When Sonoma Clean Power was created five years, ago, its board of directors set five key goals:
• Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
• Provide energy at a competitive cost
• Boost the local economy by developing local distributed energy resources
• Promote long-term rate stability, energy security, reliability, resilience
• Carry out programs to reduce energy consumption
Over time directors have adjusted these goals to fit their evolving understanding of what’s needed and what works, especially to shift their focus away from producing more renewables and toward enabling fewer emissions, because they feel that best achieves their commitment to “turning the tide on the climate crisis.”
Some want to prioritize projects that perform well in a cost-benefit analysis that compares agency dollars spent to CO2 emissions reduced, but that is not always achieved.
Based on interviews with officials and experts in the industry, Sonoma Clean Power merits these grades on meeting these goals:
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions: “A”
Officially, Sonoma Clean Power has achieved this goal. But not everyone agrees.
When Sonoma Clean Power buys geothermal energy from the Geysers in northeast Sonoma County, hydroelectric power from Washington state or wind power from Idaho — all longstanding supplies of clean energy — has it reduced greenhouse gas emissions? Some say no.
“My test for what’s valuable is whether or not the CCA is getting new resources built that otherwise wouldn’t have existed, or keeps an existing resource operating that would otherwise shut down. That’s the gold standard,” said Matthew Freedman, an attorney with TURN. TURN is a consumer advocacy nonprofit financed by its members, foundations and fees approved by the California Public Utilities Commission for intervening on behalf of residential customers.
“I believe it is what the CCA founders are committed to, but it’s a lot easier and quicker to buy and resell stuff already out there,” Freedman said.
“We don’t have all the clean energy infrastructure in place that’s needed to run a zero-carbon grid, so someone’s got to build it. It’s important to ask how well CCAs and other electricity providers, like investor-owned utilities and municipal utilities, are doing,” said Danny Cullenward, an energy economist who advises the California Environmental Protection Agency.
But CEO Geof Syphers says buying from new renewable sources has never been the primary goal of community choice agencies. Instead, the main climate goal is to not buy from fossil fuel sources.
“If we buy existing coal, aren’t we increasing emissions? But if we buy existing renewables, we’re not reducing emissions? That’s ridiculous,” Syphers said.
Sonoma Clean Power has 10 contracts that meet Freedman’s gold standard, and it intends to buy more, Syphers said.
It has signed for 70 megawatts of energy from a new solar power plant near Lemoore, 46 megawatts from rebuilt wind turbines in the Altamont Pass area, 80 megawatts of wind being developed in Alameda County and 50 megawatts of solar and 5 megawatts of storage underway in Stanislaus County. All are 20-year contracts. In addition, it has agreed to buy 6 megawatts of solar power from six new projects in Cloverdale, Petaluma and Willits, with three still under construction.
These 252 megawatts could cover about 22 percent of the average 350 megawatts of power Sonoma Clean Power needs for its customers, given various solar and wind production constraints. On peak days the agency needs up to 570 megawatts.
The long-term contracts are notable to community choice critics who worry the agencies won’t have enough long-term contracts to withstand a repeat of the state’s first deregulation disaster 1998-2001. A major fault of that deregulation was that utilities had not been allowed to enter long-term contracts, so they were vulnerable to soaring wholesale prices.
Provide energy at a competitive cost: “B”
Directors and their community advisers seem to agree that Sonoma Clean Power rates need to be “competitive” with PG&E. In fact, they have supported building up reserves to be able to subsidize rates if needed.
But some directors and community advisers would like to spend more money on local green projects, even if they are “a little more” expensive and could raise costs for ratepayers.
A particularly strong advocate for ratepayers was early adviser Bob Williamson, retired top corporate auditor with Chevron, who argued repeatedly to give low rates a priority. Some critics think rates should be set as low as possible, arguing that projects haven’t been approved, and shouldn’t be financed, by ratepayers.
The agency’s practice has been to adjust rates so they’re below PG&E but leave some money available for programs.
While founders said they formed the agency because it could buy clean energy, consumers appear to be more focused on rates, given that only 1,851 out of roughly 224,000 are willing to pay $13 extra each month for 100 percent state-approved renewables.
Stimulate the local economy by developing local distributed energy resources: “D”
Except for the six 1-megawatt solar projects in Petaluma, Cloverdale and Willits, local projects are not happening. In part, that’s because the Sonoma Clean Power team wants to focus on reducing emissions, for example by promoting electric vehicles, and in part it’s because local projects can be expensive and unpopular with neighbors.
The tension among the goals of cleaner energy, competitive rates and local energy is a dilemma that is well understood and much discussed at Sonoma Clean Power. Three years ago agency directors reworded this goal to reflect their evolving priorities.
