Officials with Sonoma County's startup public power provider said legislation recently introduced in Sacramento poses a major threat to the agency and others like it seeking to launch across the state.
The bill would fundamentally change how community-based power providers enroll new customers.
Critics of the bill say it could halt those power ventures from getting off ground, stalling local efforts to boost renewable energy use and cut greenhouse gases. Supporters, however, say the change would provide a truer consumer choice between the emergent government-backed electricity suppliers and the utilities that now serve most households and businesses in California.
The change would not kill Sonoma Clean Power, but would make it significantly more difficult and costly to attract customers, agency officials said. The venture is launching electricity service to its first group of homes and businesses May 1.
The legislation, Assembly Bill 2145, would require new customers to opt in to service from such public power agencies. Under current law, households and businesses within the jurisdiction of Sonoma Clean Power and other agencies like it are automatically enrolled, requiring customers to opt out if they wish to remain with their present electricity supplier.
Opponents of the bill, including environmental and business interests who've backed Sonoma Clean Power, say the move is an attempt by large electric utilities to wipe out community choice aggregators — the power providers created by local governments as an alternative to for-profit utilities. Opponents have begun a lobbying campaign to defeat the legislation.
"It's a setback for the environment and for competition and it protects the utilities' monopoly," said Geof Syphers, chief executive officer of Sonoma Clean Power.
PG&E, the dominant electricity provider in Northern and Central California, has thrown its support behind the bill.
It would reverse a statute that makes any new community choice aggregator, or CCA, the default power provider, putting utilities at a disadvantage, said Kent Kauss, senior director for state government relations for PG&E.
AB 2145 "provides customer choice by allowing such customers to elect to participate in the (CCA) program," Kauss wrote in a letter supporting the legislation. "We believe our customers want to have an affirmative voice in who provides their commodity service and AB2145 simply provides that."
The legislation was introduced last week by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena. It has publicly revived the political standoff between private utilities, PG&E foremost among them, and public ventures seeking to usurp their power supply business by promising a greener, competitively priced product.
In 2010, PG&E poured $46 million into an unsuccessful ballot measure that would have limited such public programs, requiring their approval by two-thirds of voters.
Since then, under state law, utilities have been prevented from directly marketing against the ventures.
Opponents of Bradford's bill said it was a clear attempt to undermine the programs through legislative action.
"For a nascent CCA like Sonoma Clean Power, this is very troubling," said Assemblyman Marc Levine. The San Rafael Democrat's district includes the jurisdictions of Sonoma Clean Power and Marin Clean Energy, the neighboring public power provider.
"I'm strongly against this bill. It would strike at the heart of CCAs," Levine said, adding that he was trying to rally lawmakers to his side.
The state authorized the CCA system in 2002, in the wake of California's energy crisis. The opt-out provision was built in to the original legislation, mirroring rules in five other states with CCAs — Ohio, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Illinois.