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Should Sonoma County get into the power business?

So far, the Board of Supervisors has given the idea nothing but green lights, including a vote last week to keep the initiative moving forward for at least another 18 months.

But the make-or-break point will come in the weeks and months ahead as county officials take the idea on the road to eight city councils throughout the region in hopes of currying enough support to create a joint powers authority.

Supervisors last week gave staff the go-ahead to pitch such a plan with startup costs estimated to be between $2 million and $6 million, money that would likely come from bond financing through the JPA.

Under the proposal, the agency would use the purchasing power of the region to buy electricity, ideally from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind generators. Supporters say the benefits of such an endeavor, similar to a power authority created in Marin County, would include lowering carbon emissions and, possibly, power costs while creating jobs and giving the region more control.

All of this is certainly promising. But as we've noted before, the biggest risk to this endeavor is the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that prevents the county from taking a more sober look at the true costs and risks of going into the power business.

Some of the questions we have:

; This is identified as the "Sonoma Clean Power" plan. But who will determine what constitutes "clean" or "green" renewable energy? Not everyone agrees on these terms. Hydroelectric plants, for example, are considered a major source of renewable energy, but Assembly Bill 32 only counts power from "small hydro" plants toward meeting state goals of greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, some scientists say the best way to reduce carbon emissions is through the construction of nuclear power plants. But it's unlikely that Sonoma County will go down that path. How will these terms be defined?

; And who will be at the helm to make these decisions? At the moment, the initiative is being overseen by the county Water Agency, which has the resources to take it this far. But the county lacks the structure and expertise to negotiate long-term power contracts on the open market. How will this team of experts be assembled?

Moreover, what are the expectations of how the salaries and benefits of the staff for this new agency will be determined and awarded? The county can't afford the salaries and benefits of its current employees. It certainly can't afford to be adding on a new layer. It matters little that this will be paid for through electricity charges. In this area, ratepayers and taxpayers are one and the same.

; County officials are assuring the public that they will have multiple opportunities to opt out of the plan and go back to dealing directly with PG&E. But what opt-out options will exist for the county as a whole if the system breaks down? We have no reason to believe this will unravel. But as the state of California learned during the deregulation debacle of 2001, if things can go wrong, they will.

These are some of the areas of concern that need to be addressed as the county moves forward with this initiative. It's promising, no doubt. But given the region's economy and the state of ratepayer pocketbooks, the county can't afford to be rosy-eyed in pursuit of being greener.