First Marin, now Sonoma moves on energy program

SONOMA COUNTY -- The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has allocated $150,000 for a study on community choice aggregation (CCA), which would allow the sale of power directly to residents and businesses, bypassing PG&E.

The board also approved up to $100,000 for Rusty Klassen, formerly a Water Agency employee and now affiliated with Marshall-based energy consultancy Local Power to develop the water agency’s renewable energy programs. 

“We’ve been gathering data on developing lower carbon energy resources in Sonoma County, among other regions, for RESCO, the non-profit wholesaler of electricity for rural areas,” said Paul Fenn, founder and president of Local Power.

The water agency had received a $1 million grant from RESCO for advance work on what is known in energy circles as a “soft landing” scenario.

“That refers to as painless as possible transition to energy conservation and sustainable production,” he said.

Sonoma County, he believes, is ripe for a CCA and uniquely positioned to develop its own sources of green power.

“The county will have to begin by partnering with a provider of wholesale electricity, as the Marin County Energy Authority did with Shell. But the goal is to wean itself from large power producers.”

Mr. Fenn points to Sonoma’s geothermal resources, which are not limited to the Geysers steam field.

“Drill anywhere in the region and you’ll hit hot rock very quickly. It’s not hot enough to generate steam and turn a turbine, but it can provide heating and hot water to residences,” he said.

The county is home to more than 30 solar voltaic companies, the latest arrivals attracted by the promise of project funding by the Sonoma Energy Independence program.

“A CCA is SCEIP cubed, with all county residents and businesses having the opportunity to benefit from local innovators,” he said.

Because of its agriculture the county has biomass resources as well, and access to wind from nearby regions.

“Wind is hard to permit and implement within the county, but can be obtained from, say, the Delta, where it looks very promising.”

The largest gains in energy conservation, the ones that will bring the county into compliance with state goals, will be from smart grid and demand-response technologies.

Wind, solar voltaic, solar thermal and geothermal energy are not yet competitive with gas and oil, and must be subsidized to make them affordable.

So how will the county tap its green sources of energy and bring them to the citizens at a competitive price?

He envisions a combination of revenue bonds and private equity, the latter investment attracted to the county by innovative green technology.

More immediately, competitive pricing without debt – key to selling the program in the county – can be achieved by other means.

In Marin County, the Energy Authority makes money from the one cent per kilowatt hour it saves from not having to pay off shareholders, according to director Dawn Weisz.

“Already we have about $2 million in a reserve fund, which we’ll use for energy conservation programs,” she said.

The oldest CCA in the country, Cape Light Compact in Massachusetts, was initially funded by county money.

“Barnstable County subsidized us at the rate of $150,000-$250,000 for ten years,” said administrator Maggie Downey. Cape Light currently charges its 163,000 subscribers a small surcharge to keep the program local, she said.

Both women stressed that a successful CAA must enroll most or all of its municipalities.

Large companies, schools and hospitals, and in the case of Marin, San Quentin prison, buy their energy wholesale and won’t be customers.

Marin County, unlike other CCAs, was subjected to an intensive anti-CCA campaign. That resulted in an especially high opt-out rate in Marin of 20 percent.

“I strongly doubt that will happen in Sonoma County,” said Mr. Fenn.

AMPLIFICATION, April 4, 2011: The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved up to $100,000 for Rusty Klassen of Marshall-based Local Power to develop the Sonoma County Water Agency's renewable energy programs. The original story had a less-precise figure.

Show Comment