The Sonoma Calpine 3 geothermal power plant at The Geysers field in the Mayacamas Mountains of Somona County, Northern California - Stepheng3, cc by1.0, en wikipedia.

Sonoma, California’s Second Community Choice Utility, Goes Online

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PMCalifornia’s second community choice aggregation (CCA) went online May 1.  Sonoma Clean Power is now supplying power to 16,845 commercial and 6,225 residential customers. Over the next two years, all customers in the unincorporated areas of the county, Santa Rosa, Windsor, Cotati, Sebastopol and Sonoma will become eligible for service.

Marin & Sonoma Counties - Google Maps
Marin & Sonoma Counties – Google Maps

The enrollment rate is much better than when Marin Clean Energy, California’s first community choice aggregation, went online four years ago. Around 7% of potential accounts have remained with PG&E, compared to 25%.

“People are generally very excited about this,” said CEO Geof Syphers, who anticipates that as much as 18% of county residents will opt to stay with PG&E.

The opt-out rate could be substantially higher, if a utilities backed bill is passed by the California legislature.

On the surface, AB 2145 seems harmless enough. Potential customers in an area like Sonoma, that chooses to form a community choice aggregate, will be given a choice to opt in.

Under California’s original CCA law, AB 117, everyone would have been automatically enrolled and given the chance to opt out.
The change would allow the area’s utility, in this case PG&E, to retain people who are not sufficiently motivated to take definitive action as customers.

“Community Choice is the most powerful solution local governments have to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This bill would steal that solution from cities and counties throughout the State,” said Ann Hancock, Executive Director of the organization that helped launch Sonoma Clean Power.

The origins of California’s community choice aggregation go back to the energy crises of 2002. Paul Fenn drafted AB 117.

The Golden Gate Bridge and the City of San Francisco as seen from the Marin Headlands - David Ball, cc-by-2.5, en wikpedia
The Golden Gate Bridge and the City of San Francisco as seen from the Marin Headlands (Click on photo to enlarge) – David Ball, cc-by-2.5, en wikpedia

When the first CCE was being formed in Marin County, PG&E sponsored a proposition that would have called for a 2/3 majority in order for municipalities to form CCAs or municipal utilities. If money had been the deciding factor, the utility would have easily won. PG&E $46 million into the vote, as opposed to the mere $100,000 gathered by CCE supporters. The deciding factor was voters from PG&E’s own territory, who mostly voted against the utility.

“Everyone hates PG&E,” wrote Tim Redmond of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He cited the company’s high rates, poor service, blackouts, botched smart-meter program and financial greed as the reasons.

Proposition 16 was voted down by 52.5% of California’s electorate and Marin Clean Energy soon went online.

Old Courthouse Square, Downtown Santa Rosa - Wulfnoth, released into Public Domain
Old Courthouse Square, Downtown Santa Rosa – Wulfnoth, released into Public Domain

Sonoma County Water Agency began seriously exploring the idea of forming a community power program in 2011.

Geof Syphers was hired as a consultant the following year and appointed CEO in July 2013.

“We’re not replacing PG&E,” Syphers said at a recent town hall forum . “What we do is we buy from cleaner sources of power and then we fill PG&E’s wires that they still maintain, and they help get that power to you. So what we’re doing is choosing cleaner sources.”

“We’ve been around for a long time … We will continue to provide all the services that we do today,” a senior vice president of PG&E added.

Sonoma Clean Power’s “CleanStart” package is made up of sources that are 70% carbon-free, with 33% coming from renewable sources.

Rate comparison, taken from Sonoma Clean Energy homepage
Rate comparison, taken from Sonoma Clean Energy homepage

The 15 existing geothermal plants at The Geysers area, on the border of Sonoma and Lake counties, are among the power supplies for Sonoma’s “EverGreen” 100% renewables program.

Approximately 51% of PG&E’s supply is carbon-free power and 22% come from renewable sources like solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and small hydroelectric projects.

According to the North Bay Business Journal, “A small business consuming no more than 150,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year could pay an average of 9.2 cents per kilowatt hour under Sonoma Clean Power versus 9.7 cents under PG&E, according to board materials. A single-family dwelling or separately-metered apartment could pay around 8.8 cents per kilowatt hour under Sonoma Clean Power, compared to 9.3 cents under PG&E.”

(Image at top of page: The Sonoma Calpine 3 geothermal power plant at The Geysers field in the Mayacamas Mountains of Somona County, Northern California – Stepheng3, cc by1.0, en wikipedia.

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