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Sonoma Clean Power pivots to helping consumers go green across many aspects of their lives

Nearing a decade since it was created, Sonoma Clean Power has made tremendous strides in its quest to curb carbon emissions in the North Coast.

Here are the basics: The nonprofit public agency has 87% of its eligible customers in providing power to both Sonoma and Mendocino counties, totaling 230,000 accounts. The rest of the population is served by PG&E or local municipalities. Its default electricity service now provides 92% carbon-free power to customers since it began providing service in 2014.

While impressive metrics, the Santa Rosa-based company has its sights set on two important areas as new technological breakthroughs emerge in the green energy industry. This comes against the scary backdrop of the disastrous effects of a warming planet as evidenced by the wildfires that swept through the region in recent years:

It’s mission? Sonoma Clean Power wants to help local residents go green throughout many aspects of their daily lives -- from new electric cooktops and heat pumps to more electric vehicle charging stations while at the same time cultivating more clean energy local options, including finding new geothermal sources in Sonoma County.

At its formation, the Sonoma Clean Power believed its job was to build renewable power systems and “that was going to be the start and end of it,” said Geof Syphers, the CEO who has led the business since 2013.

Sonoma Clean Power is a community choice aggregator (CCA), a class of energy providers that were created by the California Legislature in the aftermath of the energy crisis in the early 2000s and allowed local communities to create their own alternative to source clean energy.

It sources green energy for our region while PG&E handles such things as the maintenance of the transmission lines, meter-reading and billing services.

There are 25 of these aggregators serving more than close to 11 million customers in California and when a new CCA emerges, it typically becomes the default energy provider in the local area where it has been approved unless the customer opts out to stay with the investor-owned utility.

The emergence of the electric vehicle space at its inception had the agency participating in a pilot program that provided up to $13,000 toward the purchase or lease of an electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid.

The focus later turned to building up the capacity of electric charging stations in the region to support that market, which is expected to rapidly grow with the revitalized campaigns by Ford Motor Co. and General Motors. The goal now is to place more of those stations ― which total almost 800 in Sonoma County ― at workplaces so they can be charged during the workday and local officials will not have to try to solve the tricky and costlier aspect at placing them at multifamily units or more remote areas, Syphers said.

The frequency of wildfires also has forced the local community and Sonoma Clean Power to confront the reliability of the electric transmission grid, especially in preventing further disruptions.

“By 2017, the Tubbs fire taught us about the urgency of adapting. And so, we learn as we go, and I think that's never going to stop,” Syphers said.

The agency has a new headquarters on E Street that removes more carbon from its operations than it emits. It also has its own microgrid with on-site solar panels and batteries that can operate autonomously in emergencies.

The showpiece of its new effort is the Advanced Energy Center, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary at its location near Fourth and E streets. It’s a one-stop place to showcase such items as electric induction cooktops, heat-pump water heaters, portable electric batteries for blackouts and other items.

It also serves as a training hub where 50 different courses have been taught and about 4,300 people overall have visited, Syphers said.

The goal is to get the products into the hands of local residents so they can test them out for themselves to become converts.

“You can draw your own conclusion. There's no marketing needed,” he said.

One priority has been to allow those to try cooking on a portable induction burner to show them that this isn’t your parents’ old coil device on top of the stove, but a modern appliance that can rival gas stovetops they intend to replace.

“I think we're seeing almost everybody come back saying, ‘Yes, I'm definitely getting one,’” Syphers said of the induction burners.

He compares it to those trying out an electric car for the first time and then realizing how much power the vehicle has beyond factoring in the savings for less maintenance and gas savings with fuel nearing $6 a gallon.

“It's really great to see peoples’ faces when they first try induction and watch water boil in half the time and try frying something and see how responsive it is.”

Sonoma Clean Power serves more like the carrot in the quest for a greener planet, especially as Gov. Gavin Newsom has called on California to become carbon neutral by 2035. The stick is more being carried out through new laws and regulations, especially at the local level.

For example, the city of Petaluma has served as a leader in this movement as it was the first city in the country to ban future gas station construction and also has prohibited natural gas in nearly all future construction.

“We're at the beginning of something on how power and energy is delivered and provided for. It's kind of like moving from whale oil to electricity back in the 1800s,” said Dave King, a Petaluma councilmember who also serves as chairman of the board for Sonoma Clean Power.

The future strategy also will include boosting the number of customers in its EverGreen service, which offers 100% renewable energy sourced locally from solar panels and the geothermal plants at The Geysers.

It costs the average customer about $13 more per month. There are about 3,800 in the service, an increase from the almost 2,000 customers almost two years ago.

Sonoma Clean Power has committed to more solar projects to boost such sourcing because geothermal now provides about two-thirds of the locally sourced power, Syphers said.

It already has six 1-megawatt solar farms in the region to supply local power for the EverGreen program and will soon start on a new 75-acre solar and battery storage project in southern Sonoma that will produce about 12 megawatts of power and have battery storage capability of 8 megawatts.

But there also lies a tantalizing prospect of finding new geothermal sources ― a power source that is not weather dependent ― locally with technological advances used in places like Iceland and Italy, Syphers said.

This work can be done in areas that do not have the volcanic formation like Clear Lake to be able to capture heat from the earth. Those local places include the areas of southeast Mendocino County; portions northeast of Cloverdale and even within the Sonoma Valley, Syphers said.

“We’re going to need to build everything we can ― really quickly,” he said.

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