Sonoma Clean Power CEO gets a charge out of changing consumer energy habits

CEO Spotlight

In this monthly series, the Business Journal talks with those who occupy the lofty spot in a local organization, asking about their professional and personal opportunities and challenges.

The series is underwritten by Summit State Bank and Sonoma Clean Power. They had no input on the editorial content.

Geof Syphers is highly charged when he talks clean energy.

As CEO of Santa Rosa-based Sonoma Clean Power, Syphers has a personal and professional mission to get more people to use renewable energy, while being as carbon-free as possible.

Sonoma Clean Power provides residential and commercial service to Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

As a community choice aggregator, SCP is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. The other aggregator in the region is Marin Clean Energy, which serves Marin, Napa, Solano and Contra Costa counties.

Qualifying entities within the service area of investor-owned utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric Co. can form an aggregator, which are permitted to buy and generate electricity.

Sonoma Clean Power’s default electricity service is 49% renewable and 93% carbon-free. Energy comes from such renewable resources as geothermal, wind, and solar. Hydropower is part of SCP’s portfolio, but in California it is not considered a renewable resource.

To increase those numbers, Syphers said more people will need to drive electric vehicles, and remove fossil fuels from their homes and offices. And that is exactly what SCP is trying to get people to do.

“We are aiming to get rid of all fossil energy for everything we use in our life,” the 51-year-old Syphers said.

The utility company is practicing what it preaches at its new headquarters, which it moved into in 2021.

“For this project we chose to renovate a 1979 structure, and the transformation has resulted in the building being the first in the world to actively decarbonize the grid every hour of the year,” Syphers explained.

“It’s all automatic, but we keep playing with it because we are learning. We are learning how to have a negative carbon impact on the grid. This is way beyond net zero. We want to supply others with clean power when they would have been pulling power off the grid.”

Syphers recently sat down with the North Bay Business Journal and fielded a few questions. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

What industry trends keep you up at night?

Syphers: The difficulty in building great renewable projects in California is profoundly frustrating. It is quite common to see projects around the state fail because of a single person threatening to sue. That sole factor is a genuine risk to keeping the lights on over the coming five years because we need to build 10,000 megawatts of renewable power very quickly to keep up with demand.

We have a very good set of regulations that protect our environment and our cities from impacts and things like power plants. What is frustrating is the same rules that are enormously beneficial to California get used just to slow down excellent projects.

California is facing a huge amount of air pollution and emissions from running new diesel generators and keeping old gas-fired power plants running just to keep the lights on. We really need a much bigger push for the state to get new renewable power online.

If you could change one government regulation, what would it be and why?

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) should be applied vigorously to fossil fuel and land-intensive projects, but it is also too easily used to block wind, solar, and geothermal projects that California is in very serious need of.

Without enough new clean power, we risk entering the next decade with all of our fossil fuel power plants still running. CEQA doesn’t need to be altered much, but it should have a higher bar for litigation and shouldn’t allow a person to profit from suing clean power projects.

Where will your business and industry be in the next five years?

We’ll be building a lot more geothermal power and offshore wind. We’ll also have a lot more Advanced Energy Centers around California, like the one we have locally in downtown Santa Rosa to help people and businesses make the switch to an all-electric lifestyle.

We’re also going to see way more people interested in 24/7 renewable power, like with SCP’s EverGreen option, so we can finally shut down all the dirty fossil methane gas — aka natural gas — power plants.

The Advanced Energy Center is an online and physical resource center where anyone can come to learn how to retrofit a house, learn how to buy an electric car, get a contractor, learn how to cook on induction ranges, and really experience the equipment. We talk about what makes sense for their lifestyle. In August we added helping people get rid of noisy gas powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers.

You have been the sole CEO of Sonoma Clean Power since it was founded in 2013. How has your job changed and evolved since then?

Filling out the team with top industry experts has allowed me to step back from all the start-up activities and spend more time working on climate friendly state policy and regulations, and to fight against unreasonable electricity delivery rates.