Promote long-term rate stability, energy security, reliability, resilience: “C”
Mindful of this goal, Sonoma Clean Power has only adjusted rates four times since it started five years ago, a notable achievement given that its survivability depends on being competitive with PG&E, and PG&E can adjust its rates up to six times a year, Syphers said.
Regarding security, reliability and resilience, the agency points to its programs that support electric vehicles, charging stations, energy-efficient fire rebuilds and ways customers can help the grid by ramping electricity up or down on demand. On the board’s radar are ways to help implement microgrids, renewables and storage to improve reliability in an era of digital warfare and wildfire.
Carry out programs to reduce energy consumption: “B”
Even though this goal reduces revenue for Sonoma Clean Power, directors and advisers have argued for a variety of these programs.
Here are some of the projects Sonoma Clean Power has underway:
NetGreen, the rooftop solar program: Solar customers who produce more solar than they need, and send it to the grid, get a check from Sonoma Clean Power each May. This year Sonoma Clean Power refunded $862,000 to 2,027 customers, up from $639,000 to 1,525 customers in 2018.
NetGreen pays the agency’s retail rate plus 1 cent per kilowatt hour. For most residential customers, that would be slightly more than 7 cents per kilowatt hour. Payments max out at $5,000 a year. By comparison, PG&E pays 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour.
Drive EV: Electrification of vehicles is its “number one environmental objective” because transportation is where the bulk of local greenhouse gas emissions originate. Sonoma Clean Power spent $2.8 million to arrange average customer discounts of up to $20,000 on 1,262 qualified plug-in electric vehicles and distributed 2,444 free chargers for installation at homes.
Customers saved more than $10 million, and the county eliminated 7,104 tons of greenhouse gas emissions over three years, Sonoma Clean Power said. In the future, the agency plans to focus on increasing charging stations to encourage wider EV use.
EV charging during the day helps use up the excess electricity that solar panels currently produce mid-day in California, drives up the value of that mid-day solar which is slumping because of over-supply, helps to create local solar jobs and completes the switch from using fuel from distant oil companies to using clean local energy, supporters say.
It’s generally thought to cost roughly half what gasoline fuel does. Check out this calculator: sonomacleanpower.org/drive-ev-choose-ev.
“Using electric cars to bring that money back into the county could be one of the biggest business development opportunities this county has ever seen,” Syphers said.
In October there were 8,222 all-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles registered in Sonoma and Mendocino, out of 543,201 total registered vehicles, according to the state Department of Vehicles. An electric vehicle is estimated to save 5 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, similar to the emissions saved by solar panels on a typical Northern California home.
The county’s overall goal is to lower annual emissions from 2007 highs of 4.2 million tons down to 2.6 million tons.
Do it yourself: Sonoma Clean Power lends energy efficient toolkits and single-burner induction cooktops free to help people save energy at home.
DIY Energy and Water Savings Toolkits with devices to measure energy and water use, dimable LED lightbulbs, weather stripping, low-flow shower heads and aerators are available at most county libraries.
Energy-saving induction cooktops and pots can be rented at sonomacleanpower.org/programs/induction-cooking and picked up at Sonoma Clean Power in Santa Rosa or the non-profit Daily Acts in Petaluma.
Lead Locally: With a $10 million grant from the California Energy Commission to promote energy efficiency and fuel substitution technologies, and with applications from almost 200 customers, Sonoma Clean Power will soon begin testing advance technologies like heat pump water heaters, radiant ceiling heating and cooling panels, residential attic phase change materials and air to water heat pumps in 15 homes.
The agency also plans to open a Santa Rosa store for advanced technologies at 741 Fourth St. in 2020.
GridSavvy: At press time 729 Sonoma Clean Power customers had signed up for technology that will let them coordinate their EV chargers, and potentially thermostats and water heaters, with the minute-by-minute needs of the California Independent System Operator, which manages the grid.
Over the next year Sonoma Clean Power hopes to start bidding the GridSavvy energy resources into the markets to prove the value of customer-owned electricity.
Advanced Energy Rebuild: Sonoma Clean Power got up to $20 million in financial commitments and recruited PG&E and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to help people rebuild with energy efficiencies after the 2017 wildfires.
At press time 205 homeowners had applied with about one-third deciding to rebuild all-electric homes. The homes are projected to be 26 percent more energy efficient and save about $650 a year on utility bills.
The consortium conducts seminars on green building for homeowners, contractors, engineers and architects and offers $17,500 to help each homeowner who rebuilds an efficient, sustainable home.