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Argus-Courier Editorial: Petalumans get choice on power

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With its unanimous vote this week to join Sonoma Clean Power, a non-profit public electricity agency, the Petaluma City Council has ensured that local residents and businesses will soon have access to cleaner and less expensive electrical power. This long-awaited decision is a big win for the entire community.

As envisioned, Sonoma Clean Power (SCP) is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions countywide by having more local control over renewable power generation. To achieve that, the County of Sonoma, together with several cities, created a joint powers agency and began signing up residents last summer who may opt out of the program and stay with PG&E if they choose. This practice is in accordance with state law encouraging the creation of public power agencies that allow cities and counties to aggregate the buying power of electric customers to secure alternative and renewable energy supply contracts. Also known as “Community Choice Aggregation (CCA),” such agencies now serve more than 1,000 cities nationwide, providing an alternative to the traditional investor-owned utilities such as PG&E. Under CCA, PG&E continues to produce and deliver electricity through its transmission and distribution system and provide meter reading, billing and maintenance.

The law allowing CCAs was passed in 2002, and came about in response to the California energy crisis in which power providers like Enron illegally manipulated an energy shortage to boost profits, resulting in waves of large-scale blackouts that severely disrupted business throughout the state. Subsequent concerns over global warming and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have make CCAs more popular, since they help encourage the development of renewable power generation from wind, solar and other alternative sources not always favored by traditional investor-owned utilities.

By next summer, Petaluma residents will have the choice to access this new, publicly owned power service.

According to a city staff report, participating residential home owners and commercial businesses in Sonoma County are getting more of their power from greener sources. More importantly, those same residents and businesses are saving money in the process.

Sonoma Clean Power officials say they are providing a larger supply of renewable power sources (33 percent vs. 22 percent) than PG&E, thus reducing the county’s carbon footprint by using more geothermal, biomass and wind energy than their privately-owned competitor. The agency is also offering an “Evergreen” pricing tier which, though pricier than the standard PG&E rates, offers energy drawn from 100 percent renewable sources.

At the same time, according to comparisons of average billing rates, Sonoma Clean Power’s residential users have begun saving $4 to $5 per month as compared to PG&E rates, while commercial businesses are saving nearly $20 per month.

When Sonoma Clean Power was getting off the ground 18 months ago, the Petaluma City Council declined to participate, citing a need for more information and expressing concerns about the agency’s extensive use of renewable energy credits to offset greenhouse gas emissions and a perceived lack of transparency in the process under which customers were being enrolled.

According to Sonoma Clean Power CEO Geof Syphers, the agency has significantly reduced its use of the controversial energy credits and is planning to enhance the clarity and frequency of mailed messages to customers regarding their ability to opt out of the service.

With their concerns addressed, and news that the city would save an estimated $160,000 annually on its municipal electric account, council members had no reason to deny their constituents the opportunity to have a choice in where they are getting their power and how much they pay for it.