The City’s ordinance makes it cost-prohibitive to go green because it limits the size of the system. The limit ensures one still pays an electric bill, Dougherty said, and getting off gas or plugging in an electric vehicle is not possible.
She was granted permission to be on the Jan. 22, City Commission agenda.
The City Commission and Public Utilities Advisory Board sat together to hear Dougherty’s item, as well as a presentation on the water-utility rate study (see the Sierra County Sun article for more information).
Dougherty had been told at previous City meetings that the ordinance restricted the size of business and resident renewable-energy systems because it would violate the Sierra Electric Co-operative contract if the City “purchased” electricity from private producers.
Sierra Electric is one of the City’s two electric wholesalers. Western Area Power Administration sells the city about 40 percent of what the City uses, limiting what it will sell the City to that amount. Sierra Electric has a contract with the City stating it is its exclusive “supplementary supplier,” selling the City the rest of its electricity.
Sierra Electric, in the 2014 contract, allowed the city to purchase some electricity from a solar farm, which was built in 2014 and started operating in 2015. It is currently owned by SSA#4 near the Sierra County Fair Barn.
Sierra Electric limited the capacity of the solar farm to 1.85 megawatts. It also stated the City must buy at least 500,000 kilowatt hours a month or 16.5 megawatts a year from Sierra Electric. If the City dipped below this purchase amount, contract negotiations and higher rates would be triggered.
City Council Member George Szigeti said, “The information we were given [in 2015 when the ordinance was drafted] was if you oversize the system and people sell electricity back to the city, it would be in violation of the contract with Sierra Electric.”
Szigeti said he asked “the attorney” if there was anything in the contract prohibiting private systems from sending electricity into the city’s grid, and was told no, “Under the current contract that issue is settled.”
Although Szigeti said two amendments to the contract have occurred since the ordinance was passed in 2015, the 2014 contract still rules. The City sent 2014 contracts out as the ruling contract under Inspection of Public Records Act requests. Therefore the 90-percent prohibition was the City’s doing and not due to a prohibition in the Sierra Electric contract.
Mayor Pro-Tem Kathy Clark confirmed Sierra Electric is not against private systems. She said the company told her they have about 50 customers with private solar systems. The City has less than 20.
Sierra Electric is only concerned about larger solar farms, Clark said.
Szigeti was a PUAB member when it drafted the 2015 ordinance adopted by the City Commission.
Gil Avelar retired as the Electric Department director and then Ed Williams took over as the director. Both were and are still on the PUAB board, and both expressed resistance to changing the ordinance to allow larger private systems.
Avelar confirmed the Sierra Electric contract was not the reason for restricting the size of the system. He said the 90-percent prohibition was chosen because the private solar systems are tied to the City’s grid and during low production, switch over to the City’s system. “It still costs to get work crews and trucks and the City needs to collect that cost,” Avelar said. “At 90 percent we are about breaking even.”
Williams said the City gets a very good price from Tri-State Electric on its transmission or “wheeling charges” because it is a Sierra Electric customer, not a Duke Energy or PNM customer. To ensure the City retains the good rate and keeps a good relationship with Sierra Electric, Williams said the City should set a limit to how much energy residents and businesses can produce privately. “Once that limit is reached, that’s it,” Williams said.
The City Commission agreed to send the ordinance back to the PUAB for review. The next meeting is Tuesday, Feb. 18, at 5:30 at City Commission Chambers.