Clean-power agencies relieved at legislation change

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SANTA ROSA -- A key element of legislation that advocates of Sonoma Clean Power and similar alternative-energy agencies insist would threaten their ability to form and operate could be switched off, thanks to state Senate action.

The requirement for electricity customers to opt-in to a community-choice aggregation (CCA) agency was dropped from Assembly Bill 2145 during a meeting of the state Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee.

"We protected Sonoma County's right to participate in Sonoma Clean Power," Geof Syphers, agency CEO, said about that vote. The county's CCA started service May 1 and serves all areas but Healdsburg, which has its own utility, and opt-outers Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cloverdale.

AB 2145 author Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, submitted an amendment to the Senate committee that would effectively leave the current system in place, which automatically signs up power customers in the CCA area unless they opt-out after enough notification.

"As we all know, compromise is a part of the legislative process," Assemblymember Bradford said in a statement. "I am happy to move the bill forward with the accepted amendments. The bill still contains strong transparency measures that will help customers make the right choice for them and their families."

He said that the discussion the bill has fostered is valuable.

"Too many people are in the dark about what CCAs are and what they do," he said.

An initial vote at 6 p.m. Monday failed to get enough yes votes, so Chairman Alex Padilla held the vote open until late into the evening, according to Sonoma Clean Power. The final vote was 6-3, with one senator absent and one abstention.

Still remaining to be resolved are amendments that would allow CCAs to expand to up to as many as three adjacent counties and would grandfather local governments that decide to join a CCA this year. The state's first CCA, MCE Clean Energy in Marin County, has expanded service to Richmond and could include unincorporated Napa County.

The next stop for those amendments is set to be the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. The bill would need to go back to the Assembly for approval before heading to the governor's desk. Action on the bill is expected to happen in the next two to three months, according to Sonoma Clean Power.

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which serves Northern California, supported AB 2145. The utility declined to comment on the amendments until it can review them in print, according to a spokeswoman.

Ann Hancock, executive director of Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign, which was active in garnering statewide opposition to AB 2145, said this "David vs. Goliath" effort against a utilities- and trade union--supported bill has happened before. She noted three examples: the failed Proposition 16 of 2010, which would have required a two-thirds vote for new CCAs, PG&E's campaign against MCE Clean Energy and AB 976, which Governor Brown vetoed in September 2012 because it restricted companies from doing business with CCAs.

The Sonoma Clean Power opt-out rate to date is 9 percent, which is less than half the around 20 percent expected from the Marin County launch. The opt-out rate might rise as more customers become aware of the change, Mr. Syphers said.

As the first ratepayer money arrives this week for Sonoma Clean Power, the agency is forecasting it is on target to break even in mid-August based on power contracts currently in place for the first phase of customer rollout, set to run through 2016, Mr. Syphers said.

Negotiations for the next phase are set to start soon. A 30-megawatt solar project in the Central Valley was recently added to the mix. And the agency is in discussions with Sonoma County Water Agency about local energy projects, potentially as large as 20 megawatts, Mr. Syphers said.

Resolution on AB 2145 would be boost to other CCAs in various stages around the state, including San Diego, Santa Cruz and Monterey, Lancaster, Santa Clara County and Alameda County, Mr. Syphers said.

"Marin created the original model and survived the original attacks," Mr. Syphers said. "And we have built on the model and made it stronger, so it is evolving in a healthy way."

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