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Episode #110: 'Pursuing the Parallel Goals of Renewable Energy and Grid Reliability' with Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry...

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  • Jan 24, 2023
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Utility leaders are being pulled in many different directions from all of their critical stakeholders these days. From bringing down power costs to increasing the use of smart technology and more, decisions must incorporate consideration of many numerous factors. In particular, the push for a decarbonized energy system has been one of the loudest and most critical endeavors for modern utilities. That said, calls for a new paradigm in grid reliability is reaching fever pitch, which some position as counter to the push for more renewables.

However, the true innovators and leaders in the power sector don't see clean energy and a more reliable grid as being in conflict. In contrast, they see creative solutions that elevate both of these goals to the greater than the sum of their parts. One such leader in this space is Sonoma Clean Power, enacting the vision and leadership from its CEO Geof Syphers. On this week's episode, Geof joins podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester to highlight the best ways to pursue these equally critical goals in tandem to ensure the stability and stewardship possible from the modern power provider.

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Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe.  

 

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast, the show that brings leading minds from the energy industry to discuss the challenges and trends that are transforming and modernizing our energy system. And a quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now, let's talk energy. I am Jason Price, Energy Central Podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. And with me as always from Orlando, Florida is Energy Central producer and community manager, Matt Chester. If there's one main theme constant in utility sector, it would probably be grid reliability. Matt, how about a brief overview on the topic of grid reliability?

 

Matt Chester: 

Sure, Jason. The headlines have come over and over in the past few months and have really painted the picture, from fuel shortages in Europe, to extreme heat in Texas, threats of wildfires and other disasters looking to interrupt the grid. Customers are more conscious than ever in that flipping on the light switch isn't necessarily automatic when something might go wrong. That said, utilities, grid operators, regulators, and really all stakeholders all the way through the chain have put reliability at the top of their list of priorities. But the utility sector is also changing so rapidly that it's a constant game of playing catch up.

 

Jason Price: 

That's helpful, Matt. But rather than always playing catch up, our guest today is looking to take a leading position in looking more forward in some unique ways. We're being joined today by Geof Syphers, the CEO of Sonoma Clean Power. Geof has held this role for nearly a decade running the default public power provider for Sonoma and Mendocino Counties in California. As CEO, Geof has championed the parallel goals of pushing towards a 100% renewable grid 24/7, but also recognizing the challenges that this creates in the world of reliability.

He doesn't think you have to sacrifice one to achieve the other. We're eager to pick his brain on these topics. Geof, thanks so much for being here and welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 

Geof Syphers: 

Thanks for having me on, Jason.

 

Jason Price: 

Geof, let's just jump in. In California, we've heard so much this past summer about the constrained grid, especially during afternoons and evenings, during the hottest portion of the year. We've had guests talk about spare margin and the risk we face by hastily shutting down and not adequately replacing our generation. But it seems like everyone is working hard to address this head on, but provocatively that you are not working on it. My first question to you is, why not and what are you doing differently?

 

Geof Syphers: 

Well, obviously there's a lot of work to do to solve summer reliability, but I think my point is we know how to solve that problem. Solar with batteries is really going to go a long way to addressing the evening peaks that happen after sunset. Just this last summer, we dispatched several thousand megawatts of battery storage and that is way, way up over the year before. And just like everyone else, Sonoma Clean Power is constructing a lot of those resources as well to contribute to those solutions. I think my point is though, because the solution for summer reliability is in motion, I'm really entirely focused on working on the next major reliability problem because we don't have much time to solve it.

If you think about the direction California and frankly the world is going with more and more solar, more batteries, more wind and trying to shut down our fossil gas peakers, and you add on to the fact that our new peak load is going to shift into the winter at nighttime for California in just five to 10 years because all those batteries offsetting the summer peak and because of using heat pumps to transition away from fossil methane gas for heating, we're going to see a winter peak.

Solar with batteries doesn't work so great in the winter because solar when it's dark for three weeks can't charge the batteries. The batteries might only last four, six, eight hours. They're really not going to run through those long winter periods. What I'm working on is winter reliability and especially the nighttime. That's going to take a lot longer to solve the summer reliability and we need to work on it now.

