Though skeptical of Chevron’s involvement, Sonoma Clean Power moves ahead with pilot geothermal projects
A plan to boost by 85% the clean electricity output from in and around The Geysers geothermal field spanning Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties took a significant step toward realization Thursday. But that didn’t come without strong opposition against one of the three companies involved.
The board of Sonoma Clean Power, the power agency organizing the effort, ultimately approved identically structured cooperation agreements for the geothermal opportunity zone pilot projects with Salt Lake City-based Cyrq Energy; Eavor Inc., the California arm of Canada’s Eavor Technologies; and Chevron New Energies.
The pilot projects would aim to produce up to 20 megawatts apiece, each scaling up to as much as 200 megawatts if the technology was economically feasible for ratepayers. The goal of 600 more megawatts from the GeoZone would be on top of the over 700 megawatts of output already from existing power plants at The Geysers.
This comes as California needs to develop thousands of megawatts of 24/7 clean power such as geothermal to meet forecast electricity demand, Sonoma Clean Power CEO Geof Syphers said. Community choice aggregation power agencies, or CCAs, like Sonoma Clean Power need about 1,000 more round-the-clock megawatts, and the agency itself seeks 200 to 300 more geothermal megawatts.
CCAs are California power agencies that buy power then use the distribution lines of utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric to get electricity to agency customers.
But while the Cyrq and Eavor agreements in Sonoma Clean Power’s GeoZone drew unanimous votes from the 11 board members representing governments in the power agency’s two-county service area, the Chevron New Energies proposal passed 7-4.
Several seconds passed between when Cloverdale Councilmember Melanie Bagby moved to approve the Chevron New Energies approval and Windsor Councilmember Debora Fudge, board chair, seconded it.
“I would like Chevron to note the pause,” Fudge said. “Just take that back to your corporation, please.”
One common theme in the pushback from the board members on the Chevron Clean Energies proposal was concern that its involvement would be used to “greenwash” Chevron Corp. That’s a term for accusing a company of making its environmentally positive efforts appear to compensate for pursuits deemed detrimental.
Another board objection was that any revenue from the geothermal venture might go to fund petroleum energy ventures.
“I generally like to do business with businesses that share my values,” said Petaluma Councilmember Brian Barnacle, who voted against the agreement.
Barnacle noted that Eavor talks on its website about leadership in sustainable energy and Cyrq about enabling local energy autonomy in more places. He said Chevron New Energies’ commitment to $10 billion in capital spending on low- and no-carbon power by 2028 is commendable, but then the corporation as a whole is quoted in the New York Times as spending $17 billion this year on petroleum exploration and production.
“Is there an advantage to working with three companies, one of which is likely going to use this as greenwashing, versus working with two companies that seem committed and aligned with our values?” Barnacle asked.
Syphers responded that “greenwashing” was addressed when all three companies met with stakeholders initially in June 2022.
“We raised the concern about potentially greenwashing or … offsetting some other parts of the business with this project and flagged it as an untenable way to run the project — and something that would be a complete non-starter,” Syphers said.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers, while voting in favor of Chevron New Energies’ agreement, said he wanted to “make sure it's clear that the direction from the board is not a future of lower carbon energy production, but no carbon energy production.”
“Chevron's history of denial of climate change, even after decades of knowing about this, how can you reassure the board that this partnership won't continue to subsidize other forms of energy production that contribute to climate change?” Rogers asked.
Ryan Tracy, Sonoma Clean Power director of planning and analytics, explained to the board why Chevron Clean Energies’ proposal was selected among the GeoZone finalists.
“To be frank, all the deployment in the Permian Basin (oilfields of Texas) and the shale (petroleum) boom, they've gotten very good at drilling wells really fast and really cheaply,” Tracy said. “And that's really going to be key to making geothermal economics.”
Board members voting against the the cooperative agreement with Chevron New Energies were Barnacle and councilmembers Jackie Elward of Rohnert Park, Stephen Zollman of Sebastopol and Patricia Ferrar-Rivas of Sonoma.
Fudge voted, “Aye, for the good of the whole.”
Also assenting were Bagby, Rogers, Cotati Councilmember Ben Ford and Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.
Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-4256.