More than an environmentally friendly gesture, an increasing number of North Bay businesses are pursuing renewable energy development as a way to reduce costs and improve their bottom line.
While North Bay residents have long been known to embrace the environmental benefits of renewable energy, the region has also established itself as a pioneer in the business of green power. Business and residents alike are taking advantage of innovative approaches to finance renewable projects, and many are watching closely as Sonoma County follows Marin's example in developing a renewable energy-focused power agency.
Planners completed much of the preliminary groundwork for the agency known as Sonoma Clean Power in 2012, culminating in the formation of a preliminary joint powers authority in December. Forming that authority -- currently composed of the five-member county Board of Supervisors that also serves as directors for the county water agency -- was a necessary step before soliciting specific rates from power suppliers that could serve the agency's customers in the future.
A clear picture of the rates that commercial and residential customers would pay versus providers like Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is expected in 2013, said Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer at the Sonoma County Water Agency. Under the direction of the board, the agency has been researching and developing the proposed agency for nearly two years.
Sonoma Clean Power would follow a similar model as Marin Clean Energy in Marin County, the first "community choice aggregation" power agency in California. That agency purchases power and supplies it to customers over the grid largely maintained by PG&E, and the city of Richmond in Contra Costa County will be joining the municipalities and unincorporated areas in Marin as part of the agency in 2013.
While the business community is among those that are concerned about rates with the proposed agency, many are looking with interest towards a proposal to pay a premium for excess power fed into the grid.
"Where the majority of the projects will come will be small-scale," said Mr. Stillman. "That's where the real economic development will come from."
Several large-scale solar energy projects were completed in the North Bay in 2012. Jackson Family Wines unveiled a 241,000-kilowatt-hour solar cogeneration array in April, supporting power requirements while providing hot water to the Kittyhawk winery in Windsor. Jordan Vineyard & Winery installed a similar, 454 kilowatt system as well.
Those projects proceeded in spite of the gradual winding-down of a California solar subsidy that could cover a significant portion of a solar installation when it was launched nearly ten years ago, said Bill Stewart, president and co-founder of North Bay solar installer SolarCraft. He said those credits did exactly what they were designed to do -- spur solar development and drive down equipment costs. In addition, "power purchase agreements" are now common, allowing little or no up-front investment when property owners enter into a temporary lease agreement for the system with a third-party owner that finances its installation.
Today, a typical residential system can pay for itself in six years, compared to nine years when subsidies began, Mr. Stewart said. A federal perk allowing a 30 percent tax write off for solar projects will expire in 2016.
Many of the new systems, particularly in the North Bay, are now more efficient thanks to electronics from Petaluma's Enphase Energy, Mr. Stewart said. The company went public in 2012, pushing hard to expand into European markets and reporting record revenue in the third quarter of the year.