When it comes to renewable energy innovation, Sonoma County is at the forefront of the nation. But despite enthusiasm over alternative energy projects, frequently touted by local leaders, the county is decades away from developing enough alternative energy to meet the demand.
Currently, Sonoma County generates only 3 percent of the needed energy from alternative sources, most of it solar, according to Cordel Stillman, capital projects manager at the Sonoma County Water Agency.
But many are trying to change that through a program that allows counties to develop their own sources of clean energy—such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass—instead of purchasing it from PG&E. In March, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved $175,000 just to study Community Choice Aggregation, which they say is an important step in increasing the use of renewables locally.
If Sonoma County implements the program, it would be only the second in California to do so, following on the heels of Marin County, which approved a CCA in 2010.
The county has plenty of reasons for studying the initiative. First, there is the potential for cost savings when local companies generate their own power, instead of paying to transmit it from out of state. Another is upping the percentage of alternative energy consumers get, which now hovers at just 15 percent.
The California Renewables Portfolio Standard, passed into law in 2002, for example, requires counties to derive 33 percent of their energy from alternative sources by 2020.
Another push is the reality that fossil fuels are running out and that local governments will have no choice but to turn to alternative sources as energy prices continue to climb, according to Stillman. And then, there is the vast potential for new job creation, as new solar, wind and geothermal energy companies scramble to hire engineers, sales staff and technicians to design, sell and install the new technology.
“When you invest in producing power locally, the benefits are local and because of that, it generates wealth and economic activity, jobs in the community,” said Al Weinrub, a sustainable energy writer and advocate who recently authored a white paper on the topic, speaking on Political Analysis, a weekly radio show that airs on the Progressive Radio Network. “It really is a solution to the economic stalemate in many of our cities.”
As Sonoma County studies the issue, it will be looking closely at Marin Energy Authority, which oversees Marin Clean Energy, a nonprofit that supplies energy to 8,000 out of 70,000 eligible customers throughout Marin County.
The program gives consumers two plans to choose from: the first, called Light Green, offers customers 25 percent alternative energy. The other, Deep Green, supplies customers with 100 percent alternative energy, all of it generated in California, Oregon or Washington, at about $5 more a month than current PG&E rates, according to spokeswoman Jamie Tuckey. None of the energy is currently provided in Marin County.
“The truth is we are providing much greener electricity than is available through PG&E and anywhere else locally,” Tuckey said. “It’s a really easy way to go green and do something for the environment and because PG&E still send you the monthly bill and manages the transmission lines, it’s not something you notice. The change you see as a customer is minimal.”
Some have criticized Marin’s CCA because instead of getting energy from PG&E, it partners with Shell Energy North America, essentially swapping one faraway corporation for another, while still using PG&E’s transmission lines. But Tuckey says that contracting with Shell, from which it receives alternative energy, and using PG&E’s existing grid is just a first step as the agency works to develop local sources of alternative energy.
“We view them as a stepping stone, a way to get us off the ground and start serving our customers and generate revenue,” Tuckey said. “Shell was able to give us the highest percentage of renewables at the best rate, and do it without us having a lot of financing upfront, since we are a brand new government agency.”
Tuckey said the program is using revenues generated from rates, which she describes as “competitive with PG&E” to negotiate new contracts for local solar projects. It’s also using revenues to provide energy efficiency rebates, install electric charging stations and give back to the community in a variety of ways.
“We are already on our way to weaning ourselves off Shell and our goal is to have energy projects in California, and ultimately Marin or close to Marin as possible.”
There is a lot of interest among entrepreneurs when it comes to renewables, but until policies are in place, investors are hesitant to plunk down the big bucks needed to get alternative energy projects off the ground, say people familiar with the issue.
To encourage investment, counties need to create incentives through something called feed-in-tariffs, which essentially guarantee payments to companies for a set amount of time, typically 15-20 years, said Ann Hancock, executive director of Climate Protection Campaign, a Sonoma County nonprofit that has been working on the issue of local energy generation for a decade.
“There is a lot of latent interest that is waiting for a channel to come fruition,” Hancock said. “What you want to do is spur investment so that investors feel they will get return on it.”
Countries like Germany and Spain, which have 30 and 20 percent rates of renewable energy respectively, have successfully used feed-in-tariffs to encourage an investment in alternative energy.
“You have to prove that you have a rate base, customers who will buy the power, and then investors will loan you money,” Stillman said. “Or you can bond for money to build those projects, and it’s not cheap. But when you consider there is half a billion dollars is going out of the county every year for energy generation costs, you can leverage that against these projects and start building local projects.”
Another option is instead of forming its own CCA, Sonoma County could partner with Marin Clean Energy, which would save money and allow it to provide a higher percentage of alternative energy sooner and to more customers.
The CCA study is expected to be completed by October and Stillman stresses that if approved, the program won't be an overnight remedy to reducing our carbon footprint. Still he, Hancock and others believe in the region's vast potential for renewable energy generation, from the geysers along the border with Lake County to hundreds of thousands of roofs which solar panels can be attached to, and garbage that can processed into biomass.
“The technologies are proven,” says Hancock. “It’s the policies that need to be put into place.”