Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Calaveras County government leaders gave their blessing Tuesday to a plan to help make reduced-rate electricity generated by the New Melones Dam project more widely available.

Unanimous approval from the Board of Supervisors is the latest step toward a tiered system of distributing the cheap energy.

Local small government users like county government, schools and fire districts would continue to receive top priority and the lowest rates, now set at 6.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, for the power they receive.

Expanded availability would include state and federal agencies' local operations and possibly private nonprofits at a higher, but still discounted, rate from the 12.5 cents per kilowatt-hour typically paid now.

The 32 local agencies that make up the Calaveras Public Power Agency are now using just 31 million kilowatt-hours, or 57 percent of their 54 million kWh allotment granted as part of the agreement to permit construction of the dam between Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

Tuolumne County supervisors approved similar changes in recent months.

Calaveras County Supervisor Merita Callaway, the board's representative to the CPPA, said Tuolumne andCalaveras county agencies for more than a year have discussed how to make better use of the power allotment.

CPPA General Manager Dennis Dickman said at least 22 of the joint powers authority's members, mostly school, fire and water/sewer districts, must agree to the changes to implement them. He said about half that number have approved them thus far.

Supervisor Tom Tryon expressed some reservations about expanding access to nonprofits in the event that public entities may later need to use more of the allocation than they do now.

"You have a very difficult time taking back from the private sector … you will fill this board room with people from the private sector who have had subsidized power for five years and 10 years" and do not want to give it up, Tryon said.

Supervisor Darren Spellman, meanwhile, said a lower energy bill could come as a welcome relief to a program like the Resource Connection food bank in San Andreas, the county's largest.