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Sonoma Clean Power flips the switch


With a ceremonial flourish Thursday, officials with Sonoma Clean Power marked the launch of a new public venture in the retail electricity market, touting what they have said will be a greener and competitively priced — if not cheaper — alternative to the region's dominant utility, PG&E.

The new program, which began service to 23,000 customers, becomes just the second of its kind in the state, featuring a government entity that buys or develops power for sale to homes and businesses.

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, chairwoman of Sonoma Clean Power, presided over a moment that supporters hailed as pioneering for the county, offering various environmental and economic benefits.

"It is so exciting," Gorin said. Standing inside the Board of Supervisors chambers, she inserted a plug into a socket that illuminated a row of blue LED lights, meant to symbolize the 16,800 commercial accounts and 6,200 randomly selected residents that began receiving electricity from the agency just after midnight.

"We have been working towards this goal for a long time to come to this point to be able to literally plug in the service," she said.

Hatched as an idea nearly a decade ago by advocates in business and environmental circles, Sonoma Clean Power is built on the assumption that customers, who can opt out, prefer a program designed to rely more heavily on renewable energy and shrink the county's carbon footprint.

The public venture aims to serve about 220,000 accounts, or about 80 percent of PG&E's electricity customers in the county, by 2016.

With energy it purchased now flowing to homes and businesses, Sonoma Clean Power begins the difficult tasks of retaining customers and attracting holdout cities into the fold while fighting off competition from investor-owned utilities and the powerful union that represents many of their workers.

Further down the line, the agency must also make good on its main promises, to spur the development of local, clean energy projects, including solar, wind and geothermal installations, that can provide a steady source of new jobs to the region's economy.

Still, those hurdles did not deflate the buoyant mood among green power advocates gathered at Thursday's meeting. They took a victory lap in front of a board that generally shared their enthusiasm.

"We celebrate a big achievement made possible by a huge cast," said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Climate Protection Campaign, which has been a strong backer of the agency.

Hancock touted a transformation she said would flow from having an alternative to PG&E, the largest electricity provider in central and northern California.

"With Sonoma Clean Power the winners are known: businesses and residents who receive cleaner, cheaper power. And this is also a climate protection win for future generations and all life."

One board member notably absent was Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who on Monday was acquitted on charges of attempting to peek into a neighbor's home while dressed in his underwear after a night of drinking. Supervisor Mike McGuire filled in for Carrillo, who had championed Sonoma Clean Power from its infancy.

Board members directed staff to schedule time to discuss Carrillo's future with the agency at its June 5 meeting.

Carrillo was appointed to Sonoma Clean Power earlier this year by David Rabbitt, chairman of the Board of Supervisors. The county board is scheduled to discuss Carrillo's conduct at its Tuesday meeting.

Sonoma Clean Power CEO Geof Syphers did not speak about the absent board member. Instead, he used his comments to report that opt-out rates for customers choosing to stay with PG&E were lower at launch than the expected 15 percent. About 7 percent of the initial customers have opted to remain with PG&E, he said.

With a PG&E rate hike that took affect Thursday, Sonoma Clean Power customers are expected to see a 4 to 5 percent savings on their electricity charges, translating to a $6 million savings for participating businesses and homes in the first year, Syphers said.

PG&E will continue to handle transmission, billing, metering and grid maintenance.

Sonoma Clean Power is drawing its electricity from deals with two contractors, its principal source a three-year deal with Constellation — a subsidiary of the Chicago energy giant Exelon Corp. — and a secondary supply from Calpine Corp., the main operator of The Geysers geothermal field on the Sonoma-Lake County border.

Overall, 33 percent of the agency's supply will be from a combination of state-approved renewable sources, including wind, solar and geothermal projects, and from energy credits.

"This is the single largest step Sonoma County has taken to address climate change and we're doing it at a cost of negative $6 million," Syphers said.

He said one of the biggest challenges facing public power agencies is a bill in Sacramento that would require customers to opt in to join such programs. Under current state law, all prospective customers in participating jurisdictions are automatically enrolled in Sonoma Clean Power and other agencies like it and must opt out to remain with their utility.

The bill, AB 2145, is supported by PG&E and driven by the union that represents most of its rank-and-file power generation employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

If passed, it would make it harder for Sonoma Clean Power to enroll customers, most of which will come online over the next two years.

Union officials say they are taking aim at the enrollment process over concerns that such programs are expanding through energy projects and suppliers that employ a non-unionized workforce.

With its launch, Sonoma Clean Power joins Marin Clean Energy, the state's first active community choice aggregation program. It began service in 2010 and now serves all cities in Marin County, plus Richmond, with proposals to expand to Albany and Napa County.

A similar effort in San Francisco has failed to get off the ground, mired in a political standoff between Mayor Ed Lee, who opposes the program and the city's Board of Supervisors, who unanimously support it.

Syphers said Sonoma Clean Power will continue to persuade the three holdout cities of Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cloverdale to join. Currently the agency serves customers in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Cotati, Sebastopol, Windsor and the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County. Healdsburg is not in the mix because it has a municipal utility.

Jake Mackenzie, a Rohnert Park council member, told the Sonoma Clean Power board Thursday that he will push his city to come onboard.

"I am very anxious for the city of Rohnert Park to join your number," he said.