A study that could lead to a pioneering new role for Sonoma County government as power supplier to homes and business was approved and funded Tuesday by county supervisors.
The formation of a public power agency could be a key way to boost investment in local renewable energy sources and make faster cuts in local greenhouse gas emissions, county officials said.
It would also cement the county's place on the leading edge of local governments focused on clean, sustainable power programs. In California, only Marin County currently operates a public power agency under the 2002 state law that authorized cities and counties to buy energy on the wholesale market to sell to residents and businesses.
"This is a big and bold initiative for this board," said Board Chairman Efren Carrillo.
Supervisors allocated $150,000 in county Water Agency funds for the study and directed the Water Agency to lead the effort involving several other county departments.
The six-month process will evaluate rate implications for customers, financial risks for the county, potential partnerships and opportunities for job creation that could come with any county move into the power business.
Two challenges are clear even before the study begins, officials said.
First, Sonoma County is a long way from energy independence, with local government-owned power sources — installed and planned — accounting for 10 percent of the population's current energy demand of 350 megawatts.
A public power initiative could boost investment in that local supply with solar, wind, wave, geothermal and biomass projects spreading across the county, officials said. They added that dollar estimates were not available. Out-of-the-area energy purchases would have to suffice in the meantime, they said.
The second challenge: getting buy-in from individual customers and eight eligible cities — Healdsburg is the exception because it has its own municipal utility district. State law on so-called "community choice aggregation" or CCA programs allows both individuals and cities the choice to opt out of any public power entity.
Billing, metering and transmission would not change under any public power entity. PG&E would continue to handle those services for most customers, but power rates would have to stabilize if not drop to allow a public program to compete with PG&E, the region's main power provider, county officials said.
"(Customers) are going to want to vote with their pocketbooks," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane.
PG&E has fought CCA programs, pouring $46 million last year into an unsuccessful ballot measure that would have limited such efforts, requiring their approval by two-thirds of voters.
"We believe there's compelling reasons (for customers) to keep PG&E as their power purchaser," said Brandi Ehlers, a company spokeswoman.
Environmental leaders, meanwhile, cheered Tuesday's move, calling it a "wise investment in the future" that would help the county and cities meet their shared greenhouse gas reduction goal.
Trade union leaders also were supportive, saying any public power initiative could lead to job opportunities for their members.
"Let's get this going. We'll be there to support you completely," said John Lloyd, a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 551.
The Water Agency was chosen to lead the study effort because it is a large local power producer and consumer, operating solar and hydropower projects and buying electricity on the wholesale market. The agency could not be a customer under any eventual county deal, but it could be a power provider or a contracted administrator, agency officials said.
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