 

Jason Price: 

Yeah, absolutely. This is also a national trend, by the way. I mean we're seeing this also on the East Coast. You're looking to leapfrog to the next challenge, which is really along the lines of winter reliability as you describe it. Let's talk a bit further about reliability and how is this different than summer or any reliability and what are you seeing happening now given that we're in the winter season in the United States.

 

Geof Syphers: 

It's those long periods with low solar output that makes winter reliability such a tricky problem. Historically, California hasn't invested much in the last several decades in base load renewables, but that's the part that's going to have to change. Things like offshore wind and geothermal are going to have to scale up and pretty quickly. Those are complex construction projects that require transmission and a lot of resources. Other resources like biomass, biogas, long duration storage, they're probably going to play a part, but the majority of solving the winter problem, at least here, looks to be offshore wind and geothermal.

If we don't tackle those issues now, core question, we'll forever be extending the operation of the dirtiest gas power plants because that's our backup. We just extended our one nuclear power plant for five years, and we are continually extending, including exempting environmental review, the operation of gas peaker plants. Given that that's not so great for air quality or the climate or frankly social justice because a lot of those are in neighborhoods, it's a pretty core objective of ours to go after geothermal and offshore wind.

 

Jason Price: 

Yeah, absolutely. All right, so you kind of answered my next question, which is really around what are some of the solutions you're looking at. If you could perhaps maybe elaborate on the process and then what's the feedback been like from your customers.

 

Geof Syphers: 

We're really narrowly focused on geothermal development because we have the world's largest resource in our territory. Obviously we need to be working on that. Before I get into that though, we are watching efforts in Humboldt County just to our north to construct four and a half gigawatts of offshore wind up there. We're working to partner with them to ultimately have some offtake agreements to make those projects economic. But back to geothermal, our goal is to essentially double the amount of geothermal coming from The Geysers complex area and around it.

Without adding much new water requirements, and that's one of the really complex parts about geothermal is how much water needs do we have in the drive star west. One of the things we did to solve that is we launched a partnership and we call it the Geothermal Opportunity Zone. It's a public-private partnership where we've got private companies working with two counties, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, to explore and find opportunities for extremely low water or even zero water geothermal power. An example of this is Eavor, it's a Canadian company, and they have a technology called advanced closed-loop.

What it does is they actually drill two wells and far underground, sometimes more than a couple miles underground, those wells meet at a point. You have an injection well and a steam collection well, but you're able to collect all the steam, condense it, and re-inject it. You have essentially a closed-loop system instead of needing lots of water. There's another company called Cyrq and they do something pretty cool. They have what they call a box of rocks where they take the geothermal steam at the solar hours when you don't need the power and they use that steam to heat up their box of rocks on the surface, which is essentially shipping containers full of sand and rocks.

And then they use that heat during the peak hours when you want the power to superheat the steam and increase the output. Solutions like that that don't add new water needs are really what we're looking for, but I don't want to overlook the fact that solving this big problem also includes going way back to basics like low income housing retrofits and building insulation and anything that cuts heating needs in particular and lighting is going to be a big value.

 

Jason Price: 

I want to go back to the winter reliability for a moment. I'd mentioned that since you're in California and I'm in New York, these are somewhat progressive states, and I think on the Coast we're both talking about the future winter load. But how do you feel about the industry at large and your peers? Are we taking this winter reliability, winter load future seriously? Are we talking about it enough, or just what are you seeing across the industry or with your peers around this entire shift in transformation that the industry is going to be facing in the near future I would imagine, given the shift in the load and the EV and the drive and electrification of everything?

 

Geof Syphers: 

I don't know if you watched the difference in electric and commodity gas rates between the rest of the United States and California recently, but suddenly that conversation is getting easier, and it's getting easier because our marginal cost of both gas and spot market electricity went through the roof in December. It's sustaining through January and we expect it to go into February like seven times normal. The fact that winter is far more expensive to serve than last summer is suddenly getting people to start talking about this, even though it's for a completely different reason.

