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Sonoma Clean Power launch approaching soon

Published: Friday, September 20, 2013 at 9:38 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 20, 2013 at 9:38 a.m.

Officials overseeing Sonoma County's startup public power agency on Thursday discussed the agency's rapidly approaching launch, including a series of steps geared toward securing an initial power supply and the simpler task of setting up office space.

After more than two years of planning and preliminary development, Sonoma Clean Power is entering its busiest phase yet.

“It really is crunch time at the end of October, November and December,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, the power agency chairwoman.

Next month, the public will get its first look at the retail rates staff will use to guide power supply negotiations.

At the same time, the agency plans to unveil draft terms and conditions, including the general power supply mix and greenhouse gas emission targets, that four competing energy companies will use to bid for the initial contract.

With the county and five cities currently participating, and assuming a 20 percent opt-out rate by customers who prefer to stay with PG&E, the proposed three-year deal could be worth $130 million in annual revenue by 2017.

If final prices are favorable, the lowest-cost bidder could be selected by staff in late October or November, setting in motion at least two months of work to establish residential and commercial rates and notify future customers.

Sonoma Clean Power officials said Thursday that the schedule of upcoming decisions was “aggressive.”

The venture, billed as a greener, competitively priced alternative to PG&E, expects to begin supplying electricity to its first wave of mostly commercial customers next May.

By early next month, the agency plans to seat two appointed advisory committees to guide the rate-setting process and business operations. Applications for the two bodies have been out for more than a month and a total of 29 candidates have applied.

Some board members said they were heartened by the response, but others said the agency needed to cast a wider net.

“I don't see a lot of diversity. I have a problem with that,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. She cited the lack of women applicants for the five-member business operations committee and a shortage of Latino names putting in for service on the seven-member ratepayer committee.

“My concern is that we're not publicizing this in a much broader way,” said Zane.

Santa Rosa City Councilman Gary Wysocky, sitting in as an alternate, said he saw some “sharp people” on the public list of those who have applied so far.

“I appreciate diversity, but I would hope that diversity doesn't trump competence,” Wysocky said. “If it hasn't been publicized, that's one issue ... There are competent, diverse individuals out there. But they have to step forward.”

The board extended the deadline a week, to Sept. 27. Details on the two committees and the application process can be found on the agency's website, sonomacleanpower.org.

The board also gave feedback on work to establish employee retirement and medical benefit packages.

The agency is proposing to offer a combined defined contribution 401(a)/457 retirement plan with a four percent employer match. Such plans are generally less costly for employers than traditional defined benefit pensions.

The agency anticipates paying 75 percent of the cost of employee-only medical coverage, or up to $1,720 per employee per month. Board members also directed staff to explore options for partial family coverage. Dental and vision plans would be entirely employer-paid.

The agency currently hiring for two positions, a public affairs and marketing manager and an executive assistant. Interim CEO Geof Syphers, now the sole employee, described the benefits package as “lean,” in the lower range of total compensation for similar posts at other local public agencies, according to a Sonoma Clean Power comparison.

Syphers, who has voiced his preference for experienced employees, said the lower-cost benefits approach was best for the startup.

“If somebody wants to get a position where they are coasting, we don't really want them on our team,” he said. “So I'm willing to start at the low end here and see if we can attract the right people.”

Syphers informed the board that he had signed a lease for office space at 50 Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa.

The 40-month deal with the Airport Business Center, the landlord, has a total cost of $170,456, or an average rate of $1.84 per square foot for the 2,300-square-foot space.

Temporary quarters in the office will be occupied within the next four weeks, with full occupancy by January, when improvements are scheduled to be complete.

“It's going to look pretty rough for a few months,” Syphers said. “I'm not inviting the public to come meet us up there yet.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)

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