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Close to Home: Invest now for a clean energy future

On May 1, Sonoma Clean Power celebrated its first year of delivering greener, cheaper power to customers. Here is a snapshot of Sonoma Clean Power’s enormous success:

With its basic service, Sonoma Clean Power supplies electricity that is 6 to 9 percent less expensive and 34 percent lower in greenhouse gas emissions than PG&E’s. In its first year, Sonoma Clean Power kept an estimated $6 million circulating in Sonoma County. Additionally, Sonoma Clean Power offers EverGreen, a 100 percent renewable, locally sourced option, and NetGreen which pays more than PG&E does to customers who feed solar power into the grid. Last year, Sonoma Clean Power signed a contract for 70 megawatts of new solar that doubled the amount of solar in the county’s energy mix. It also recently contracted for 12.5 megawatts of local floating solar through the Sonoma County Water Agency. And Sonoma Clean Power is ramping up its purchase for local geothermal electricity from The Geysers, projected to be 23 percent of its power mix by 2018.

Darn good for a first year. Kudos to Sonoma Clean Power’s board, staff and all of its customers. Sonoma Clean Power offers lower rates because PG&E is locked into more expensive long-term electricity contracts while the price of solar and other renewables continues to descend. This situation that gives an advantage to the home team will not last forever and is a perfect opportunity to increase our investment in a sustained clean energy economy. Plentiful opportunities for investment exist such as more rooftop and parking lot solar, energy efficiency projects, pilot projects for storage, microgrids and demand response programs that save customers money by managing when they use electricity. All of these generate local jobs. Modernizing the local grid so it is more resilient and thus more able to accept even more local renewable energy will not only keep energy costs low and save us money in the long run, but it will also help keep greenhouse gas emissions significantly lower with more local solar, energy efficiency and conservation.

Investing now means that, in decades to come, our community will be less susceptible to the volatility of world energy markets and less vulnerable to natural disasters and other threats to our power service. Low-income customers will not be impacted because they will continue to be served by the CARE program and, with good planning and by building its reserve, Sonoma Clean Power’s rates will continue to be competitive with PG&E’s.

Energy markets are going through big changes with positive disruptions from renewables, storage and localization. If we make smart choices today - innovative programs, public-private partnerships and committed investment - we will give customers more options, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and move toward a more sustainable and resilient energy system.

Traditional utilities are slow to embrace such opportunities because they do not fit their business model or provide short-term returns for shareholders. Sonoma Clean Power is different. Its only obligation is to the community, not short-term shareholder dividends. Sonoma Clean Power can be agile and innovative. As a community, we can think beyond the short term, spend a little less now on lowering rates and a little more on long-term investment. The logic that applies to investing in our children’s education applies to investing in our clean energy economic future. The era of big polluting electricity plants and powerless ratepayers is ending. We fought hard to establish Sonoma Clean Power so we would have local control over rates and our power mix. Now is the time to exercise this control by making policy and budget choices to enhance our long-term future.

Dick Dowd is vice chairman of the Center for Climate Protection and vice chairman of the Sonoma Clean Power business operations committee. Brad Baker is chairman and CEO of Codding Enterprises.

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