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Sonoma County board votes to create power agency

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a major piece of its plan to become a power supplier to homes and businesses, creating an administrative agency to oversee its proposed program.

The unanimous decision does not launch the public power venture, which would compete with PG&E. That final step could come next year, pending the return of favorable rates from power suppliers.

But the board's action, which came before a packed, largely supportive audience, is the most significant step forward for the effort after 20 months of studies, surveys and public meetings.

Supporters, including environmental groups, union officials and some business groups, see the effort as a key way to boost investment in renewable power, create jobs through the construction of local energy projects and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This will be a tremendous stimulus to our local businesses and our local economy,” said Dick Dowd, a Santa Rosa developer who serves on the board of the Climate Protection Campaign, an advocacy group pushing for the public power program.

Supervisor Mike McGuire called Tuesday's action “a very important milestone.” But he also quickly acknowledged the “elephant in the room” continues to be what the program would charge customers for power.

Those potential rates could be known as soon as next month, after the county solicits bids from power suppliers. A county study last year showed the average customer's rates might be $4 to $10 higher initially per month than those charged by PG&E but could level out and become cheaper over a 20-year period.

Competitive rates will be crucial to the program's success, supervisors said.

“We need to be able to sell it, like any business,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt.

Customers would have the ability to opt out of the county-run program, which aims to serve about 80 percent of ratepayers countywide, or about 250,000 metered customers. PG&E would retain responsibility over transmission and billing.

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