On its face, the public power immediately would be 65 percent greener than PG&E’s. It would be drawn from a portfolio with a third of its sources in renewable power — wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and small hydroelectric projects — versus the roughly 20 percent renewable share that would come next year from PG&E.
Critics have questioned that comparison because about half the county’s renewable supply would come from energy credits that allow purchase of standard-sourced power from the grid.
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. 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.
County officials say the program still would be viable and have similar rates if it was just serving the unincorporated area, with over 91,000 metered customers, including homes and businesses. The Board of Supervisors last month tentatively approved that implementation plan.
PG&E would continue to handle transmission, billing, metering, customer service and grid repair. Healdsburg is not part of the mix because it has its own municipal utility.
The initial rollout in 2013 is only set to reach about 10,000 meters. But within three years, the plan envisions serving up to 80 percent of PG&E’s customers in the county, about 220,000 meters. Cities have to sign up before that can happen, and the county wants as many participating as possible before going into final contract negotiations in July.
“It’s going to be easier for us to negotiate an initial power contract if we know everyone is going to be a part of it,” Stillman said.
The latest approach to cities follows previous updates to council members in public sessions over the past two years and in private meetings with advocates pushing the power plan. They have convinced nearly all local elected officials to back the plan in concept.
But with a decision now on the line, the lobbying efforts have been stepped up, employing a campaign that asks city representatives to give their residents and businesses a choice they currently don’t have over their power provider.
The message resonates with some city officials.
“It creates a competitive marketplace for power,” said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman.
Supporters also tout benefits that include an ability to control net revenues, which otherwise go to shareholder dividends. The money can be used to keep customer bills down or can be plowed into local power projects and energy efficiency programs. Financial risk for cities also would be minimized through a separate governing authority that insulates general funds.
“It takes a lot of time to get that message out,” said Landman.
But others have bristled at the looming county deadline and the campaign that accompanies it.
“The flip side of it is that we’re jumping the gun and signing up for something that we don’t know what it supposed to look like,” said Windsor Mayor Robin Goble.
Apart from the attention paid by activists, city officials said they were seeing little groundswell for the program. That might keep them on the sidelines for a while, they suggested.
“There’s a number of pressing issues out there that I think surpass this one at the present time,” said Carol Giovanatto, city manager of Sonoma. “This just hasn’t risen to that level.”
Even supportive city officials say the plan faces obstacles.
“I think it will be difficult to get the votes without some fairly concrete data,” said Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who is active in transportation and environmental issues. “As an individual council member, I might not be as reluctant, but my suspicion is that other council members and city managers may be more suspicious.
“We’ve all done the easy stuff,” he added. “This is the hard stuff.”
Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Brett Wilkison can be reached at 521-5295 or brett. firstname.lastname@example.org.