Rohnert Park joins Sonoma Clean Power

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In a tense, 3-2 City Council vote, Rohnert Park on Tuesday joined Sonoma Clean Power, becoming the seventh city in Sonoma County to sign on to the startup electricity provider.

The agency, which began supplying power to Sonoma County customers in May, will begin serving Rohnert Park’s 18,000 eligible utility accounts starting next summer.

“It feels great. We’re happy to be able to serve the city of Rohnert Park,” said Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power. The agency is now the default power provider for the unincorporated areas of the county and all of its cities except Healdsburg, which has its own municipal electric utility, and Petaluma, which is expected to take up the issue next month.

The public agency offers electric rates it says are about 4 to 5 percent lower than PG&E’s. Rohnert Park’s residents, businesses and the city government stand to save approximately $530,000 per year on electric bills, according to a city staff report.

The outcome of the vote for the county’s third-largest city was uncertain until the end. For much of the meeting, Councilman Amy Ahanotu appeared to be on the fence about the issue, but ultimately cast the deciding vote after much deliberation.

“When I see Sonoma Clean Power, I see a government agency going after a monopoly,” he said. “Both are about the same. It comes down to choice. I believe in a free market. Competition is good.”

Council members Jake Mackenzie and Gina Belforte voted with Ahanotu to join the agency. Mayor Joe Callinan and Councilwoman Pam Stafford voted against the proposal.

“I’ve been in business a long time, and I go by my gut feeling,” Callinan said. “I still haven’t had a gut feeling that this is a good thing. I just don’t see how we can run it better than PG&E.”

Callinan said he was concerned that Sonoma Clean Power board members do not have experience running a power agency. After the vote, the council nominated Don Schwartz, the assistant city manager who prepared the staff report on the item, to represent the city on the agency’s board.

Schwartz will become the first member of the board who is not an elected city or county official. He said he was a bit surprised by his selection.

“I take it as an honor that they think I will do a good job,” he said.

Stafford said she had problems with how Sonoma Clean Power enrolls new customers. As laid out in the 2002 state law that authorized such programs, the agency automatically becomes the power provider in participating areas. Customers can choose to opt out of the program and stay with their current power provider, PG&E.

“I understand the opt out, how you have to do it because of the state legislation,” Stafford said. “I still don’t agree with that. I still don’t like it.”

She voiced complaints that she said she heard from residents of other cities where Sonoma Clean Power is starting up that the agency’s enrollment notices are misleading or easily ignored. Syphers said the agency would work on making its communications more transparent.

Sonoma Clean Power aims to provide electricity that is generated from cleaner sources, and has initially procured power that emits 34 percent less greenhouse gases than PG&E, according to a staff report. Environmental groups have touted the agency as a way to address the causes of climate change. At least a dozen other communities around California are considering starting similar public power agencies.

“Every city that joins across the state has the ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Woody Hastings with the Center for Climate Protection, said after the vote. “It could be a huge impetus for change.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.

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