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Public power agency's big hurdle: Facing Sonoma County's cities starting Tuesday

Starting Tuesday, Sonoma County officials pushing creation of a public power agency face what could be the biggest hurdle yet as they appeal to cities to join the program.

In a series of public meetings that begin Tuesday night in Sebastopol and take place in seven other council chambers this month and next, city officials are set to pepper county representatives with questions about the power program.

It is touted by supporters including environmental and business interests as a greener alternative to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — the region's dominant utility — that promises an immediately higher share of electricity from renewable sources.

Customer rates are the biggest focus for decision makers, and county officials have sought to allay concerns, saying initial bids show electricity could be competitive if not cheaper than PG&E rates.

But many city representatives say that they are unlikely to give any go-ahead that would effectively enroll customers, who would have the option to opt out, without seeing final rates and having a clearer idea of where the program will get its electricity and how green it will be.

Those answers are not expected before a county-imposed decision deadline of June 30, meaning the county's request amounts to a leap of faith, city officials say.

"They want us to sign up for something. We want to know the specifics," said Sebastopol Mayor Michael Kyes, a former energy consultant.

Benefits, including local energy projects that could create jobs, are "intriguing," Kyes said. "But there really isn't any information yet that shows that's more than talk."

The concerns were echoed in interviews with more than a dozen elected city leaders and administrators, including representatives of the largest cities, which also are the county's biggest electricity markets.

"I want to make sure that what we're doing doesn't turn out to be just a feel-good measure," said Petaluma Mayor David Glass. "How does this stack up against the record of the current provider? I don't know the answer to that question. PG&E may be far greener."


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