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06.15.11

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Geysers, Grids, and Public Power

I read in amazement the front-page feature story published in the Bohemian ("Voltage and Violets," May 25). The writer begins laying the foundation for the premise of his article by stating, and this bears repeating: "Unfortunately, Sonoma County residents currently get the biggest chunk of their electricity from enormous natural gas plants located far away, and another major source of PG&E-supplied energy is Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant." What is amazing is that geothermal energy is not taken into consideration. In fairness to the writer, the geothermal resource of the Geysers is given a nod and mentioned later. Let's consider for a moment what the contribution from this renewable resource, located mostly in Sonoma County, providing full-time jobs to about 400 people, means to us locally.

I'll make it simple. All of the electricity that we use here in Sonoma County comes from a renewable green-energy resource—all of it. Picture it this way: the grid is like the waterways in that it is ultimately all connected, but if you live right downstream from a big lake and you turn on the tap, you get the water from that lake, not one at the other end of the state. The population of Sonoma County is around 500,000, and when we turn on all our electrical taps we can't even begin to use all the electricity that is flowing downstream from the Geysers.

Darwin's article states just the opposite of this, and does not give proper credit to this local green-energy resource that has been generating power and providing jobs locally, 24/7, for the last 50-plus years. It is irresponsible journalism at the least and tends to give the impression that someone hasn't done much research on what is happening right here in our own community.

And while we are on the subject of the Geysers, another important point must be made. The Geysers, contrary to what was stated in the article, have no real room to expand. There are empty fields of wildflowers where Geyser Units 1-4 and 15 used to be, and an abandoned power plant (built by the state of California and never operated) stands on a hillside, all testament to the fact that even though it is renewable, there is only so much capacity in the steam fields at the Geysers, and that the number of power plants that are currently producing is pretty much at it's limit. I'm all for green-energy resources being developed locally and creating jobs, but agencies created by people who don't know what they're doing will never be successful.

Mark Barry

Santa Rosa


Darwin Responds

Thanks to Mark Barry for emphasizing the issue of geothermal energy and giving the Geysers their due. He is mistaken about a few key facts, however.

First, it is not true that "all of the electricity that we use here in Sonoma County comes from a renewable green-energy resource." PG&E supplies electricity to most Sonoma County homes and businesses, and this electricity is sourced from a mixture of power plants located in and beyond California's borders, the largest categories of which include natural gas plants (35 percent), nuclear stations (20 percent) and large hydroelectric dams (13 percent). None of these sources can be defined as "renewable" under California law. Power from these sources feed into a regional grid, where it is mixed with other greener power supplies, making distinctions about where a specific PG&E consumer's energy is coming from irrelevant. According to PG&E's most recent "Renewable Portfolio Standard Compliance" report filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, the company's current power mix includes only 17 percent renewable sources, below its state mandated target of 20 percent.

The electrical grid doesn't work like the waterways Mr. Barry uses as an analogy. In fact, because of state mandates that investor-owned utilities purchase certain increasing percentages of renewable energy, and because of other complex factors affecting power generation and transmission, the system actually does require that consumers at one end of the state be delivered electricity generated at the other end of the state. The Geysers are a perfect example. Energy generated at the Geysers is routinely shipped south on the grid and delivered to homes and businesses in Los Angeles and as far south as San Diego.

I will take Mr. Barry's statement about the Geyser's finite potential at face value. I'm no expert on the geology of the region, and am inclined to agree when someone is pointing out that are limits to even good things.

Darwin Bond-Graham


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