Business grapples with impact of Sonoma Clean Power

As Sonoma County's political leaders continue to move forward with the process of setting up a county-wide public power agency, many in the business community are examining what the renewable energy-focused proposal would mean to their operations.

[caption id="attachment_72578" align="alignleft" width="400"] Some 3,444 solar panels installed at the Mark West Quarry are capable of producing 1,165 megawatt-hours of clean energy annually. (Business Journal file photo)[/caption]

While rates remain a central concern, leaders in wine, manufacturing and retail said that the treatment of renewable energy fed into the grid from solar power and other means could be a significant factor in their decision to become a customer of the agency known as Sonoma Clean Power.

In a region where environmental concerns are widely considered a prudent business practice, those businesses said that an aggressive program to reward producers of renewable energy could help spur further development and promote the proposed agency's goal of procuring as much power as possible from sources within Sonoma County.

"We often talk internally -- what would it look like if we could expand this system and make it profitable?" said Christopher Silva, president of St. Francis Winery, describing the company's 457-kilowatt photovoltaic system to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, which also governs the proposed agency.

"We got into this because it was the right thing to do," he said. "Not only are we asking you to do the right thing, but something that could be profitable to business."

It would not be the first such program in California, as the state's Public Utilities Commission authorized Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and other large utilities to begin buying back power from smaller-scale producers on a limited basis in 2008. The program quickly hit its predetermined cap, expanding several times since and potentially expanding to allow additional and larger-scale participants later this year.

Participants can either enter into an arrangement that measures their net energy usage, potentially reaching "zero," or a program tailored more for larger-scale producers that would receive a "feed-in tariff" for the excess power fed into the grid, said Brittany McKannay, North Bay spokeswoman for PG&E. Credits and payments are required to be at the retail rate for power at that time of day, she said.

Some Sonoma County companies are already participating, including the aggregate and asphalt supplier BoDean Company. While the company has already been aggressive in its deployment of solar energy projects, the arrangement with PG&E was a key part in the decision to build a 1.165-megawatt-hour solar facility at the company's Mark West quarry in 2010, said Bill Williams, operations manager.

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