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More power for county, pricier power for users

  • PC: Power lines owned by PG & E carry power generated from Calpine's geothermal plants down for use in the grid.

    11/30/2003: D1: PG&E's lines carry power the utility bought from Calpine's geothermal plants. Geothermal energy accounts for 22 percent of the energy Calpine generates in California.

On April 23, the same county supervisors who made the odd decision to abandon pavement preservation on 86percent of Sonoma County's roads — and have done almost nothing to reduce our billion dollar pension problem — decided they would like to become your power provider by creating a local power authority called Sonoma Clean Power.

The advisory committee at New Sonoma has been reviewing the county's claims that Sonoma Clean Power will result in lower carbon emissions, lower rates and local jobs, and this is what we learned:

Sonoma Clean Power is likely going to increase the county's carbon footprint not lower it — at least at the outset. Right now, PG&E obtains only 40 percent of its energy from sources that generate greenhouse gases. Sonoma Clean Power on the other hand will be using a feel-good scam, renewable energy certificates, to claim to reduce carbon emissions. Without the certificates, 80 percent of its energy — twice the amount of PG&E's — will emit carbon.

Sonoma Clean Power comes with a huge financial risk and few potential rewards. According to its projections, Sonoma Clean Power would only generate a profit of $9 million per year. And since this profit would belong to the power authority, it cannot be used to help solve the county's financial problems. Profits, if there are any, will be invested in programs already offered in the county through the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program and through PG&E.

Sonoma Clean Power would not create many jobs with the exception of more county employees. The supervisors have talked about creating local green jobs with Sonoma Clean Power, but $9 million is not much to work with.

There would be little new local renewable energy added without going into debt, big time. The county would have to spend $40 million on a solar energy system large enough to generate 1 percent of the county's energy load. To generate 33 percent of the county's energy load locally would require the county to spend an estimated $1.3 billion. We already have the highest debt per-capita of any county in the state, so where is this money going to come from to meet state renewable energy requirements?

Energy costs would likely rise and be much higher than PG&E over time. Right now, with the use of energy certificates, Sonoma Clean Power's projected rates and PG&E rates would be about the same. But in 2017 the rules change, and 75 percent of renewable energy will have to come from actual renewable energy systems, not credits or certificates. This would likely cause the Sonoma Clean Power price charged to consumers to soar. PG&E, on the other hand, has already built seven of the 10 largest solar systems in the country and is building its renewable energy capacity with 9,400-megawatts of solar production approved and in development. Sonoma Clean Power would be forced to go to the spot market to purchase renewable energy at a time when demand would be soaring to meet state requirements.

The death spiral. This is what the county's consultant said could happen if Sonoma Clean Power's rates do not remain competitive with PG&E's. The energy contracts would require Sonoma Clean Power to procure a certain amount of energy, so if people opt out and return to PG&E to save money, the rates would increase for the remaining Sonoma Clean Power customers. As the disparity grows, so would the number of people opting out creating what he called "the death spiral."

The bottom line is, Sonoma Clean Power would not reduce our greenhouse gas emissions or help to solve our county's serious financial problems. It would simply give our supervisors another pot of money they could use to pay back campaign contributors and special-interest groups.

Ken Churchill is director of New Sonoma an organization of financial experts and citizens concerned about our county's finances and governance.


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