Sonoma Clean Power adds electric vehicles to its fight to address climate change

The launch of Sonoma Clean Power in spring of 2014 is widely cited as the single largest action Sonoma County has taken to address climate change locally.

The public agency and the county’s dominant electricity provider is credited with reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through large-scale purchase and delivery of renewable power from non-fossil-fuel burning sources, including geothermal and wind. Additional contracts are expected to add solar and more wind power to the mix next year, ambitious moves that represent the agency’s core mission of sourcing electricity from county- and state-based sources, while helping to stabilize rates.

Now, Sonoma Clean Power is making another huge bet: that it can convince hundreds of Sonoma County residents over the next two months to ditch their gas-guzzling vehicles for more fuel-efficient wheels. The public agency has launched a new, $2.5 million venture to help people purchase electric vehicles and install at-home charging stations, further advancing efforts to reduce climate change by targeting the largest source of pollution in Sonoma County - tailpipe emissions.

“If just 100,000 cars switched from driving on oil to driving on local renewables, we’d go a long way in achieving our climate change goals. That’s pretty extraordinary,” said Geof Syphers, chief executive officer of Sonoma Clean Power. “The state has some really strong objectives related to reducing emissions, but the state doesn’t really know how to achieve them, so this is our opportunity to experiment with relatively low risk.”

Starting Oct. 27 and through Jan. 5, Sonoma Clean Power will offer its customers $2,500 discounts - on a first-come, first-served basis - to purchase or lease a Nissan Leaf or a BMW i3, two models of electric vehicles on the market. Nissan and BMW have offered additional on-the-spot rebates against the purchase price of the vehicles at Santa Rosa-based Jim Bone Nissan and Hansel BMW.

Nissan is offering a $10,000 immediate rebate on Leaf purchases and up to $11,625 for the lease option, and BMW is offering $10,500 off for purchases and $9,500 off for leasing.

Low-income Sonoma Clean Power customers are eligible for an even greater discount of $5,000. Additional state rebates and federal tax credits are available for the purchase of electric vehicles.

Agency officials say ?$1.5 million for the electric vehicle program will provide 400 Sonoma Clean Power customers with a $2,500 discount, and ?80 low-income customers with $5,000 discounts, not including the dealership incentives. An additional $1 million is available for installation of at home-chargers. Agency officials said the program will provide $1,000 discounts for 1,000 at-home chargers.

Sonoma Clean Power’s board of directors approved the program Thursday, touting the agency’s success over the past two years in keeping electricity rates stable, helping customers save money on their monthly bills and inking long-term renewable energy deals.

“This is a great investment that we should be making,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who is on the agency’s board and who has helped lead the charge to offer government incentives for greater use of electric vehicles. “I believe we should be encouraging the transformation from combustion engine to electric vehicle.”

At present, basic electricity service for Sonoma Clean Power customers has an energy supply that is ?37 percent renewable. Under state rules the utility’s supply from large hydroelectric projects does not qualify as renewable.

The agency serves 193,248 Sonoma County customer accounts, with an additional 44,106 expected in June 2017 after the expansion to Mendocino County is complete.

Sonoma Clean Power’s board approved an expansion Thursday into unincorporated Mendocino County and the cities of Fort Bragg, Point Arena and Willits.

Syphers said the number of customers in Mendocino County is estimated based on the same opt-out rate in Sonoma County, currently at 12 percent.

Some voiced criticism Thursday over the launch of the electric vehicle initiative, saying it appears that Sonoma Clean Power is undertaking a risky role by advertising only a selection of models currently on the market.

“You have a situation where they are taking on a business role and becoming a marketing company by preferentially only dealing with manufacturers who will play ball and give big discounts,” said Andy Ferguson, a Petaluma resident who voiced strong support for the use of electric vehicles but expressed caution over the way in which Sonoma Clean Power is advancing its effort to increase electric vehicle use.

“You have to consider the enormous risk to the consumer by being first adopters or buying these cars when the technology is moving so rapidly,” Ferguson said.

“It might not be as desirable in six months, so the real question is should Sonoma Clean Power be playing favorites in this market?”

“Why not just offer a deduction on the consumer’s choice for an electric vehicle, and not differentiate between manufacturers?” he asked.

Syphers said the agency invited other manufacturers to participate in the program.

“Ford and Chevy have some longer-range electric cars, but they didn’t respond,” Syphers said.

“When we pressed them, they said they weren’t interested at this time … but I think the door is open. We’re very interested in being as inclusive as possible.”

Jim Bone, the dealer and a partner in the Jim Bone Auto Group in Santa Rosa, said he is excited to participate. Bone said the program offers a great business opportunity for the dealership, and helps the county meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

“The more electric cars we can put on the roads, the better it’s going to be for the environment,” he said.

“And it’s a big opportunity for us. I ordered 100 Leafs for this program, at $34,000 per car, … I’m pretty confident we’ll be successful in selling them.”

Carrillo expressed strong support, in particular, for the role Sonoma Clean Power can play in offering electric vehicles and charging stations to low-income families. He alluded to data that show lower-income people have not benefited from state incentives and federal tax credits at the same level as higher-income earners.

A 2015 study from the Energy Institute at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley found that the wealthiest Americans received 90 percent of federal tax credits for electric vehicles.

“We have the aspiration, and the potential, to include communities who have not been invited … to benefit from new technologies and this electric vehicle revolution,” Carrillo said. “I get giddy when I think about reaching out to Head Start families, employees at La Tortilla Factory, Amy’s Kitchen.”

The agency’s Rohnert Park representative was the sole member to vote against the electric vehicle program.

Don Schwartz, Rohnert Park assistant city manager who is on the Sonoma Clean Power board, said he was directed by the City Council to vote against any electric vehicle initiative until there is proper funding to address much-needed road repairs.

“A lot of revenue for maintaining roads comes from gasoline taxes. The good news is that electric vehicles and higher mileage vehicles reduce carbon emissions, but the down side is there is then less revenue from gasoline taxes to repair the roads,” Schwartz said.

“So we’re exacerbating one problem to fix another.”

Schwartz is also concerned about providing government incentives for people to purchase BMWs, as well as the mileage range electric vehicles currently offer.

“Range is one of the biggest problems, and we’re doing very little to address that problem,” he said.

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