Sonoma County leads way in expanding green power industry

Programs like Sonoma Clean Power were touted by supporters Thursday at a Petaluma conference at as a disruptive force in an industry long dominated by a few utilties.|

Renewable energy experts Thursday credited Sonoma County with a leading role in the expanding green power industry, a sector combating climate change as it creates jobs - including economic growth fueled locally by one of the state’s first public electricity programs of its kind.

Ventures like Sonoma Clean Power, known as community choice aggregators, were touted by supporters at the Business of Local Energy Symposium in Petaluma as a disruptive force with the potential to transform the energy grid, spur new renewable projects and compete with established utilities like PG&E.

Sonoma Clean Power became the second community choice program in the state when it began serving 22,000 customers in May. It is set to expand to serve most of the county’s electricity customers in December.

Green energy experts said the competition is driving innovation in a power sector long dominated by a few companies.

“What community choice is doing to disrupt the power industry is very exciting,” said Rob Kelly, chief financial officer with San Mateo-based SolarCity, a leading solar system financier and installer. “We need to figure out partnerships between solar providers and community choice programs to help deploy this technology that just makes sense.”

The conference, presented by the Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection, an early supporter of Sonoma Clean Power, featured some of the dozens of businesses capitalizing on the growing interest in green technology: electric car-charger manufacturers, energy-efficient appliance makers, even a company that makes floating solar power systems that may soon cover wastewater treatment ponds in Sonoma County.

Geof Syphers, Sonoma Clean Power CEO, told delegates from around the state - many looking to start similar programs in their areas - that the agency is saving customers about 4 percent on electric bills, offering a third of its power from renewable sources like solar and geothermal.

“I’m here to tell you that community choice works,” he said. “It’s a way of creating a general-purpose tool to take control of your energy and use it for local benefit.”

Marin Clean Energy, launched in 2010 as the state’s first community choice program, has helped create 11 local solar projects feeding a total of 20 megawatts into the grid, said Jaimie Tuckey, the agency’s spokeswoman.

“It took time, but now there is interest in building local renewables,” she said.

Sonoma County’s power agency is working with three businesses interested in installing 1-megawatt solar projects and selling the energy back at a subsidized rate. The ventures would represent a tiny fraction of the agency’s overall need - about 355 megawatts at full rollout, according to officials.

Other challenges include political opposition from utilities and land-use fights over where local projects should be built.

Still, there are early signs that the public programs are outcompeting PG&E in the North Bay, enrolling more than 80 percent of its electricity customers in Marin County and on pace to do the same in Sonoma County.

The utility funded an unsuccessful 2010 ballot measure to limit the programs and supported state legislation this year that could have curtailed their growth by changing the way they enroll new customers. The bill stalled in the Senate.

Advocates expect more fights ahead, as at least a dozen communities across the state move forward with plans to create public power agencies, and other states look to California as a model.

“What we’re doing here in California inspires the rest of the country,” said Shawn Marshall, executive director of LEAN Energy U.S., a Mill Valley-based community choice advocacy group.

Six other states have similar public power programs, she said, but most were established to reduce energy costs, not greenhouse gases. That’s the key difference that makes California’s community choice programs leaders in efforts to address climate change, she said.

David Hochschild, who serves on the California Energy Commission, noted that the state is suffering its worst recorded drought and is about to finish the hottest year on record. Greater use of renewable resources could reduce the emissions that are warming the planet, he said.

“There is hope. This is a solvable problem,” he said. “We are the Saudi Arabia for solar, geothermal and wind. We need to make use of that. The answer with climate change is silver buckshot, not a silver bullet.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or

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