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Sonoma Clean Power endorses new spending on electric vehicle charging network

Sonoma Clean Power, the public electricity supplier for most of the homes and businesses in Sonoma County, launched a plan Thursday to get into the electric vehicle market.

The agency’s board of directors endorsed spending $3.5 million on green energy programs, including a new initiative intended to spur wider adoption of electric vehicles in the county.

Initially, the agency is seeking to develop 500 new electric vehicle charging stations at public and private locations across the county. The goal is to bring an additional 10,000 electric vehicles to local roads in the next five years, officials said.

Geof Syphers, the agency’s chief executive officer, characterized the initiative as a potential game-changer for the local economy. Gas-powered transportation siphons money away to fossil fuel producers, he said Thursday, while increasing local demand for electricity can bolster growth of the green energy economy.

“Using electric cars to shift that money back into the county would possibly be one of the biggest business development opportunities this county has ever seen,” Syphers said.

The board of directors made the preliminary decision during Thursday’s meeting on Sonoma Clean Power’s $151 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1. The board expects to allocate funds for the green energy programs throughout the year.

In addition to the spending on programs, the board backed a 2 percent rate cut across the board for all residential and commercial customers, effective July 1. The rate cut is expected to shave $2 to $6 off monthly residential and commercial electricity bills.

“It’s incredibly gratifying,” Syphers said of the move. He warned, however, that rates will not necessarily remain lower than PG&E.

“So far, this agency has never raised rates, but don’t get used to that,” Syphers said. “We’ll have to raise rates eventually to keep up with inflation.”

The board also approved allocating $4.7 million to its long-term financial reserves, which now stand at $10.7 million.

“It’s important that we have that to cover risks and credit for future projects,” Syphers said.

The money going to programs is expected to fund the new charging stations, as well as pay for other efforts underway, including public events encouraging people to test drive electric cars, research on general cost and availability of electric cars, and hosting events at local schools to increase awareness about climate change.

The move into electrification of the county’s transportation system - with an eye eventually on powering mass transit systems - is one that Syphers contends will help Sonoma Clean Power remain competitive with PG&E.

The agency also is considering expansion into neighboring counties, with discussions underway with Mendocino and Lake county officials. Any such plan is still a year or more away, Syphers said.

Sonoma Clean Power expects to pay out $650,000 to homeowners and businesses that put excess solar energy back into the grid last year.

Board members Thursday pressed for greater progress on developing local renewable energy sources, which so far make up a marginal share of the agency’s electricity supply.

“We need to continue these projects and help the local economy,” said Windsor Councilman Bruce Okrepkie, who represents the city on the agency’s board. “It might be a little more ?expensive, but we’re in a good financial spot to be able to do that.”

Others praised the agency’s work to combat climate change while stressing the need to keep rates low.

“It’s important that the agency continue to push reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Petaluma Councilman Dave King, who also is on the board. “But many people will make the judgment whether to be a Sonoma Clean Power customer or a PG&E customer based on their bill.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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