North Bay Business Journal

Monday, April 22, 2013, 5:18 am

Sonoma Clean Power carries potential economic benefits

County ‘endowed with a number of natural resources’

By Amy Bolten

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    (Sonoma Clean Power is a community choice aggregation program being developed by the Sonoma County Water Agency to purchase electricity for Sonoma County customers. This program has multiple benefits and risks, is complex and not well understood by Sonoma County residents and businesses.  In order to help the North Bay Business Journal readers understand the various aspects of Sonoma Clean Power, the Journal is partnering with the Sonoma County Water Agency to publish a series of articles discussing the various aspects of this effort. This article discusses the potential for development of locally sited renewable power facilities.)

    One of the catalysts for investigating Sonoma Clean Power is the potential for economic development benefits of developing locally owned and controlled electricity generation assets.  With its goal to purchase 33 percent renewable energy at program launch and ramping up to 50 percent renewable energy by 2018, Sonoma Clean Power would provide a stable market for sellers of renewable energy. This market and ability to sign long-term contracts for the purchase of renewable electricity will stimulate local development of clean power projects.  Projects could include solar systems on warehouse roofs, small wind farms or biogas digesters using waste from food processors and wineries.

    In Sonoma County, we are endowed with a number of natural resources which could provide the backbone for a diverse portfolio of local renewable energy facilities.  Significant amounts of organic material, called biomass,  is constantly generated from our vineyards, livestock and woody underbrush. This material could be put to beneficial use producing methane in biodigesters.  Digesting organic waste to produce power is a very common practice is many other parts of the world and the United States. In areas of the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin, some counties utilize food scrap, sewage and cow manure to produce biogas.  In the European Union, some countries produce significant amounts of their power using biomass, including Sweden which powers 32% of the country this way. The manpower involved in operating such plants, from site sourcing to hauling to plant operation, could be a source of long term local jobs.

    Additional sources of local renewable energy include geothermal, solar and some wind power.  As many are aware, the world’s largest geothermal power plant is right in our backyard – The Geysers.  This abundant natural resource may have unused capacity and could be a source of additional local electricity production to supply Sonoma Clean Power. 

    Looking to the sun, most people are already familiar with solar photovoltaic electricity as a means to produce power. This can take many forms from small panel systems on individual homes and businesses to larger “solar farms”. To incentivize local solar development, Sonoma Clean Power plans to have a number of programs in place to stimulate small and large solar installations. These include feed-n-tariffs, net energy metering and community solar. Feed-in-tariffs provide payments to owners of renewable energy systems in excess of what they use. For example, if you have a system that produces 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, but only use 800 kilowatt hours, you could receive a payment for that extra 200 kilowatt hours you produced but did not use. Net energy metering is somewhat similar in that it allows customers to credit and debit their fluctuating solar generation accounts over the course of their annual power use. There are versions of both of these types of programs in place today. Community Solar programs allow groups of owners to jointly install a solar photovoltaic system. These systems can be installed on rooftops or as ground mounted systems. A benefit of community solar programs is that it allows people who are unable to purchase a solar system of their own to still participate in the benefits of renewable power.  In this model building owners can lease their roofs for installation of community-owned solar panels to provide incremental income for currently underutilized rooftop assets while incentivizing local construction jobs.

    While some of these projects would take a number of years to get through permitting and secure long term financing, other projects, such as the community solar, feed-in-tariff and net energy metering models, should be available to implement quickly.  One of the goals of Sonoma Clean Power is to stimulate and sustain the local economy by developing local jobs in renewable energy.


    For more information please visit www.sonomacountwater.org/cca or contact Amy Bolten at amy.bolten@scwa.ca.gov.

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