News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Sonoma County Wants to Ditch Corporate Utility Power

Downtown Sonoma | Photo: Steve Parker/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Board of Supervisors of the Bay Area's semirural Sonoma County has voted 4-1 to launch a publicly owned electrical utility, starting in unincorporated areas but eventually encompassing the entire county. If successful, the new utility would eventually take 220,000 home and business customers away from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E.)

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Under the terms of the county's public power program, approved by a 4-1 vote on Tuesday, PG&E would still provide customer service, billing, and metering, as well as grid maintenance responsibilities. This work would presumably be done under contract with the new public utility.

The proposal must still be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the fledgling Sonoma Clean Power Authority, which will require a rate structure to be set up for the agencies to examine.

Backers of the public utility proposal say that taking control of the county's grid would allow a much faster shift from fossil fuels than PG&E has planned. The public utility would immediately offer a 33 percent renewable mix -- PG&E's now runs just shy of 20 percent -- with a focus on locally generated electricity from rooftop solar, small hydro and biomass, and the county's portion of The Geysers geothermal region. Some of the renewable percentage could also be calculated using renewable energy credits or "offsets," which many critics charge are a way to greenwash plain vanilla grid power from questionably renewable sources.

According to Brett Wilkison's report at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat/Petaluma 360, some on the Board of Supervisors are leery of caluclations based on credits:

Supervisor Susan Gorin pressed county staff for further details on just how heavily those credits would be relied upon in the short term and how the power program would ultimately trigger local power generation.

"We want to make sure we are producing projects and jobs," said Gorin.

The good news? According to Wilkison, the board took action after a staff report projected electric power might become cheaper once the county divests itself from PG&E:

The board discussion came after the county last week unveiled potential customer rates they said would make its electricity prices competitive with, if not cheaper than, PG&E rates.

Monthly bills in the first year could range from $1.73 less to $1.02 more -- or 1.8 percent less to 1.1 percent more -- than a PG&E bill for a 2,000-square-foot single-family home, according to county projections. For a mid-sized commercial customer such as a restaurant, large convenience or retail store, the monthly bill could be $80 less to $13 more -- 3.1 percent less to 0.5 percent more.

If the measure succeeds, Sonoma County would join San Francisco and portions of Marin County as northern California localities with newly enacted public utilities. Marin's utility has taken sharp criticism for contracting with Shell Energy North America for its power, and San Francisco is considering doing the same. The prospect of two NorCal public utilities relying on fossil fuels for most of their power is spurring talk from Sonoma's utility crowd that they plan to avoid following that example. Sonoma County does seem remarkably well suited to a mix of small-scale renewables generated locally: the development of Sonoma's utility will be an interesting process to watch.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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