About 5 percent of eligible business and residential customers so far have opted out of Sonoma County's start-up public power agency, some over concerns the service won't be as reliable as PG&E.
Sonoma Clean Power projects about 20 percent of eligible customers ultimately will opt out of the service, which launches May 1. About 24,000 potential customers — most of them businesses — are part of the first wave of service.
Geof Syphers, CEO of the power startup, said a "handful" of potential customers who received letters detailing the program cited reliability concerns as their reason for declining the service.
Under Sonoma Clean Power, PG&E would continue to provide services such as billing, metering and grid maintenance. Syphers said the "reality" is that "all aspects of reliability will be handled by PG&E in exactly the same way they are handling them now."
He characterized that message as a marketing challenge for the agency, saying "it would be terrific for us to get the word out that reliability cannot change under this program."
Those opting out of Sonoma Clean Power so far include one of its largest eligible customers. Syphers declined to identify the customer, citing the agency's customer confidentiality policy.
The agency has identified about 100large commercial customers across the county that it wants to serve, a list that presumably includes manufacturers, grocery stores, hotels and other heavy power users. The group collectively represents about 20 percent of the agency's projected overall load.
Commercial users made up 80 percent of the accounts declining the service so far. The other 20 percent were residential accounts. Together, the opt-outs translate into 3.6 percent of the agency's first-phase power load.
A spokeswoman for Agilent Technologies in Santa Rosa said the company is still evaluating whether to go with Sonoma Clean Power or stay with PG&E.
Other businesses said they'd yet to hear from the public agency.
Martijn Sax, general manager of the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel and Spa in Santa Rosa, said he was not aware of the hotel receiving any correspondence regarding the new power program.
"I haven't heard anything about clean power and energy," he said this week.
By 2016, Sonoma Clean Power aims to serve about 220,000 accounts, or about 80 percent of PG&E's electricity customers in the county. Customers will have the option to opt out and return to PG&E for no charge up to two months after joining. After that, customers can opt out for a $5 fee.
The initial 24,552 customers are of outsized importance to the agency because they collectively represent an estimated 40 percent of the agency's overall load.
The first wave includes 18,144 commercial customers and 6,408 randomly selected residential accounts in the participating jurisdictions, now limited to the cities of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Cotati, Sonoma, Windsor and the unincorporated county.
The power agency mailed the second of four notices to those customers on March 13.
Syphers interpreted the opt-out rate so far as a positive sign for Sonoma Clean Power, saying it's below what he thought it would be at this time.
"I'm thrilled that we're popular," he said.
The opt-out numbers are up for discussion at Sonoma Clean Power's board of directors meeting at 8:45 a.m. Thursday at the county Board of Supervisors chambers in Santa Rosa.
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