One way Sonoma Clean Power was sold to electricity customers — even though it would be yet another government agency — was as a way to seize ratepayer dollars from PG&E shareholders and use them to finance local renewable projects.
Here’s how county staff put it in the proposal that supervisors approved on April 23, 2013, when they voted to implement a community choice aggregation agency in Sonoma County:
“Sonoma Clean Power plans to focus on the development of local renewable generation sources, as well as implementing local energy efficiency and conservation programs. By keeping the generation revenues ‘at home’ and focusing on local programs, Sonoma Clean Power will create local jobs and improve the local economy.”
But CEO Geof Syphers and his board have moved cautiously on this goal, in part because local projects can be costly and make it harder to meet another agency goal of keeping rates competitive with PG&E.
They’re not alone. Although MCE, formerly Marin Clean Energy, says on its website, “We promised local renewables. Now we’re delivering,” it contracts for just 31 megawatts in its service area, out of the 749 megawatts it needs on an average day, with an occasional peak of up to 935. MCE was California’s first community choice agency, started in 2010.
Sonoma Clean Power appeared to deliver local energy right off the bat, by signing a contract in 2013 with Calpine Corp. at the Geysers geothermal fields in and around northeast Sonoma County for 10 megawatts of power, later increased to 50 megawatts by 2018.
In addition, it has since agreed to buy 6 megawatts of local solar power from six projects, with three still under construction. This is the first local solar to supply its EverGreen customers, who pay about $13 a month extra to get 100 percent local and clean energy and have been getting 100 percent geothermal.
Thus, Sonoma Clean Power’s local purchases could soon total 56 megawatts of energy.
But this year Sonoma Clean Power needs about 350 megawatts on an average day, with an occasional peak of up to 570. Local production is far from filling local needs.
Even The Geysers purchase from Calpine Corp. has been questioned by some who wonder if Sonoma Clean Power can brag about buying up to 50 megawatts of Geysers power, when PG&E said in 2016 that it was buying 425 megawatts from The Geysers, enough to supply all the electricity that Sonoma County needs. In 2019 PG&E is buying about 250 megawatts, a spokesperson said.
Syphers replies that it’s more accurate to compare Sonoma Clean Power’s 11 percent geothermal to PG&E’s 5 percent than to compare megawatts.
He argues that new contracts with Sonoma Clean Power can keep Calpine facilities operating and encourage Calpine to produce more.
While Calpine has to be careful not to deplete its resource, it does have two projects in Sonoma County, each 49 megawatts, ready to build when it finds a long-term buyer for the power, said a Calpine spokesperson. Geothermal power is attractive in part because it’s not intermittent, but it’s relatively expensive
In the earliest planning days, Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, AFL-CIO, supported the idea of forming a local community choice agency as a source of clean energy and local construction jobs.
“I was part of the group that agitated for Sonoma Clean Power,” Buckhorn said. “But to this date they have not lived up to the promise to create local building jobs.”
He said he understands that it took time for the new agency to get underway.
“But now we’re five years in. Where is the five-, 10-, 15-year plan to do it?” he asked.
The Feasibility Study
Much of the belief that Sonoma Clean Power could boost the local economy and create lots of local jobs goes back to 2011, when the economy was painfully pulling itself out of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
That year the board of directors of the Sonoma County Water Agency — which is also the board of supervisors for Sonoma County — authorized the water agency to hire consultants to prepare a peer-reviewed study of the feasibility of launching Sonoma Clean Power.
The report concluded that forming a community choice agency in Sonoma County would indeed be feasible. The 168-page study outlined four scenarios, one at status quo and three with development of a variety of local renewable projects by 2020, mostly in solar, biomass, geothermal, wind and storage.
In the three development scenarios, megawatts built ranged from 75 to 335. Long-term jobs created were 20 to 400. Annual economic benefits were $10 million to $80 million. Metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions saved each year ranged from 155,000 to 380,000. And the cost was $267 million to $1.267 billion.
Many county and city officials as well as involved citizens have said the feasibility study was influential in convincing them to proceed with forming or joining Sonoma Clean Power.
But Syphers and engineer Cordel Stillman, who was the water agency’s key person on the project and now is program director for Syphers, say they felt the study showed the more aggressive scenarios were too expensive to be realistic.
“We recognized then we couldn’t do scenarios No. 3 and No. 4. I specifically had those included, so people could see the costs,” Stillman said.
Today, after five years of operation, here’s the status of Sonoma Clean Power’s local development efforts:
ProFIT, the small solar fields program: To encourage solar development, Sonoma Clean Power pays $95 per megawatt hour for energy it buys from local solar fields sized up to 1 megawatt, with bonuses of up to $35 per megawatt hour for meeting goals like being developed by a local company or on a previously developed site.
That compares to the $65 per megawatt hour average that Sonoma Clean Power was paying for electricity when the program was set up.
PG&E has suspended its similar program called ReMAT Feed-in Tariff which paid $89.23 per megawatt hour.
Sonoma Clean Power directors have limited the extra cost of the ProFIT program, beyond $65 per megawatt hour, to $600,000 a year or about 6 megawatts. They pay for the ProFIT program with the 2½ cents per kilowatt hour extra that customers pay for EverGreen over CleanStart. The agency said it will do more ProFIT projects when it has more EverGreen ratepayers.
Sonoma Clean Power has six solar projects, three still under construction, to produce the 6 megawatts of power. None is by a local company, but most use a majority of local labor, Syphers said. The six projects are in Cloverdale, Willits and four in Petaluma.
Energy officials said key challenges for the ProFIT projects are the difficulty of getting a PG&E connection to the grid and the difficulty of finding sites that meet county permit guidelines.
Meanwhile, solar projects have become less attractive as solar production in California now at times exceeds demand mid-day, causing at least two problems: sometimes the California Independent System Operator has to pay neighboring states to take the excess solar power, and solar power is getting cheaper, which hurts rooftop solar owners.
One answer is to charge more electric vehicles mid-day, which Sonoma Clean Power promotes. Another answer is storage, which is expensive, getting cheaper but still rare in California.
Floating solar: “The largest floating solar project in the U.S.,” said nationwide headlines when Sonoma Clean Power announced in February 2015 that it had signed contracts to buy up to 12.5 megawatts of power a year from floating solar arrays that Pristine Sun was going to build on six Sonoma County water agency wastewater ponds. Completion was expected near the end of 2016.
The water agency would lease the ponds to San Francisco-based Pristine for $800 per acre per year. Pristine would own and operate the solar panels, and it would sell the power to Sonoma Clean Power. Officials later said they selected Pristine over the more experienced bidder Ciel & Terre because Pristine was cheaper and more experienced in dealing with California state regulators.
Syphers said the project was innovative and groundbreaking. But he also said it was experimental and uncertain. He assured his board that beyond some staff time, Sonoma Clean Power had no financial exposure except to buy the power.
But Pristine Sun had never developed floating solar, and it ran into design problems. It had trouble getting PG&E to connect the unusual projects to the grid. It had permitting problems. It became entangled in legal and financial disputes involving unrelated projects. It paid Sonoma Clean Power $368,441 for delays, and the two agreed to end the project last year.
Plant development: Syphers believes Sonoma Clean Power is years away from owning local power projects, if ever. He prefers to be the contracted buyer for that electricity, using revenue from his customers. That helps the developer get financing and lets Sonoma Clean Power avoid the risks of building and operating the plant.
“We don’t have a maintenance crew, service trucks or expertise in construction. We could get it, but there are a lot of companies that want to build projects themselves. We would need to be very mature, and we need a reason why the private sector can’t do it better,” Syphers said.