Sonoma County reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but falls short of target

The launch of Sonoma Clean Power helped Sonoma County make a modest cut in greenhouse gas emissions last year, but officials said there is little chance of meeting the ambitious goal set a decade ago for 2015.

The county produced about 3.6 million tons of emissions last year, nearly two-thirds of it from transportation, marking a 4 percent decline from 2013 and a 14 percent drop from 2007, when emissions hit a 15-year peak of 4.2 million tons.

Greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, are the major driver of climate change, which Pope Francis warned last month could lead to “unprecedented destruction” of the environment.

The pontiff’s call for a “bold cultural revolution” was cited last week by the Santa Rosa-?based Center for Climate Protection in releasing the Sonoma County Greenhouse Gas Report for 2014, which Ann Hancock, the nonprofit’s executive director, said was a matter of good news/bad news.

“Emissions are coming down,” Hancock said. “But our emissions are not coming down fast enough.”

Specifically, she said there is little prospect of achieving the goal adopted in 2005 by the county and all nine cities of pushing greenhouse gas emissions below 2.6 million tons, or 25 percent below 1990 levels, by 2015.

“It’s too steep,” Hancock said. “Everybody knew it was a challenge.”

The goal, however, was “science-based,” she said, meaning it matched the prescription scientists have said is needed “to have a life-sustaining climate.”

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said it was “great to see some progress,” noting the county has been working to reduce emissions for more than a decade.

But transportation, the source of 64.6 percent of the county’s emissions, has proved resistant to change. The sector peaked in 2007 at 2.45 million tons and has come down only 5 percent since then. In 2014, transportation generated 2.3 million tons of emissions, up almost 1 percent from the previous year, a bump the center suggested was due to the county’s growing economy and population.

Natural gas combustion, which accounts for 16.5 percent of the county’s emissions, generated 597,427 tons of emissions last year, down 14 percent from 2013, most likely due to milder winter weather, the center said.

Electricity accounts for another 16.5 percent of emissions, and what Hancock found most promising was the 9.5 percent decline in those emissions, falling from 641,648 tons in 2013 to 581,024 tons last year, as Sonoma Clean Power began replacing PG&E as the county’s primary power supplier.

The nonprofit agency, run by the county and eight member cities, released its own first-year report last week, asserting that its greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 were 48 percent lower than PG&E’s, based on 2013 data from the regional utility.

Sonoma Clean Power said its power mix last year - 76 percent from biomass, geothermal, wind and hydroelectric sources with the rest mostly from natural gas - had an average emissions rate of 224 pounds per megawatt-hour of electricity. PG&E’s emissions rate was 427 pounds in 2013, and the utility has not released a rate for 2014.

The local power agency estimated its emissions savings at 53,579 metric tons last year, along with a rate savings to customers of $13.6 million.

Customers are “getting cleaner power and saving anywhere from 6 to 11 percent off their total electric bill,” said Geof Syphers, the agency’s CEO.

The agency is now providing electricity to about 90 percent of eligible customers, or about 198,000 accounts, in eight cities and the county’s unincorporated area. Healdsburg, which operates its own electric utility, is the only city that did not join Sonoma Clean Power.

The nonprofit initiated service to about 22,000 accounts in May 2014 and added about 163,000 more in December. In June, it picked up the cities of Cloverdale, Petaluma and Rohnert Park.

But Syphers cautioned against assuming the agency would make a much bigger dent in emissions this year, noting that the startup in mid-2014 included most of the county’s commercial and industrial customers, which are large power users.

Another mitigating factor is the drought, which will make hydropower more expensive and scarce if it continues through year’s end, Syphers said. Large hydropower facilities, which produce no emissions, were the agency’s major power source last year, delivering 44 percent of its electricity.

Hancock, Gorin and Syphers all said, in separate interviews, that the county is now aiming to cut transportation emissions, largely through a push to replace fuel-burning vehicles with cars and trucks running on electricity.

Gov. Jerry Brown has called for putting 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025 and completing a total conversion to carbon-free transportation by 2050.

Gorin said the county will seek to develop a network of electric vehicle charging stations and develop ways to enable low-income households to buy electric vehicles. Retrofitting existing housing to accommodate solar power panels and diverting yard waste from the landfill - thereby reducing the release of methane - will also contribute to lower greenhouse gas emissions, she said.

Decomposition of organic waste accounts for 2.2 percent of local emissions.

“The needle is moving in the right direction,” Hancock said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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