Sonoma County\u2019s Board of Supervisors April 23 authorized a community choice aggregation program for the county\u2019s 152,000 residents in unincorporated areas. The trick, according to the board, is how to make the program better than a choice program in neighboring Marin County. The Marin and Sonoma programs compete head-on with Pacific Gas & Electric\u2019s service. \tUltimately, officials hope to enlist cities to participate. Incorporated areas are home to another 328,000 people. \t\u201cThis is really the county\u2019s moment,\u201d said supervisor Efren Carillo before the supervisors\u2014meeting as the board of the Sonoma Clean Power Authority\u2014approved going forward by a 4-1 vote. \tThe decision paves the way for the county staff to bring to the board for approval a detailed implementation plan and to begin negotiating a final energy supply contract. Service should begin January 1. The California Public Utilities Commission also has to okay the action. \tSupervisors and advocates focused on the promise of the program to advance local investment in renewable energy, provide consumer choice, promote innovation in the electricity business, control costs, and reduce greenhouse gases. \tCalifornia Coastal Conservancy chair Doug Bosco said that the choice program will spur innovation in the energy field like the breakup of the phone company did in the 1980s. \tVintners voiced support in hopes they would be able to develop solar energy facilities on their properties to supply the new community choice program. \tSonoma County joins a growing number of localities pursuing community choice aggregation, in which local entities purchase power for their residents and the local utility merely distributes it. Marin County was the first to go forward in California, beginning service in 2010. Richmond recently joined in with Marin\u2014even though it\u2019s in Contra Costa County, across the bay. \tIn separate developments, San Francisco City and County are moving to activate a choice program and one is under examination in San Diego County. \tRecognizing that they are among the first to move ahead on choice, the Sonoma County supervisors approached their vote with caution. They particularly stressed they want to make sure their program does not turn out like Marin County\u2019s community choice aggregation plan to date. \t\u201cWe want to show we are creating projects and jobs\u201d in Sonoma County, said supervisor Susan Gorin. She referred to the apparent near-absence of on-the-ground investment under Marin\u2019s choice program. To date, the only local project is a 1MW solar project at the airport in San Rafael. Marin is buying the output under a 20-year feed-in tariff deal. \tMany of those testifying questioned the benefits of the program unless it is implemented differently than in Marin County\u2014where the program is supplied by Shell Energy. The Marin program hasn\u2019t created much new renewable energy capacity, but instead relied mainly on renewable energy credits, according to several at the meeting. \t\u201cThey\u2019re a feel-good scam,\u201d asserted Ken Churchill, Sonoma County Taxpayers Association member. He said that due to its use of hydropower, PG&E has a carbon intensity about one-third of the national average. \tChurchill urged the Sonoma County Water Agency\u2014currently staffing the program\u2014to reveal the carbon intensity and number of renewable energy credits included in responses by prospective energy suppliers to a request for proposals. Staff declined to do so, but indicated 13 percent of the energy portfolio\u2014which is supposed to consist of 33 percent renewable energy\u2014would be based on credits, at least initially. \tRevealing detailed information could compromise negotiations, staff said. \tInternational Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 representative Hunter Stern warned that renewable energy credits do not represent electricity and jobs, but instead are \u201cfinancial instruments.\u201d He noted that in three years under the choice program in Marin, only one local renewable energy facility has been built, which supplied 20 jobs for three months. \tBoard chair Dave Rabbit\u2014who cast the lone vote against going forward\u2014said he fears that price volatility in the renewable energy credit market could boost the cost of the program. He noted price won\u2019t be locked in place until a final power supply agreement is negotiated. \tPricing information for the program so far is based on responses to Sonoma County Water Agency\u2019s request for proposals from 11 companies. The responses show the choice program could supply power at rates competitive with PG&E\u2019s, Cordell Stillman, Water Agency deputy chief engineer told the board. \tDepending upon the proposal, residential rates would range anywhere from 2 percent below to 1 percent above PG&E\u2019s rates. Commercial rates would range between 3 percent less and 0.5 percent more than the utility\u2019s rates. \tStillman said the agency plans to narrow the list of proposals to those submitted by three companies and then begin negotiating for a final power supply deal. \tCosts could go up or down depending upon how many customers opt out of the choice program and whether the county can enlist cities to participate. Another factor expected to influence cost is the extent to which the county seeks to structure into its energy supply the development of local renewable energy projects, for instance by offering a feed-in tariff. \tCounty deputy counsel Steve Shupe told the board there were three key risks: * The prospect that regulatory decisions beyond the control of the authority could influence the price of power. * The possibility the authority could face losses if it doesn\u2019t carefully match power supply and demand, so called \u201cvolumetric risk.\u201d * The chance it could contract for power at a price only to find that the price for power declines during the term of the purchase agreement. He said this so-called \u201cmarket risk\u201d could be managed by entering numerous contracts for staggered terms. \tUnder the worst case, he said, the authority would go out of business if it couldn\u2019t stay afloat financially. However, Shupe stressed that the way the authority is structured neither the county or the ratepayers would be at risk since there are legal firewalls in place. If it did go out of business, its customers merely would revert to being supplied by PG&E, he added. \tOver the next two months, the county plans to hold workshops for cities, seeking to enlist them in the program. In addition, it plans to hire an interim chief executive officer for the program. A final implementation plan and energy supply contract could be presented to the board for approval this summer.