By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Delivery of electricity to the first wave of customers for Sonoma County’s startup public power agency is not set to begin until May, four months after the originally proposed rollout, agency officials were told Thursday.
Postponing the start of service better incorporates what could be a three-month signoff process by state utilities regulators and a monthlong window PG&E needs to shift customers over to Sonoma Clean Power, said Geof Syphers, the agency’s interim chief executive.
He reviewed the revised timeline in a meeting of agency’s board of directors Thursday, describing it not as a setback but as a more realistic schedule that would result in a stronger venture once it begins serving homes and business next year.
“All of this is building toward a launch where there are no hiccups at the beginning,” Syphers said in an interview.
The 3-hour meeting focused on adoption of the agency’s first-year budget, approval of its implementation and staffing plans and signoff on a first-year contract with an outside accountant.
The public power venture, billed as a greener, competitively priced alternative to PG&E, originally aimed to start service Jan. 1.
Launching at the start of May still captures the peak summer season for electricity sales, Syphers said, giving the agency a boost toward achieving break-even cash flows, a benchmark it expects to hit in June.
It also will give the agency more time to develop its rate-setting process and strengthen its customer service and outreach efforts, Syphers said.
Those programs should enable a larger initial rollout next year, at more than 19,000 accounts, or roughly double the initial target for a first wave of customers. Most in the first wave will be commercial meters; the largest group of residential customers — about 115,000 meters — is set to be brought on in 2015 and 2016. At full buildout, the agency envisions serving up to 80 percent of PG&E’s customers in the county, about 220,000 meters.
Work on securing a power supply won’t be stalled by the delayed launch, Syphers said. The agency is still looking to reach a contract and lock in a three-year electricity supply as soon as possible.
“We still need to do that,” Syphers told the board. “Power prices are generally trending upward.”
Agency directors did not object to the delay, but pressed for details on the factors fueling it and questioned how it might affect other looming steps and business.
Supervisor Mike McGuire, filling in as an alternate for an absent Supervisor Shirlee Zane, urged Syphers to press the state Public Utilities Commission for a quicker turnaround in its review and approval of the agency’s implementation plan. The process is set to get underway next week and could represent only the beginning of Sonoma Clean Power’s dealings with regulators.
“That tension is going to continue with the PUC,” McGuire said.
The agency has “a shot at shortening that window” for the utilities commission’s signoff, Syphers said.
“I don’t want to promise that,” he added.
Other directors pushed for earlier work on a plan for how the agency intends to develop local renewable power sources, one of its key goals along with job creation and greenhouse gas reduction. The blueprint isn’t due until next summer. Syphers said its delivery could be moved up by several months.
“I think we’re chomping at the bit to start having those discussions,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board’s chairwoman.
The budget discussion focused on staffing costs and cash flow. The agency has projected $930,000 in salary and benefit costs for six to seven employees in the first fiscal year.
Syphers said the estimated staff costs — still preliminary because they are dependent on pay and benefit packages up for review next month — were “slightly generous” partly because the agency needs a “good number of relatively experienced people” to guide its rollout.
“I think it’s OK to have a couple junior people around, but it’s not going to make sense to have this be staffed entirely by junior folks,” he said.
The estimates were based on experience levels of 10 years or more in the field, Syphers said. Immediate hires for the agency this year are to include a communications manager, a general counsel, a programs manager and a pair of executive and administrative assistants.
The adopted budget shows the agency is set to hit positive cash flows near the end of the fiscal year, ending June 30. Borrowing and prior costs will result in a negative fund balance of $782,000, an amount Syphers said could be erased in about three months through revenue from customer power bills.
The directors also approved an $81,250 contract with San Rafael-based Maher Accountancy for services through June 30 of next year.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.