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Santa Rosa backs expansion of Sonoma Clean Power to Mendocino County

Santa Rosa will support Mendocino County joining Sonoma Clean Power, even though the move could diminish the city’s influence over the public power agency.

The City Council decided Tuesday that the benefits of supplying power to 30,000 new residential and commercial customers to the north outweighed any dilution in its voting power from adding two new seats to the agency’s board.

The decision doesn’t guarantee the board will approve Mendocino’s bid when it takes the request up next month, but it’s a strong indication the expansion will be viewed favorably.

“I’d love to see Mendocino join us,” Vice Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said.

The power supplier launched in 2014 with about 24,000 business customers and now provides power - though not transmission services - to 196,000 residential and commercial accounts in Sonoma County, representing about 88 percent of eligible electricity customers.

Over the past two years, the agency says it has saved ratepayers $62 million and reduced emissions by 48 percent compared to those customers remaining with Pacific Gas & Electric, which continues to handle transmission and billing services.

Mendocino County inquired about joining the agency in 2013, but at that time the board was focused on getting Sonoma County operations up and running, Sonoma Clean Power CEO Geof Syphers said.

Late last year, the agency revisited the issue of expansion, and in July voted to allow the extension of service to Willits, Fort Bragg, Point Area and unincorporated Mendocino County if changes were made to the agency’s joint powers authority. Ukiah is excluded because it has its own electric utility.

One of those changes to the JPA involves how many seats Mendocino County would receive on the agency board. Under the existing rules, each city and the county would have received one seat, for a total of four new seats.

The agency instead offered two new seats, one for the county and one for the three cities, Syphers said. While some cities “were not thrilled with the idea they don’t all get a seat,” they accepted it, he said.

Mayor John Sawyer said he felt extending the service was the right decision because it would help a smaller county - one that might not have the wherewithal to set up its own agency - significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Sawyer said he also felt that by increasing the size of Sonoma Clean Power, it would give the agency greater clout in dealing with state regulators and negotiating power contracts.

The two factors combined made expansion “worth the gamble of losing a few points in the weighted voting.”

Wysocky wasn’t so sure, which is why he asked the council to give him direction on how to vote next month.

Santa Rosa, as the largest city served by the agency, wields significant influence on the board. In certain situations, it can call for decisions to be made using voting based on its share of the power it consumes.

The city uses 33 percent of the power supplied by the agency, second only to unincorporated Sonoma County, which uses 35 percent.

The practical impact is that in some situations, the two entities wield virtual veto power over the agency, as long as they can get at least one other city to side with them.

Adding Mendocino would increase the power load the agency sells by 19 percent, according to its projections. It would also decrease the weight of the votes for Sonoma County from 35 voting shares to 30 and from Santa Rosa from 33 voting shares to 29.

“Although in a small way, it does affect the influence that we have on that body,” Sawyer said.

Wysocky, who isn’t seeking a third term, said he wanted his colleagues to understand that as the agency continued to expand, the weighted voting was where the real balance of power on the board would rest.

Ultimately, the council directed him to raise with the agency board the issue of an alternate system of weighing the votes of new members, but if he couldn’t get support, to back Mendocino’s bid as proposed. The vote was 6-0, with Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom absent.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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