Even though 87 percent of eligible electricity users in Sonoma and Mendocino counties have decided to let Sonoma Clean Power buy their power, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is still the energy giant in the region.
As it struggles through its second bankruptcy in 20 years, and a bitter backlash against corporate PG&E for failure to maintain the wires that caused recent firestorm deaths and damage, its services are still vital to the area’s economy and well being.
PG&E delivers the power that Sonoma Clean Power buys, and it maintains the lines. It sends out the bills. It buys and delivers gas. It’s estimated to spend more than $100 million a year buying energy from The Geysers geothermal fields in and around northeast Sonoma County. It stands in the wings waiting to rush out electricity to its own solar and wind customers when Mother Nature drops the ball. And it must welcome any Sonoma Clean Power customers who don’t pay their bills or want to return to PG&E.
To do that work, it employs about 770 people in Sonoma County and 136 in Mendocino County, and about 400 PG&E employees live in Sonoma County but work elsewhere, according to a company spokesperson.
Calilfornia’s largest utility, PG&E’s service territory stretches from Santa Barbara County north through Humboldt County and from the ocean almost to Nevada.
Though Sonoma Clean Power and PG&E disagree on some issues, Sonoma Clean Power CEO Geof Syphers has said he sees important opportunities for his agency and PG&E to be partners.
As Sonoma Clean Power expanded into Mendocino County two years ago, officials said they heard a strong message from rural residents, who appreciate PG&E crews, especially during winter storms.
In the North Bay, PG&E is led by senior manager Joe Horak, a Santa Rosa resident who grew up in Kansas and has lived in Sonoma County more than 20 years.
Horak has worked for PG&E more than 12 years, most recently in the business energy solutions division, and before PG&E he worked for the county’s Economic Development Board where among other projects he helped develop the Sonoma County Tourism Office. He has a master’s degree in public administration from Sonoma State University.
Active in the community, he is a founding board member of the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County and a member of the Oak Grove Union School District Board of Trustees in Santa Rosa.
Horak and his team work in an industry that is in turmoil. In this upheaval, it’s PG&E employees who have to keep the lights on, even for the customers who abandon them but still need them.
“I am proud to support the employees who work for PG&E. Every day they work extremely hard to ensure customers have safe and reliable gas and electric service. Through the challenges facing our organization, we all continue to be focused on helping our customers,” Horak said.
PG&E is a publicly traded company. Many of its shareholders are Sonoma and Mendocino county residents, through their stock accounts, their pension plans and their mutual funds. Although promoters of Sonoma Clean Power saw value in no longer having to share profits with PG&E shareholders, many of those shareholders are their neighbors.
Shareholders do get profits, but they also take risk and sometimes cover losses, as in the fatal gas-pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010. At press time, PG&E shares had fallen from $70 to $18 since the beginning of 2017. In late 2017 PG&E suspended dividends on its stock because of potential liability related to the wildfires.
Electricity users often complain about PG&E being a monopoly that charges high rates, but PG&E by law can not profit on electricity sales. It mainly makes its money on delivering the power, and those rates must be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission.
Often recognized as a green energy provider, PG&E is No. 4 overall and the top U.S. company on Newsweek’s 2017 Green Rankings. That year it was one of only eight U.S. gas and electric companies to make the Dow Jones Sustainability North America Index which tracks corporate sustainability.
In 2018 it made the Corporate Responsibility Magazine’s 100 Best Corporate Citizens, which recognizes “standout environmental” and other achievements. It’s recognized periodically as being first or second for connecting more rooftop solar customers to the grid than any other utility in the nation.
Sonoma and Mendocino counties have benefitted from green initiatives undertaken by PG&E and its regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission.
For example, since 2006 PG&E energy efficiency programs have provided almost $56 million in incentives and in the first year saved more than $70 million in energy costs for Sonoma County ratepayers, including Sonoma Clean Power customers, according to PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras. The programs are largely financed by a monthly “electric public purpose programs” fee that the public utilities commission requires PG&E to collect from ratepayers for this purpose.