But people are still surprised when we start these conversations to learn that the solutions to our upcoming winter reliability problem also solve all of the summer reliability problem. In fact, ideally we can wind the clock back and develop offshore wind and geothermal a decade ago because that would've solved both problems without devaluing all the batteries, which is about what we're going to do. We're going to construct a massive amount of batteries. And then within a decade, they're going to be hugely devalued as soon as we get all the base load renewables online. I think it's not the most efficient way to go about it, but we kind of have to do that.

I think it's the realization though that the base load resources are going to be super critical that's helping us get early attention into thinking about how CAISO and the regulators can accelerate transmission planning. That's really one of the core timelines that we have to hit. Oftentimes it can take four to six years to get approval to connect to the transmission grid, and that's probably going to be too long. We're probably going to need to rethink how the queue process works, how projects feed into transmission planning. For these big geothermal and offshore wind projects and probably long-term storage, they're going to need new lines most likely.

 

Jason Price: 

That's helpful. Thank you. Share with us, for those who are not familiar with Sonoma Clean Power, what are some other challenges that you're facing? What are you doing about it? Just share some of the maybe successes that you've overcome, either short-term or near-term.

 

Geof Syphers: 

You're talking about with power supply, or are you talking about general?

 

Jason Price: 

I'll leave it to you. I would love to hear more about anything with power supply, whether it's solar and storage, or it could be something that's more general. I'll leave it to you to answer that.

 

Geof Syphers: 

One of the things that we're working on is trying to think about the load side of this problem. Obviously we need to supply power when customers need it, but utilities are actually pretty influential in policy and in technology adoption when it comes to affecting how big loads are and where they occur and when, and the when is really becoming the key question. It used to be when everything was served by coal and gas, you could just ramp those plants up and down pretty easily to meet whatever load appeared whenever it occurred, but the grid is kind of upside down. It used to be we forecasted load and we dispatch supply.

That's flipping. We're now forecasting supply because it's renewable and it happens when the sun shines and the wind blows and we're dispatching load. One of the things we're doing to make that work is we're shifting our thinking about electric cars. Before we were just promoting electric cars flat out because of their ability to cut emissions and to really help us just decarbonize the system and shift over to cleaner electricity. Now what we're doing is thinking about when they're charging more. We were giving away and we've given away several thousand free home chargers and that was very popular, but it was encouraging charging at home at night and the rate structure still kind of encouraged them.

But what we're learning is it would be vastly better for the grid if electric cars were charging during solar hours except in the two hottest months of the year. If we can have places where people can charge at work that strongly encourages charging between about 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM, those kind of hours, we can actually have a dispatchable resource. Because if you have a parking lot full of chargers, you can have a single transformer with a controller on it, then you can ramp up and down or just shut off during a flux alert, or you can also just by accident have solar coincident charging when the grid has plenty of capacity.

We're really focused on workplace charging right now, and it's a new frontier because there hasn't been a lot of effort on trying to shift the bulk of charging to work. Most people still do most of their charging at home. That's going to be a big experiment and one of the things we're working on.

 

Jason Price: 

Interesting. You're in the C-suite. For our listeners, share with us what is the process you go through from a planning standpoint. You've got a lot of short-term and long-term needs. You've got a lot of fires to put out, and I mean that both literally and figuratively being in California. Share with us, if you can, a little bit of how you approach the planning in the position that you're in.

 

Geof Syphers: 

We actually have several different planning teams. The core team we call planning and analytics. They're in-house, and they study our sources and loads and constantly are working toward achieving a better match between sources and loads. But they have to integrate their work with our programs team that is largely responsible for dispatching all our demand response programs and our virtual power plants. They also have to really integrate with our procurement team on what resources we're buying, and also statistically how many of those resources are actually going to come online.

And then we also have a risk team that looks at how we're addressing all kinds of different situations related to how fully procured are we and how exposed to the market are we. All those things integrate. We obviously will be planning on the integrated resource plan cycle, which is typically looking out about 10 years, depends on what you're looking at. Sometimes it's a 20 year look, but often we're finding that in today's fast moving market, 10 is about as long as is useful.

