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Sonoma Clean Power starts work on solar farm south of Petaluma

Sonoma Clean Power broke ground Thursday on its first project to generate renewable energy in its own backyard, adding to the green power delivery it relies on from producers across the West.

The nonprofit public electricity provider has partnered with Rocklin-based Coldwell Solar to start installing solar panels in pasture land south of Petaluma that will eventually provide 2 megawatts of power a year, providing electricity for about 600 homes annually.

Given its overall customer base of 226,000 accounts, the production will be relatively small. But the effort is a benchmark for the agency and proves it can generate its own renewable energy locally, one of the goals it laid out when it launched in 2014.

The Santa Rosa-based company now provides power for 87 percent of electricity customers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties who previously received their electricity through PG&E.

PG&E continues to deliver the power, handle billing and perform grid maintenance. The cities of Ukiah and Healdsburg operate their own independent municipal power programs.

Under the new project, Coldwell Solar will build, operate and maintain the solar panels and deliver the energy to Sonoma Clean Power under a 20-year, fixed-price contract. It will be online by year’s end.

Terms of the contract were not available.

Sonoma Clean Power has entered into similar ventures with a solar farm in the Central Valley and a wind turbine effort in the Altamont Pass, but chief executive officer Geof Syphers said there are many advantages to going local, from jobs to cost savings.

“It’s important to our board because it generates local jobs. It’s good for the economy. In the very long run as you look ahead - five to 10 years down the road - it becomes more and more economical,” Syphers said.

Besides hiring local workers for installation, such deals also benefit landowners, who will be able to charge rent. That includes Josephine Lavio, who owns the former dairy farm where the 4-acre solar farm will be installed. Her late husband, Leo, helped negotiate the deal with Coldwell Solar, and she said that since her family has gotten out of dairy farming, the income is welcome.

“You can’t pay your bills with pockets of dirt,” said Lavio, whose property consists of 360 acres. It was not clear how much Lavio will receive in rent.

Sonoma Clean Power will eventually save money on such local projects because the greater the distance a provider has to go to source electricity, the higher the cost, Syphers said.

“When you are avoiding the big, high-voltage transmission lines, you are saving money,” he said.

The company offers two types of service for customers. One is the standard billing, which offers a mixture of renewable sources such as geothermal and wind combined with large hydroelectric sources from the Pacific Northwest. The other is its so-called EverGreen service, which provides 100 percent renewable power provided by The Gesyers geothermal field in the Mayacamas Mountains. The latter service on average adds another $13 per month to the bill, said Kate Kelly, director of public affairs and marketing for Sonoma Clean Power.

The new local solar effort will provide electricity to the 1,100 EverGreen customers, Syphers said. That will offer a good balance to its provider network, as solar power derives its energy during the daytime hours when electricity use and demand is at its greatest.

“If you look at how much electricity we use, at midnight we use about half of what we use at noon. What we really want is some production all the time, which is geothermal, (combined) with solar in the middle of the day when the AC turns on and people are at work,” he said.

Solar power will be the focus for Sonoma Clean Power locally because it’s the easiest to obtain permitting for and to build, Cyphers said. The agency has another two local solar projects under development.

County Commissioner David Rabbitt lauded the effort, but noted that as the program grows it will likely encounter opposition from those who consider large solar farms a blight on their view. He noted a solar project planned across from the Adobe Creek Gold Course on Frates Road in Petaluma was scuttled because of neighborhood opposition.

“Certainly you don’t want to come in and do something that is going to tick off all the neighbors. At the same time, we consider ourselves a progressive, energy-independent county and this is an important thing,” Rabbitt said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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