Powering Decisions

Steam and heat whisper of a hybrid power partnership


Sonoma County entered this carbon-constrained era with one lucky advantage: proximity to what Dave Erickson calls “the premier geothermal location in the world.” That is, the county is piping distance from a whole lot of energy-producing hot rocks and steam (aka the Geysers) that have been providing energy locally for close to 100 years. So far, so good.

Erickson, dubbed by fellow geeks as “the brains behind the Community Climate Action Plan,” helped develop Sonoma’s energy portfolio to include geothermal power. “Geothermal is an enormous resource, one of the most ubiquitous and high-quality energy sources available,” Erikson says. “It’s always on, compared to solar or wind which tend to be intermittent, and if properly developed, can deliver power relatively inexpensively.”

The “properly developed” part is where things warm up in the social realm. But first, a brief history of on-the-job learning. In the past, geothermal resources were developed unsustainably and were spent like the steam in a kettle that goes dry after a long boil. Later the development improved; water injections into the heated rock, as in the wastewater piped to the Calpine stem fields from Santa Rosa, essentially began refilling the kettle, keeping it viable for continued steam production. Now an even more efficient and sustainable development is possible—a closed-loop system that doesn’t vent the steam but contains it and generates electricity from the heat alone. According to Erickson, this system makes the geothermal resource truly sustainable. “You’re only maintaining the equipment of the resource,” he says. “There’s no fuel cost.”

No fuel costs and no carbon emissions? Where do we sign up? On Aug. 31 there will be a community meeting where energy geeks will tell all, a potluck-style gathering at which a representative from Calpine will answer questions along with local climate-protection advocates. The meeting is about geothermal energy and might likely heat up quite a bit if somebody asks about the intriguing idea Erikson described to me: a proposition that the community forms a new kind of economic partnership to boost the efficiency of the steam fields.

“This would be a hybrid,” Erickson says. “A kind of economic Prius, uniting local government and private industry to fund the development. I’m talking about a robust public-private partnership that combines the best of both—the public and the private sector.” Crazy idea. I love it.

There are now 800 megawatts (MW) developed at the steam fields; another 500 MW are waiting to be developed. With carbon pricing on the horizon as result of AB 32, developing sustainable geothermal has lately become more economically feasible. Whether the community will step up to such a partnership as Erikson describes will first depend on an informed public. There’s a lot to learn, and to learn as soon as possible; may as well find out what can be gleaned from this presentation because we know that we will be hearing the usual from PG&E.

I predict PG&E will fund obfuscation efforts, maybe run a fear campaign; they’ve tried to block community-procured power in Marin and at the state ballot box. The utility will not want Sonoma County making a small-scale power agreement when PG&E would profit more from big, distant power developments for which taxpayers are slapped with transmission costs.

Some power in California comes from coal-burning plants, thanks to the utilities making decisions for us. If the community steps up and takes an active role in deciding on its own energy portfolio, even to the extent of partnering to supply clean, locally produced geothermal power, Sonoma County residents will not only take a great stride toward reaching carbon reduction goals, but everyone might just enjoy having more decision-making power back where it belongs—here in the community.

A public meeting and potluck with Calpine is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 5:30pm. Glaser Center, 547 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Free. For details, call 707.525.1665, ext. 114, or write [email protected]

Sonoma County Library