Last year one of the big things we did is we made the strategic decision to base all our procurement on the true CAISO system-wide hourly impacts on carbon instead of the state's current regulatory system, which essentially credits utilities for putting renewable energy onto the grid whether or not it reduces emissions. Let me explain that. If you're putting solar onto the grid when all of the thermal units are running at minimum, then you're offsetting other solar. You're essentially curtailing other solar, or you're being curtailed. What we're trying to do is look at what's actually happening on the grid every hour, what we're putting onto the grid and taking the emissions value of that.

It definitely forces us to design both our short and long-term portfolio very differently, and it really changed our perspective about resource types. We went into the exercise thinking we were going to go really giant on short-term storage for all the reasons that everybody else did, which is summer reliability. We came out of it trying to figure out how to adjust enough short-term storage. This is that four hour battery types. The reason is by the time we've finished out our 2030 development of geothermal, we're going to not need most of the storage we thought we were going to need.

That was an important realization, to not construct and essentially get into long-term costs for customers that we can't utilize. That's one example of how we plan.

 

Jason Price: 

That's great. Geof, I really appreciate the insight you're bringing. It's always fun and interesting to hear what the smaller providers are doing to the innovation and the thinking and the planning. Thank you so much for sharing your insight. I want to give you the final word, but now have what's called our lightning round, which is just a series of questions that call for a one word phrase or answer. It's basically to help us learn more about you the person rather than you the professional. Are you ready?

 

Geof Syphers: 

All right, sure.

 

Jason Price: 

Okay. Is there a favorite app that you can't live without?

 

Geof Syphers: 

iBird, because I'm a birder, so I have to look at birds a lot and figure out what I'm looking at.

 

Jason Price: 

What is your favorite holiday?

 

Geof Syphers: 

I think Passover.

 

Jason Price: 

What fictional character would you love to invite to a dinner party you're hosting?

 

Geof Syphers: 

Can I do one that's fictional wise, but based on a real person?

 

Jason Price: 

Go for it.

 

Geof Syphers: 

All right. Frank Abagnale from Catch Me If You Can.

 

Jason Price: 

I like that. What would be an alternative career path if you hadn't found yourself in the energy industry?

 

Geof Syphers: 

Oh, that one's easy. When I was in high school, I was really wrestling with being a physicist or a machinist. Machinist. I absolutely love using a mill. It's one of my favorite tools.

 

Jason Price: 

What are you most passionate about?

 

Geof Syphers: 

About anything. The Asian board game called Go.

 

Jason Price: 

Oh, interesting. Big strategy guy, I guess. Nice going. Nice job navigating through the lightning round, and I said I'll give you the final word. You're speaking to your peers in the industry. What final word or message would you like our audience to take away from this conversation today?

 

Geof Syphers: 

I think that we know how to completely end our use of fossil fuels worldwide. I think we need do it, and I think that's where the challenge is. Do we have the courage to have the hard conversations about what's in our way? Because sometimes it's ourselves. Sometimes it's our own objectives are misguided, or our environmental laws are blocking the best environmental solution, or things like that. We need to examine all that and make sure we've got the courage to unpack this problem and then move quick.

 

Jason Price: 

That's great. Thank you for sharing those thoughts. Thank you again to you and your team for helping put this together. This conversation's long overdue, and I'm sure our audience is going to appreciate all the message that you've shared today. I encourage them to leave questions and comments. Until then though, thanks again for sharing your insight with us on today's episode of the podcast, Geof.

 

Geof Syphers: 

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

 

Jason Price: 

Fantastic. You can always reach Geof through the Energy Central platform where he welcomes your questions and comments. We also want to give a shout out of thanks to the podcast sponsors that made today's episode possible. Thanks to West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformations.

West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations, and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, customer experience, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, data and analytics, and cybersecurity. And once again, I'm your host, Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com and we'll see you next time at Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ is the premiere podcast series from Energy Central, a Power Industry Network of Communities built specifically for professionals in the electric power industry and a place where professionals can share, learn, and connect in a collaborative environment. Supported by leading industry organizations, our mission is to help global power industry professionals work better. Since 1995, we’ve been a trusted news and information source for professionals working in the power industry, and today our managed communities are a place for lively discussions, debates, and analysis to take place. If you’re not yet a member, visit www.EnergyCentral.com to register for free and join over 200,000 of your peers working in the power industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

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