Sonoma County supervisors have allowed their enthusiasm for creating a local power agency to cloud their judgment. In the process, they also risk undermining the long-term viability of this public power system.
As we've noted before, there's potential for a number of positive outcomes from this "community choice aggregation" initiative — local control, a reduction in greenhouse gasses, an opportunity to reinvest in the local economy. But that's hardly justification for the zealousness that was on display at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting for an issue that was only given to staff for an implementation study a year ago.
"We have debated this quite frankly to death," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane.
"We have done our due diligence," said Supervisor Efren Carrillo.
Given his involvement in the process, Carrillo in particular should know better. It's been less than a week since the public got its first look of what their bills could look like under this system. Even then, they've only been allowed to see general numbers due to a contract-selection process that inexplicably is being shrouded in secrecy.
Given that this complex initiative requires $25 million in county resources and obligates — until action is taken to opt out — the participation of all residents and businesses, caution and transparency should prevail. So far, they are not.
The board, on a 4-1 vote, pressed ahead on Tuesday in committing all homes and businesses in the unincorporated areas to being part of this new system. The county even approved spending $258,000 on a marketing campaign.
Only Supervisor David Rabbitt demonstrated restraint in saying he felt there were too many unanswered questions to warrant, as recommended, authorizing the Water Agency staff to take "all steps necessary" to launch the program.
Even if the numbers the county has presented are accurate, it's not clear what the public is getting for its investment. This initiative is driven by the desire to reduce the county's greenhouse gas emissions while encouraging the development of local renewable energy sources. But the county has yet to develop a cohesive plan for how it would achieve either.
Ostensibly, 33 percent of the county-provided power would be "renewable" energy. But half of that would come from the purchase of renewable energy credits, which offer no guarantee that the power off the grid is not fossil-fuel based. At this point, the county lacks a clear strategy for moving away from dependence on such credits and how it will further its goal of encouraging the development of local sources of power.
Furthermore, the county lacks a plan for investing and managing assets it receives from ratepayers and reinvesting its surpluses — projected to be $19 million over the first five years — into the community. The potential for conflict in how these resources are spent and where seems high without some upfront framework.
Staff said they need the county's commitment in order to negotiate a better deal with companies bidding for the Sonoma Clean Power contract. But doesn't this also put the county at a competitive disadvantage, with bidders knowing that opting out is not in the cards for the county?
Just when this program is coming to life is a bad time to argue that it's been studied to death. Let's hope the cities, which are being asked to hurry and make a commitment to join this power authority by June 30, demand more answers and more restraint.