PD Editorial: Include public in picking a power company

Unlike the experiences in Marin County and San Francisco County, Sonoma County has received multiple bids, 11 to be exact, from companies wanting to participate in a plan to create a new "clean energy" power provider. The number of bids alone might give Sonoma County residents cause for optimism. Unfortunately, the secret process and lack of transparency that county officials have elected to use at this point lead us to question many of the conclusions they have portrayed in reports to be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

County officials say that of the five or six most promising bids, the projected rates for residential customers range from 1.05 percent above to 1.8 percent below what PG&E's residential rates are expected to be on Jan. 1, 2014. Their comparisons assume a 3.5 percent increase in PG&E rates that are subject to state approvals. If the companies bidding to establish a new power provider are indeed competitive, county officials should openly compare projected rates to today's PG&E rates not what they guess they will be.

A key component of the county's expectation for the proposed "clean power" bids was the establishment of local renewable energy sources. But it needs to be clear to the public that the county's plan, to date, has not committed to any new local renewable energy installations. Indeed, the county claims the system will provide 33 percent renewable power. But in a meeting with The Press Democrat, officials clarified that half of this energy actually will come from "renewable energy credits."

Most Sonoma County residents support a move to carbon-free clean energy, but the report and comparisons released last week lead us to have many questions about the real facts contained in the 11 bids. Sonoma County deserves better.

The most significant obstacle to our confidence in the process and outcome is secrecy. To date, county officials have refused this newspaper's request to make public the bids from the 11 potential suitors. And there is no plan to make the numbers public any time soon.

During a meeting with The Press Democrat Editorial Board on Wednesday, Supervisors David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo and the Sonoma Clean Power project manager said the county plans to pare down the bids to a final three or so before going to the cities seeking their commitment to join the Sonoma Clean Power Authority. At that point, the county expects to negotiate a final contract to present to the Board of Supervisors in August. Unfortunately, this proposed timeline doesn't allow for public scrutiny or informed input on the details of the winning bid or competing offers until just a few days before a final vote. Again, Sonoma County can do better.

County residents have been trusted in the past to see and comment on the viability of the top suitors for a variety of utility-related services, from garbage collection contracts to cable TV franchise operations. Given the significance of this decision, a long-term commitment for a locally owned and operated power provider — one that requires significant upfront expenditures in addition to a $2.5 million loan guarantee from the county — the public needs to be trusted with the details.

We encourage county supervisors not to adopt a "just trust us" attitude with this watershed contract but to allow the public to see the raw numbers and decide for themselves whether these proposals will pencil out and which one is in the best interests of the region. A contract of this significance also calls for a full economic impact analysis.