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Sonoma Clean Power debate: Can electricity be both green and cheap?


Electricity from Sonoma County's fledgling public power agency can be cheap or green, and there may be conflict over the choice, Sebastopol Mayor Michael Kyes said.

"Green costs more," said Kyes, who will be seated later this month on the governing board of Sonoma Clean Power, the local agency that aims to displace PG&E as the area's leading energy provider.

Sebastopol, which voted this week to join the new power agency, has one goal: reducing greenhouse gas emissions to "save a melting planet," Kyes said.

The emphasis should be on reducing power's carbon footprint, not cutting its cost, Kyes said, asserting that the objectives are not necessarily compatible.

But Geof Syphers, interim CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, said the agency aims to deliver power that is both cleaner and cheaper than PG&E.

"It absolutely can be," he said.

Still, there might be some tug of war over which concept prevails.

Ann Hancock, executive director of the Climate Protection Campaign, a key power agency supporter, said there is "some inherent conflict" between price and eco-friendliness.

Fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas produce cheaper power than renewables because the "true costs" — including the release of gases that contribute to global warming — go unpaid, she said.

The power agency, which intends to begin supplying electricity in January<NO1><NO>, has said first-year bills will range from $1.73 less to $1.02 more per month for a 2,000-square-foot single family home, based on preliminary projections.

Some officials have pressed the new agency to focus strongly on affordable rates.

"It's rates, rates, rates," county Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said in April.

Santa Rosa City Councilman Gary Wysocky has said there aren't enough ratepayer protections in the power plan, and that rate reduction should be a stated goal, not just cleaner energy.

The power agency has set a Tuesday deadline for cities to join, and only Sebastopol, Cotati and Windsor have done so, along with the unincorporated area governed by the Board of Supervisors.

Those jurisdictions account for almost 41 percent of the county's power load, according to PG&E data. Santa Rosa, with another 34.6 percent of the load is set to decide on power agency membership on Tuesday.

Although they agreed to join the new agency, Sebastopol council members expressed some skepticism about the green power claims of Sonoma Clean Power.

Regardless of cost, Kyes said, the local agency's startup power supply will not be as clean as PG&E's "no matter what(agency officials) say."

Sonoma Clean Power says it will draw 33 percent of its power from renewable sources, including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and small hydroelectric projects.

About half of the county's renewable supply would come from energy credits, which are purchased from energy producers that have unsold green power. The actual energy comes off the grid from standard sources, including fossil fuel-based suppliers.

PG&E says its gets 19 percent from renewables, with an additional 22 percent from nuclear power and 18 percent from large hydropower facilities, which do not meet California's definition of renewable.

Kyes, who will join the local power agency board at a public meeting set for July 30, maintains that nuclear and hydropower plants, large and small, are carbon free, giving PG&E a large green power portfolio.

He also dismissed defining energy credits as renewable, calling them an exercise in "shifting the paperwork."

Hancock disputed the idea that nuclear power is clean, citing the unsolved problem of disposing of nuclear waste and the risk of a meltdown similar to the Fukushima, Japan disaster.

Syphers said the county agency intends to beat PG&E on renewables, as well as carbon-clean power, without using any nuclear power.

Renewable power is currently "a little bit more expensive" than power from combustion of fossil fuels such as natural gas, he said. But over time, he said, renewables will get cheaper while "general market energy" grows pricier.

In addition, he said the power agency, unlike an investor-owned utility such as PG&E, will not have to pay dividends to stockholders.

The power agency initially considered a portfolio of 50 percent renewable power, but found it would come at a price premium of about 8 percent, which would be "too high for some customers," Syphers said.

The startup level was dropped to 33 percent renewables, with an option for customers to elect 100 percent renewables, he said. The price for that option hasn't been determined, but might be about $8 more per month for the average residential customer.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)