The North Bay pioneered a new type of public energy program in California seven years ago that now appears poised to change who buys electricity for homes and businesses across large swaths of the state.

The programs, of which Sonoma Clean Power was an early leader, have expanded dramatically over the past several years.

Their growth is leading experts to examine how well the programs are boosting the use of renewable electricity compared to the private utilities that formerly served the same communities.

The growth is also prompting a face-off between the public programs and California’s three biggest private utilities, including Pacific Gas & Electric. In the dispute, both sides have suggested their ratepayers are getting a bum deal in how the state has set the rules for this new era. For the public programs, the outcome has high-stakes implications because their customers could end up paying considerably more to offset the growing costs for excess power that the utilities contracted for but no longer need.

The public programs, typically known as Community Choice Aggregation, or CCA, agencies, have grown to control about 5 percent of the state’s electricity market, a new study reports. But both utilities and other experts say that number will increase markedly as other communities join the trend.

“I think everyone who’s watching this thinks that there is going to be very rapid growth in the coming years,” said Matthew Freedman, an attorney in San Francisco with the Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy group known as TURN. Some utilities, he said, have predicted that half their customers could switch to the public programs within a decade.

Even so, experts say the jury remains out on exactly how beneficial the public programs will prove in accelerating a drop in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Some, including Freedman, suggested that in recent years a significant amount of renewable power has simply been shifted to the public programs from other electric utilities, which then make up any shortfall with fossil fuels, changing little.

“There is definitely some of that that has gone on,” said Severin Borenstein, a UC Berkeley business professor and energy researcher. “The question is how much.”

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