Science geek turned clean-energy CEO Geof Syphers says that solving problems backwards is the key to unlocking solar power’s enormous potential in the state of California. A falling monkey, wastewater ponds and old-fashioned number crunching also played their parts.
Sonoma County’s half-million population has more renewable power per capita than any other county in the United States, thanks to a year-old publicly run agency called Sonoma Clean Power (SCP). While its name is straightforward, its achievements are nothing but groundbreaking. In less than a year, SCP has saved the county 100,000 metric tons in emissions, equivalent to taking more than 21,000 vehicles off the road.
More renewable energy is not the goal
“We’re saving people money while we’re doing that,” points out CEO Geof Syphers, who at 44 has gone from teenage science enthusiast to major clean-energy actor in a few decades. His agency has shaved 6 to 9% off Sonoma family’s electricity bills already. “It’s about making a market,” he says. “More renewable energy is not the goal. Lower greenhouse gas emissions: that’s the goal. Stronger economies, lower bills, having a climate your kids can live in. Those are the real goals.”
Geof Syphers’s agency has lowered Sonoma families’ electricity bills.
The agency’s latest idea is one they hope will be replicated across the state of California, whose large population has put such a burden on water supply that in spring 2015 rationing was introduced. Solar panels on top of water-treatment ponds not only use what little available space there is – as SCP must brush elbows with farmers and developers alike for land – but help conserve water as the installations reduce evaporation due to wind. It will serve as a blanket, more or less critical in California where pumping, treating and transporting water consumes 20 percent of the electricity.
Most of all, the sprawling 12.5-megawatt solar park being built atop six storage ponds reflects the growing clout of Syphers’s government agency, which is leading a robust clean energy movement called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) that is gaining speed nationwide. Through CCA, publicly run power agencies like Sonoma’s let communities decide where their energy comes from, while working with traditional investor-owned utilities to distribute that power—striking a unique blend between public and private control.
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