Sonoma Clean Power can be a huge boost to the county's economy, a path to steadily declining energy costs and the route off of fossil fuels -- but only if we move past the century-old thinking of the fossil-fuel-based, traditional utility model.
Clean power, created locally in an open market, is cheaper than fossil power. There is no fuel cost. There are no transmission costs, and intelligent grids can take advantage of modern information technology and high-speed communication systems.
I was a group vice president at Hewlett Packard and then at Agilent where we faced constant competition and an ever-present need to innovate and improve just to stay in business, much less stay profitable. That included complete industry paradigm shifts, such as the telecommunications revolution created by the transition from wired to wireless, the advent of the Internet, the computing revolution that occurred when personal computers knocked off mainframes and now as tablets are knocking off PCs.
For electric utilities, however, it has been a different story. Faced with no competition and guaranteed profits, they have spent almost nothing on research and development. And it shows, as Hurricane Sandy made painfully clear, not only in the antiquated types of equipment but also in the near total lack of innovative business models.
And therein lies the risk for Sonoma Clean Power. If this new agency tries to simply push cleaner power through the same old business model as PG&E, it will go the same way as the fossil-based utilities it was created to replace. On the other hand, if it understands the vast potential for local clean power, and it engages local commercial and residential properties in a competitive open market to harvest and store clean energy, and move it around on intelligent, real-time micro grids, then it can lead the state into sustainability. Fortunately, the community choice aggregation law provides a structure under which Sonoma Clean Power can smoothly migrate out of the old and into the new.