By Elizabeth Zach, staff writerWasteWater

Sonoma County in California is pioneering a publicly-run solar energy project using wastewater treatment ponds, making it the lead producer of this kind in the United States.

Its 12.5 megawatt “flotovoltaic” park that will cover an area equivalent to 35 football fields and will sit on a series of the ponds amid farms and vineyards is due for completion in 2016.

But it already illustrates the significance of Sonoma Clean Power, a new government-run agency that has made the county of 500,000 the lead producer of solar energy per capital in America. At 310 watts of installed power per person, Sonoma has five times the national average, and county officials say the program has saved 100,000 metric tons of emissions and lowered customers’ energy bills by up to 9 percent.

Known as Community Choice Aggregation, or CCA, such programs allow cities and counties to decide where their energy comes from. Geof Syphers, Sonoma Clean Power’s CEO, told The Guardian that the model is “a way of taking on debt in the form of power contracts, and producing income in the form of energy bills.”

According to the model, public agencies buy power from private companies which generate solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biogas and other clean sources of energy. The investor-owned utilities still operate the power grid but they also distribute the clean energy to customers whose bills actually pay the agencies instead of the utilities. This way, the public agencies have the income they need to pay off the energy contract debts and invest in more clean power.

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