Sonoma Clean Power vs. Sonoma County Open Space: When Fools Collide

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In my home county, there is a decades-long program that makes environmentalists feel warm and fuzzy, but which I have always felt to be a waste of dollars, acres, ink, and breath. Sonoma County Open Space. A brief overview: According to their website, “The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (that’s their full name)is one of the top five farmland and open space preservation programs in the nation (Farmland Preservation Report) and the first special district established for the purpose of protecting agricultural lands. It is one of the few jurisdictions in the nation to use a sales tax for the purchase of conservation easements to protect agricultural lands and preserve open space.

How much open space have they bought with your money and mine? Almost 100,000 acres (150 square miles) and counting. Most of that is land you or I will never set foot on. Because the great majority of those acres are agricultural conservation easement acres. Which means that the SCAPOSD gives local farmers millions of dollars to do nothing. Typically, they involve dairy farmers, who are paid a few million dollars per farm in return for the promise they won’t build condos or gas stations on their property, now or ever.

So when we drive by one of these farms on a pothole-pocked county road, we’ll see a dairy farm. Nothing more, nothing less. Can you take a picnic basket and enjoy the view from the land you bought with your easement money? Nope. All you can do is admire it from a distance.

How much does this pay-to-not play policy cost you? Since 1990, when well-meaning voters approved the quarter-cent sales tax that funds SCAPOSD, the district has spent nearly $300 million on protecting open spaces. The vast majority of the expenditures have been for conservation easements, where farmers get a big check and you get a view of… a farm.

Has SCAPOSD been a poster child for responsible budgeting?  Not exactly. In 2007, their best year, they took in $19.7 million in revenue, spent about $7.2 million in salaries and overhead, bought easements, and put a few dollars in their reserve fund. But that same year, they had the urge to spend about $100 million on even more open space. So they created a $98 million bond deal that let them buy huge parcels all over the county. As of 2010, they were stuck with $7.5 million debt service for the next 20 years. Between that payment and their operations, that leaves about $1 million a year to buy more space. Their cash reserves were $57 million, but they’ve already dwindled to $35 million, and with their spending habits, those dollars aren’t long for this world, either.

This misuse of public funds and the public trust is annoying enough, but recently, this 21-year old agency finds itself on a collision course with a piece of fresh lunacy: Sonoma Clean Power. Sonoma Clean Power, or Sonoma Ponzi Power, as I like to call it, is the latest attempt to create competition for greedy local polluting power monopolies by buying electricity from far-away greedy polluting power monopolies in New York, Texas, or elsewhere. The actual delivery infrastructure is still owned and maintained by California’s favorite villains, PG&E.

Much as I’d love to see PG&E face real competition from a real business, Sonoma Clean Power is neither. Here are a few of its larger flaws: Sonoma County Power talks about choice, but county residents will be forced to get their electricity from SCP, unless they sign an opt-out form. SCP will be run by a committee of local politicians and employees of the Sonoma County Water Agency. What do they know about running a power company? They promise they’ll learn quickly.

SCP plans to buy electricity from a short list of companies, including Con Edison Solutions in New York, NRG Energy,in Houston TX and Princeton, NJ, Direct Energy, a subsidiary of the British multinational Centrica, and  Constellation, a subsidiary of Exelon, a Chicago energy producer, trader and distributor. Every company they buy from has to produce at least 33% “renewable energy”. And what if they don’t produce that much? Then they’ll buy “renewable energy credits.”

What does any of this have to do with producing clean local power? That’s where we get to the colliding fools part of the story. All the measures described by SCP are supposedly just short-term. Their long term-goal is to earn between $10 – $15 million a year in the future, and then use that money to start building local, renewable energy sources. Translation: wind farms and solar farms.

That sets them up for a thumb-wrestling match with the SCAPOSD, who don’t want to see hundreds of bucolic acres of farmland turned into the set of a science fiction movie. For starters, a lot of attention has been given to a 20-megawatt, $100 million solar-panel system that is planned for 50 acres at the Sonoma County Airport. At peak capacity, that 50 acres would only provide enough power for about 10,000 homes in the county. That works out to one acre of solar panels for every 200 homes. And there are approximately 172,000 households in the county. That would call for another 810 acres of shiny blue surfaces staring us in the face.

Where would the other green energy projects be built? Near Petaluma, Sonoma County planners are considering zoning changes that would open up thousands of acres of pasture to large-scale solar farms and other renewable-energy generating projects. In particular, the change would allow a proposed 23-acre solar installation on 130 acres of grazing land on the southeastern outskirts of Petaluma. Petaluma City Council members are not exactly thrilled with this. During a discussion Monday night, the council voted to send the county a letter outlining its concerns, and asking that the county respect the tools that have long been used to prevent overdevelopment, including community separators, greenbelts and scenic gateways, into its communities.

One member even characterized this zoning change in favor of green energy as “encouraging sprawl.” “The cities each voted to contain themselves to not have urban sprawl,” Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said. “Now you have the county putting sprawl in … and defeating the purpose of open space and urban growth boundaries.” This little spat is just the tip of what promises to be a very large iceberg. All over Sonoma County, we can expect to see loud, messy catfights over farmland. Should it be covered with cowpies as it has been, or should it be covered with solar panels and wind farms that chop up local birds like Cuisinarts?

However this debate shapes up, there is one fact that is not likely to be mentioned by either side: Sonoma County already gets at least 95% of its power from a local source that is 100% renewable: geothermal energy from The Geysers, which are conveniently located just one county away.

Source: Sean Scully, Sonoma County Press Democrat.

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