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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, April 9, 2012, 6:45 am

Vote is first step for Sonoma Clean Power business plan

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    SONOMA COUNTY — Efforts to create a renewable energy-focused power agency in Sonoma County will reach a significant milestone on April 10 as the county’s water agency board votes on whether to begin work on a comprehensive business plan that will chart a future for the endeavor.

    If approved, planners will embark on a four-to-six month, $65,000 project to develop an implementation plan that includes details of a joint power governing authority for the proposed agency, according to Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer for the Sonoma County Water Authority.

    That joint powers authority could be in place within a year, with a best-case-scenario roll-out of the agency in 18 months, Mr. Stillman said.

    “There’s a lot of education and outreach that needs to occur,” he said, describing plans to hold workshops with governments, businesses and residents throughout the county.

    Known as “Sonoma Clean Power,” the proposed agency would follow the “community choice aggregation” model made possible by California’s 2002 legislation, Assembly Bill 117. Like the Marin Energy Authority in Marin County, the proposed agency would serve its customers by feeding power into the current grid largely maintained by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

    Proponents of the model say that benefits include local control, rate stability and the ability to create significant financial incentives for customers who generate surplus power on their own through photovoltaic or other systems.

    “It’s a unique structure that fits in within the investor-owned utility framework that is only responsible for the generation of power, not the transmission with poles and wires,” said Woody Hastings, renewable energy implementation manager at the Sonoma County advocacy group, the Climate Protection Campaign.

    Yet while polling found a majority of support for a renewable energy-focused agency, Mr. Stillman and others said an expected 4 to 10 percent bump in rates initially has remained a primary concern for some, particularly businesses.

    The water agency completed an initial six month, $150,000 feasibility study in October 2011, with approximately $10,000 left over from that contract expected to help support the cost of developing the implementation plan, Mr. Stillman said.

    With power generation as part of its charter and experience developing collective power arrangements with other water authorities, the legally independent water agency body was tasked with development of the Sonoma Clean Energy concept. Control will ultimately go to the joint powers authority, which will likely include the municipalities that chose to join.

     If implemented, Sonoma Clean Power would become the second such arrangement operating in the state, after the Marin Energy Authority.

    Yet Sonoma’s agency could carry key differences, including sheer size, Mr. Stillman said. The county has 265,000 meters – 2.5 times the customer base of the 11-municipality Marin Energy Authority, which could grow to just under 100,000 after the closure of an opt-out window for remaining potential customers later this year.

    Even an agency that only included the unincorporated areas of the Bay Area’s largest county would “rival the size of Marin” in customers, Mr. Stillman said.

    Sonoma County also has a number of current and potential renewable energy assets, and planners said that exploiting those sources for local power generation would be a hallmark of Sonoma Clean Energy. Among those potential assets is the 725-megawatt Calpine geothermal plant, which the company says produces enough energy to power a city the size of San Francisco and currently sells that energy throughout the state.

    While the goals for the agency include the participation of the entire county, Mr. Stillman said that Sonoma Clean Power could roll out without all municipalities, with the potential that they could join later. Most of the county is currently served by PG&E, with Healdsburg part of the Northern California Power Agency. Individual customers could still choose to opt out of the service.

    In its initial survey, conducted by Windsor-based Data Instincts and Petaluma-based Creative Research Systems, the water agency found that 65 percent of businesses surveyed were at least “moderately supportive” of a community choice aggregation arrangement that included renewable sources. 74 percent of residents supported the creation of a locally-owned electricity program that used renewable sources.

    That survey also found that responders were concerned about rates: 32 percent of businesses said they would not pay more for “green” energy, and 60 percent of residents said they would not pay much more, if any more at all, for the service.

    In a followup focus group, Data Instincts found that 53 percent of participants would be willing to pay up to $15 more for electricity from the proposed agency, 73 percent would pay up to $10 more, and all 15 participants would pay an additional $5 a month.

    Mr. Stillman said that current projections estimate that the average additional cost for a residential customer would fall somewhere between the $10-$15 range.

    “We’re not jumping the gun. We’re being very analytical,” said Efren Carrillo, Sonoma County’s Fifth District supervisor and member of the ad-hoc committee on Sonoma Clean Power. “Tuesday’s meeting is just another step in understanding where we need to be in having a cost-effective program.”

    Fourth District Supervisor Mike McGuire, another member of the committee, said that rebates and other incentives could help enhance interest in the business community.

    His concern: “How can we work with the entities that are the largest power users — business — and provide them with the tools to drive down their costs?”

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