For years, a devoted band of San Francisco officials has tried, and failed, to create a public power agency that would supply renewable electricity to the city’s residents.
Marin County pioneered the idea in 2010, buying clean energy on behalf of local homes and businesses. And now Sonoma County appears poised to take the same step.
On Thursday, the governing board of Sonoma’s new public power agency plans to set rates for its electricity service, which will begin in May. Most customers will save money, compared to what they currently pay Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
“It’s hard to beat cleaner power at a cheaper price,” said Geof Syphers, chief executive officer of the new agency, Sonoma Clean Power.
Like the Marin Energy Authority before it, Sonoma Clean Power will use a system called “community choice aggregation” that works much like a buyer’s club for electricity.
The agency, formed by the county and most of its cities, will purchase electricity for residents, while PG&E will continue to own and operate the electrical grid. The system is designed to give communities more control over their sources of electricity, allowing them to buy more solar and wind power if they choose.
“This is the program we’ve been trying to get in San Francisco for 10 years,” said John Rizzo, political chair of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter. “San Francisco is supposed to be the city that knows how. In this case, it’s the city that doesn’t know how, and Sonoma does.”
Sonoma Clean Power will cover most of the county, with the exception of Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Petaluma and Rohnert Park. Healdsburg already has its own public utility, and the other cities chose to wait until after the agency launches before deciding whether to join, Syphers said.
Residents must opt out
Under state law, residents in the participating communities will be automatically enrolled in Sonoma Clean Power unless they opt out. The agency plans to start serving its first 20,000 customers in May.
Following Marin’s lead, Sonoma Clean Power will give customers two choices. The agency’s basic service, CleanStart, will save customers 2.3 percent on their electricity bills, compared with PG&E. And its mix of power sources will have 30 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than PG&E’s, Syphers said.
A second level of service, called EverGreen, will provide 100 percent renewable power, most of it drawn from the Geysers geothermal field. But it will come at a premium, raising a customer’s electricity bill roughly 20 percent.
“It’s not for everyone,” Syphers said. “EverGreen is targeted to the people who want to make a commitment. They want a clean-energy economy now. They don’t want to wait.”
Tough sledding in S.F.
Price has been a major stumbling block for San Francisco’s community choice aggregation effort, dubbed CleanPowerSF.
Last year, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission effectively froze the program rather than approve rates that would have been about 46 percent higher than PG&E’s. Program supporters claimed that the real problem was political rather than financial, with PG&E lobbying behind the scenes to have CleanPowerSF killed. The utility company, based in San Francisco, does not publicly oppose the program.
CleanPowerSF has also struggled to balance some of the demands placed on it by its backers.
Rather than just buying electricity, they also want the program to build and own renewable power projects. And they want to minimize the use of “renewable energy credits,” tradable certificates that prove a wind farm or solar power plant produced a specific amount of electricity at a particular time. Although the credits help support renewable power projects by creating an extra stream of income, critics consider them a poor substitute for buying the electricity itself.
Phasing out credits
Sonoma Clean Power will use the credits at first, but in a limited way. The credits, Syphers said, will account for 15 percent of CleanStart’s power mix, and none of EverGreen’s. The agency will phase out their use over time, he said.
Supporters of CleanPowerSF say they’re pleased to see community choice take flight in Sonoma. They’re frustrated, too.
“I remember hearing the announcement of Sonoma approving their clean power program on the radio, and I was like, ‘I can’t believe they are going to be ahead of us on this,’ ” said San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos. “The politics here are backwards when it comes to clean power.”
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