You worked as a consultant for PG&E in the 1990s. How did that experience shape your beliefs today?

Locally run utilities generally provide better service, just as PG&E did in the 1980s and early 1990s. PG&E’s decision to centralize management in San Francisco was an error and led to a disconnect from customer needs and less transparency. That ultimately was one of the reasons the state Legislature created community choice aggregators , to restore public oversight and customer service.

SCP’s main power source, at 44%, is hydroelectric. How are the ongoing droughts in California impacting this resource and SCP’s ability to provide renewable energy?

The climate crisis is changing rainfall patterns extremely fast and we’re affected like everyone else. To reduce our risks, we’re building new solar, wind, geothermal and battery storage systems. We also buy most of our hydropower from the Pacific Northwest, where rainfall is still easier to predict than here in California.

Why is it more important to reduce greenhouse emissions than to focus on renewable energy?

Both are important. We obviously need to build more renewables to supply those new cars, but that’s turning out to be the easy part because we have built fairly large scale solar, battery and wind facilities and we have bought large scale geothermal. Each of those efforts took a lot of time and work, but now we have a playbook for them. All the steps are laid out already.

What is harder is changing consumer habits and getting them to try something they have not done before. The goal is to cut emissions fast, and by far the most affordable way to do that is to help everyone make the switch to electric cars. Helping people who live in apartments figure out how to charge electric cars is also a priority.

How have the wildfires in recent years affected Sonoma Clean Power?

The fires have taught us that simply eliminating our use of fossil fuels will not be enough. We need to adapt to make our region safer.

That means learning how to make our homes less vulnerable to fires, learning how to keep basic power needs running during blackouts, having good evacuation plans, and ultimately lowering the risks of catastrophic fires. We launched the Advanced Energy Rebuild program after the October 2017 firestorm to provide up to $17,500 to families rebuilding resilient homes that use renewable power 24/7.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to being located in the North Bay and doing business here?

It’s a fantastic place, but it takes more effort to attract a diverse workforce. The reason isn’t just because of our demographics, but also because we don’t have a critical density of universities. That means we have to work closely with SSU and SRJC and be willing to recruit from around the country to get top talent.

Are wages the answer to recruiting great talent? Why or why not?

Yes! But, they’re just part of the answer. People want to work on things that have real meaning in their life, so making sure everyone can see how their labor is supporting our local community in visible ways is important.

What are you doing to attract employees? How has recruitment changed since the start of the pandemic?

We go to great lengths to be a great place to work, from having lots of daylight to being a dog-friendly office and having lunch together. To this end, we recently opened our new headquarters in downtown Santa Rosa. We’re also trying to help elevate our region’s social and racial equity, while celebrating our existing team and consciously working on being supportive and inclusive.

What was the hardest lesson you learned early in your career which you now recognize as an important one?

That pursuing specific technologies, like compact fluorescent lamps or solar power, was not universally helpful and could even be harmful in some cases. Instead, I learned to identify why at the beginning.

For example, efficient lighting is needed because we wish to cut costs or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When clear about those absolute goals, we often find better, faster, cheaper ways to get there.

What would you re-do in your career if you could and why?

There are plenty of things I’d like to re-live because they were so much fun. Like building food packaging machines in a machine shop in high school. But I have been blessed with a career that has been one of constant learning and action so there’s nothing I would want to replace.

What was your first job? What was your first career job?

I stuffed circuit boards and soldered them for a thermal bar code printing factory at Delford America in Pleasanton in the mid-1980s.

My first career job was at Eley Associates, running lighting and HVAC retrofits for UC Davis and several energy efficiency programs for PG&E.

What advice would you give someone just starting his or her career in your industry?

Ask senior managers and executives to go out to lunch and talk. We like doing that, and it’s pretty rare to get those requests.

CEO Spotlight

In this monthly series, the Business Journal talks with those who occupy the lofty spot in a local organization, asking about their professional and personal opportunities and challenges.

The series is underwritten by Summit State Bank and Sonoma Clean Power. They had no input on the editorial content.

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