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Sonoma Clean Power turns focus to local energy creation

Officials guiding the rollout of Sonoma County's public power agency on Tuesday kicked off an extended discussion about how the agency adds local power sources and folds in other programs and projects central to its mission of being a greener, competitively priced alternative to PG-E.

The step comes after Sonoma Clean Power cleared most of its major development hurdles, securing a power supply late last year and setting customer rates earlier this month. It is set to begin service in May to its first wave of 20,000 customers, most of which will be commercial accounts.

Business interests pushed for the planning talks last year, seeing potentially lucrative opportunities in an expanded market for locally produced electricity, especially from solar panels.

Climate activists have been equally vocal, touting the potential to quickly and significantly reduce local greenhouse gas emissions by tapping a variety of renewable energy sources in the county.

"From our perspective, this is where the treasure is," said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign. "We have put a lot of time into thinking how this can happen at an aggressive pace."

On the other side are many of those representing Sonoma Clean Power, staff, the board of directors or its two advisory committees. They have urged a more conservative approach that could hold down ratepayer costs in the short term.

Those costs are seen as the biggest factor affecting how many customers choose to stick with the public venture or opt out and remain with PG-E. One agency adviser called that opt-out rate an "absolutely critical key measurement."

"If we don't retain customers, the game is lost," said Harry Davitian, a Sebastopol energy developer and consultant who serves on the agency's business operations committee.

The comments came at a much-anticipated meeting of the five-member business committee, which provides input on decisions ranging from power contracts and energy conservation programs to administration and finance.

The three-hour session Tuesday launched public talks aimed at developing by July a plan that will outline how the agency incorporates supply from a wider network of local electricity producers.

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