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Sonoma Clean Power flips the switch

  • Sonoma Clean Power board chair Susan Gorin plugs in a power plug into a symbolic outlet to mark the start of electrical service to homes and businesses during their meeting in Santa Rosa on Thursday, May 1, 2014.
    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

With a ceremonial flourish Thursday, officials with Sonoma Clean Power marked the launch of a new public venture in the retail electricity market, touting what they have said will be a greener and competitively priced — if not cheaper — alternative to the region's dominant utility, PG&E.

The new program, which began service to 23,000 customers, becomes just the second of its kind in the state, featuring a government entity that buys or develops power for sale to homes and businesses.

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, chairwoman of Sonoma Clean Power, presided over a moment that supporters hailed as pioneering for the county, offering various environmental and economic benefits.

"It is so exciting," Gorin said. Standing inside the Board of Supervisors chambers, she inserted a plug into a socket that illuminated a row of blue LED lights, meant to symbolize the 16,800 commercial accounts and 6,200 randomly selected residents that began receiving electricity from the agency just after midnight.

"We have been working towards this goal for a long time to come to this point to be able to literally plug in the service," she said.

Hatched as an idea nearly a decade ago by advocates in business and environmental circles, Sonoma Clean Power is built on the assumption that customers, who can opt out, prefer a program designed to rely more heavily on renewable energy and shrink the county's carbon footprint.

The public venture aims to serve about 220,000 accounts, or about 80 percent of PG&E's electricity customers in the county, by 2016.

With energy it purchased now flowing to homes and businesses, Sonoma Clean Power begins the difficult tasks of retaining customers and attracting holdout cities into the fold while fighting off competition from investor-owned utilities and the powerful union that represents many of their workers.

Further down the line, the agency must also make good on its main promises, to spur the development of local, clean energy projects, including solar, wind and geothermal installations, that can provide a steady source of new jobs to the region's economy.

Still, those hurdles did not deflate the buoyant mood among green power advocates gathered at Thursday's meeting. They took a victory lap in front of a board that generally shared their enthusiasm.

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