Officials guiding the rollout of Sonoma County's public power agency on Tuesday kicked off an extended discussion about how the agency adds local power sources and folds in other programs and projects central to its mission of being a greener, competitively priced alternative to PG&E.

The step comes after Sonoma Clean Power cleared most of its major development hurdles, securing a power supply late last year and setting customer rates earlier this month. It is set to begin service in May to its first wave of 20,000 customers, most of which will be commercial accounts.

Business interests pushed for the planning talks last year, seeing potentially lucrative opportunities in an expanded market for locally produced electricity, especially from solar panels.

Climate activists have been equally vocal, touting the potential to quickly and significantly reduce local greenhouse gas emissions by tapping a variety of renewable energy sources in the county.

"From our perspective, this is where the treasure is," said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign. "We have put a lot of time into thinking how this can happen at an aggressive pace."

On the other side are many of those representing Sonoma Clean Power, staff, the board of directors or its two advisory committees. They have urged a more conservative approach that could hold down ratepayer costs in the short term.

Those costs are seen as the biggest factor affecting how many customers choose to stick with the public venture or opt out and remain with PG&E. One agency adviser called that opt-out rate an "absolutely critical key measurement."

"If we don't retain customers, the game is lost," said Harry Davitian, a Sebastopol energy developer and consultant who serves on the agency's business operations committee.

The comments came at a much-anticipated meeting of the five-member business committee, which provides input on decisions ranging from power contracts and energy conservation programs to administration and finance.

The three-hour session Tuesday launched public talks aimed at developing by July a plan that will outline how the agency incorporates supply from a wider network of local electricity producers.

Proponents tout the economic and environmental benefits of power from solar panels on local homes and businesses, plus larger commercial systems on some open land. Such projects wouldn't necessarily have to be publicly financed or owned, supporters said.

"Sonoma Clean Power, in our view, does not need to be the one doing the heavy lifting," said Woody Hastings of the Climate Protection Campaign. "There's a lot of space in the private sector to do that."

But electricity from such sources tends to be more expensive than wholesale power purchased from industrial-scale suppliers.

Agency advisers said the public venture needed to keep that in mind as it plans on branching out from its initial pair of power contracts, one with a subsidiary of the Chicago energy giant Exelon Corp. and the secondary deal with the operator of The Geysers geothermal field on the Sonoma-Lake county border.

"The bottom line is Sonoma Clean Power has to move forward on a sound financial basis," said Paul Brophy, a member of the business operations committee and founder and president of a Santa Rosa-based geothermal energy company. "Everything we do in the next five years is going to be a balancing act. That's the way I think it has to be."

The proposed plan would also spell out programs to encourage energy efficiency and conservation.

Anything that reduces overall electricity demand in the county would be welcomed as a major split from the sales-driven business model at PG&E and other private utilities, one speaker said.

"This is the time for Sonoma Clean Power to make the break from that investor-owned-utility model," said John Rosenblum, a Sebastopol engineer who specializes in energy efficiency.

Sonoma Clean Power officials said the ongoing debate would help chart the venture's next steps.

"This is a conversation about what do we do with this agency and how do we get value out of it for our community, the climate, for our economy," said Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power.

Three workshops are planned to take public input. The current schedule calls for two 7 p.m. meetings, one at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building on Feb. 13 and the other at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa on Feb. 20.

The third meeting is tentatively set for 10 a.m. March 1 at the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center's youth annex building.

The agency's next board meeting is Feb. 6.

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