Monday, June 02, 2008

Energy audit going to happen

Another politics story
Energy audit is a go
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror

Chevron’s coming to town.

The first 3-2 vote supervisors have seen in some time was cast over a proposed energy-saving audit by ESCO, an energy solutions company owned by the oil firm.

The two main projects mentioned in a May 6 meeting were natural gas wells at the Orland airport and wind turbines at the county landfill.

Supervisors had been concerned over ESCO deciding whether projects were feasible and thus whether the county could owe them $40,000 for no benefit. So Planning and Public Works head Dan Obermeyer came back with a new contract in which the county had the right to determine feasibility.

Debate was heated over two issues. The county has no similar offers in hand to compare terms with. And another clause in the contract slapped the county with a big penalty if it used ESCO’s information to have another company make energy improvements.

“I don’t like a government agency predisposing to a source of services and not knowing the price,” supervisor Tracey Quarne said.

“But how can they know the prices?” responded Planning and Public Works head Dan Obermeyer. “They don’t know our situation.”

The legislation permitting such “sole-source” contracts — no putting it out to bid — was adopted, ESCO project manager Ashu Jain said, because competitive bidding didn’t work.

What would happen, he said, is that companies would make wildly optimistic preliminary, non-binding estimates for what the audit would uncover. The government agency would then pay for the audit, and then learn that savings were nowhere near as great as they thought.

Supervisor Tom McGowan, who urged Mr. Jain to call Planning and Public Works head Dan Obermeyer in the first place, said the county should have faith in ESCO’s track record.

“All the background checks we’ve done have been good, glowing.”

Chevron Energy Solutions project manager Ashu Jain said that the longer the project was delayed the less likely it was to find feasible improvements, saying he expected major improvements to be solar energy-related, and the incentives from the state decreased every month.

The two supervisors, McGowan and Quarne, debated at some length whether reputation was good enough to take the contract without contacting possible competitors.

Mr. Jain stepped in, saying that no competitors did as much as ESCO, and besides, “Chevron earned $17 billion last year. We earned $15 million.”

“To be blunt, the reason Chevron is in this business is not profit margin, it’s public relations. Chevron would sell us in a heartbeat if we gave them bad publicity.”

Supervisor candidate Bill Payer pointed out that under clause 13 of the contract, if Glenn County decided no project was feasible but used the information gathered in the report to carry one out anyway, they would owe ESCO the full cost of the audit — $80,000 to $100,000.

Previously, the supervisors were discussing owing $40,000 in that scenario. ESCO’s Mr. Jain didn’t create this misunderstanding, but didn’t correct it either, until Mr. Payer asked him for clarification.

Mr. Quarne was concerned that Glenn County would “replace the windows” or something similarly trivial and end up owing the entire sum.

Mr. Jain said the clause had been added because one company took the entire study, with proposed prices attached, turned it over to another company, “and said, ‘can you beat that?’”

But the supervisors were uncomfortable with the clause, and Mr. Jain said he could probably get the contract approved without it, so Mr. McGowan made a motion approving the contract, minus clause 13. Keith Hansen gave the second.

Supervisor Murray asked clerk Debbie Lambert to do votes by roll call. The first three supervisors polled were all in favor — Mr. McGowan, Mr. Hansen, and the heretofore quiet John Amaro.

Following were Mr. Quarne and Mr. Murray’s no votes, but the proposal had already passed.

“If we could only harness the energy expended in here, we’d have a real project,” joked Mr. McGowan afterward.

Also during the morning session Tuesday, safety officer Jennifer Peters came forward to clarify the status of the safety committee, which had been confusedly discussed the previous meeting.

Safety department funds were current within 30 to 60 days, she said, contradicting remarks made by County Counsel Tom Agin last Tuesday.

“We should be able to accommodate grants” like the one made for protective equipment made by Chief Probation Officer Thompson after that meeting, she said. “The money wasn’t spent sooner because we didn’t get requests.”

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