Kenwood Press

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News: 03/15/2014

Get ready for Sonoma Clean Power

It used to be simple. Move in, call PG&E to turn on the electricity and/or gas, and then pay your bill every month. But as of May 1, there will be a new company in town. Sonoma County citizens will now purchase their power from an alternate source – Sonoma Clean Power – which buys power from cleaner production sources that pollute less and even cost a bit less than PG&E.

The idea behind Sonoma Clean Power (SCP) is to reduce the carbon pollution generated by some kinds of energy production through purchasing “clean” energy. This is something that 75 percent of Sonoma County citizens put at the top of their environmental wish-list when polled back in 2012. With that level of baseline support, the county literally leaped to form a Community Choice Aggregator (Sacramento’s term) to buy electricity for resale to citizens, as permitted under California law.

Sonoma is the second county in the state, following Marin County, to go into the power business under that law. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors are directors of the organization, along with members of participating city councils.

SCP will be the default choice for everybody living in the unincorporated areas, and for city dwellers where the city councils voted to join in last year. So far, Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cloverdale have chosen to wait and see how the program works before opting in. Healdsburg already buys its power directly from the Geysers, Sonoma County’s prime source of non-polluting energy. The holdouts can vote to join later.

“Competition is good,” said Tim Holmes, a Kenwood resident and engineer by education who has been a consultant in the energy industry for many years. He is a member of Sonoma Clean Power’s Ratepayers Advisory Committee. “We’re already starting to see the impacts. Sonoma Clean Power is selling a premium, 100 percent renewable power plan, and now PG&E has created a 100 percent option it never had before.”

As for why Sonoma County is now in the power business, Holmes said, “Climate change is an issue. How do we make significant changes in a short period of time where we can reverse the impact of climate change? SCP is a good tool to help start that, even if it has a long way to go.”

Sonoma Clean Power is a buyer of electricity; it has nothing to do with making power, storing power, sending it over transmission lines, building or maintaining transmission lines, or even with the meters (smart or dumb) at your house or place of business. They simply buy power wholesale for everybody in the pool and bill for it through the regular PG&E bill. The only thing that changes for PG&E is they no longer sell power to the SCP members. They still do everything else.

If your power goes out, PG&E will fix it. If SCP can’t deliver for any reason, PG&E will still supply your power.

There’s no single source of power that could serve everyone in America, California, or even Sonoma. America’s energy comes from a variety of sources, some of which produce more pollutants than others. Coal burning generators are the worst perpetrators of “dirty” energy, followed by oil and gas fired power plants.

A comparison of CleanStart’s contracted power sources vs. PG&E’s 2013 power sources shows 70 percent of the CleanStart power bundle is the preferred type of “clean” energy.

The program will go public in May. While a few residential customers may already have gotten a notice from SCP that they will be part of the first customers, almost all of the first 20,000 customers will be commercial, according to SCP. The rest of the county will be phased into the program in 2015 and 2016, providing time to work out any kinks in the system.

Customers have the opportunity to opt out of the program 60 days before and 60 days after they are automatically enrolled. Everyone will be given multiple notices of their enrollment dates, so you should be notified in plenty of time to opt out and thus avoid a $5 penalty for residential and $25 fee for commercial customers who decide to stay with PG&E.

Some people have objected to the opt out system.

“People complain that they have to opt out of SCP,” Holmes noted. “The irony is that they’ve never had an opportunity to opt out of PG&E.”

Thomas Bottorff, senior vice president for regulatory affairs for PG&E, told a forum held at Temple Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa on March 4 that there are no plans yet for future free opt-out periods, but it is likely that market fluctuations and changes in either party’s rate structures might require the state’s Public Utilities Commission to examine that.

Bottorff and Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, spoke about their relative advantages at the evening forum, clearing up misconceptions and answering questions about buying and selling energy, and distinguishing themselves to help the audience decide what to do when the time comes to opt out or remain within the new system.

The state law that enables counties to do this – the Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) law – was passed after PG&E spent nearly $50 million trying to derail public energy sales. PG&E is forbidden from interfering with marketing of the CCAs, i.e., by lowering their rates or aggressively attacking the new entities.

What’s immediately clear is that the more customers enrolled, the better it is for the purveyor. PG&E wants to retain its existing customers and SCP wants to take as many of those as it can. State law gives the newcomer an immediate advantage by essentially hijacking all of PG&E’s existing customers by requiring them to do nothing to be enrolled with the new seller – SCP – and requiring them to act to stay with PG&E. Inertia alone dictates that most people will go along with the program, and neither Bottorff nor Syphers seemed to feel that a hard sell was going to make any significant difference in the early years in swaying the customer base.

There’s also a bonus for people who generate their own power with solar arrays. Almost all solar power produced goes directly into PG&E power; the producers get an offset on their regular PG&E bill. They don’t get paid for producing more than they use and lose credits from one year to the next. SCP will pay solar power producers a penny premium for their extra power per kilowatt hour, as well as pay cash for overages over $100.

Sonoma County has more solar power generation than any other county in the state, accounting for almost 25 percent of the total state solar power, according to Syphers.


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