The Power of The Geysers

At a facility 72 miles north of San Francisco, a powerful force deep underground is harnessed to supply almost five percent of California’s electricity. The facility, known as The Geysers, taps into a reservoir of steam over two miles below ground and turns it into usable electricity. Each year, this steam generates up to 5.5 million Megawatt-hours (MWh) of power, making The Geysers the largest geothermal field in the world. 

Luckily for Santa Clara, we have invested in this renewable, reliable power resource. Through the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA), we co-own two geothermal plants at The Geysers. Together, our plants produce up to 240 MWh of power each year – enough to power as many as 240,000 homes among our combined customers.  

How does it work? Like most geothermal plants, The Geysers collects naturally created high-pressure steam from underground “wells” and directs that steam into large turbines that turn to generate electricity. Since the flow of heat from the Earth is fairly constant, the plants are very reliable, producing steady power 24 hours a day. 

But The Geysers is even more renewable and innovative than most geothermal plants: the facility also redirects wastewater headed for a recreational lake, treats it, and adds it to the geothermal wells. Solar-powered pumps are used to move the water from the wastewater plant and up over the hill to the geothermal facility. These resourceful efforts mean that little is wasted and the positive environmental benefits are multiplied.  

The Geysers is one of the many diverse resources we use to power Santa Clara and provide carbon-free electricity to all residents. Through smart investments in innovative renewable power plants, we’re able to provide our customers with modern, affordable power solutions.

 

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Anatomy of a Power Outage in Santa Clara

Be Prepared for a Power OutageIt’s 1 a.m. on a January eveningand strong winds are blowing through Santa Clara. A palm frond breaks loose and flies into a power line. Lights in nearby homes flicker and then go out. Customers begin reaching out to us to see if they are the only customer without power and when power will be restored. But what’s going on behind the scenes? While every power event is different, here’s a look inside a typical outage.

Operational Center: When the palm frond shorts out the line, a control operator at our operational center sees an alarm on the monitor; a short circuit “fault” has completely shut down a circuit covering multiple neighborhoods within the city. As a safety measure, the automatic response system does not attempt to restore power to the area until it can be inspected for damage and safety, and ultimately re-energized by our personnel.

The control operator immediately alerts managers, customer service, and dispatch. Shortly after the first alarm, a troubleshooter is sent out to begin tracing the problem. In a large outage like this, the customer service team begins posting to social media and they’re called in to start fielding calls from residents. Sometimes residents can provide information that helps pinpoint the exact location of the issue, which is often helpful after dark.

Distribution Substation: Still unaware of the exact cause, our substation electrician heads to the distribution substation nearest to the affected area to determine if the problem stems from the substation itself, or the distribution line that showed an alarm. The electrician identifies that the issue is within the distribution line and alerts the control operator, who directs the troubleshooter to begin inspecting the lines of the affected circuit.

Power Checkpoints: The troubleshooter inspects circuit indicators on checkpoints along power poles and in readily accessible underground vaults located every few blocks, following the flashing warning signals along the circuit. When the troubleshooter finds a checkpoint with normal, non-flashing indicator, it means the problem is between that check point and the previous one inspected. Many times, the troubleshooter will begin isolating the problem area and restore power to residents in cleared zones.

Issue Area: The troubleshooter soon finds the palm frond that has landed below the power lines. Fortunately, the power lines have not been damaged. However, the palm frond has been scorched by 12,000 volts of electricity. The crew informs the operator that all is clear. The electrician at the substation resets the sensors, initiates all safety checks, and enables power to flow back through the circuit.

Nearby Homes: The cause and location of the outage determines the time to restore power to customers, and it is important for our staff to conduct safety inspections before returning power to affected circuits. If the problem section of the line can be isolated, many customers can have power restored just minutes after the problem is identified.

Our team works hard to ensure minimal power disruption, but power restoration times vary and some occurrences are beyond our control. When an unexpected power outage like this occurs, we want you to be ready. To prepare your home for when the lights do go out, check out our power outage preparation tips.

Sparking Inspiration in Silicon Valley

Jeff Duncan of Silicon Valley Power in front of a ladder that leans against a utility pole.An adrenaline rush – that’s what a coal mine electrician experiences every day. The tough working conditions and challenging electrical problems in a mine test one’s endurance and ability to solve problems under pressure.  

After succeeding in this demanding workplace, Jeff Duncan was up for a new adventure. One year ago, he switched from the coal industry to the utility industry and moved to Santa Clara to work with us as an electric meter technician. Jeff made the switch because he wanted to work in a growing industry where he could develop new skills and advance his career. His love of Silicon Valley and technology made the decision to join our team even easier.  

As a meter technician, no day on the job is the same for Jeff. He has a range of responsibilities, from inspecting meters that are recording no usage to testing faulty wires. He also assists with Wi-Fi troubleshooting calls and resolves connectivity issues. While the electrical work itself remains similar, these applications are very different from his previous job. A techie, Jeff is happy to learn new skills on the job. “I see my job evolving to focus more on wireless communication services in the future,” Jeff says.  

Jeff has also found an encouraging community here at Silicon Valley Power, with colleagues who support his growth. “Every day is great when you are working around great people who can teach you new things,” Jeff says. In his free time, Jeff spends time with his wife and three daughters. They love to play family basketball games, setting aside quality time to exercise and have fun together.  

 

Going Pole to Pole

Power line repairHow often do you think about the utility poles in your neighborhood? You may not think about this utility infrastructure when you make that overdue phone call to Mom, send a last-minute work email, or host Friday night movie night, but it’s all made possible by the utility lines running through Santa Clara and the poles that connect them.

As modern communications evolve, more equipment and more cables are added to poles: Cables for power and telephones are joined by lines for cable television and internet services and more wires become necessary to serve more subscribers. This additional weight can cause pole loads to exceed safe levels. Every utility pole has a defined amount of weight and stress that it can handle from attached equipment and weather conditions, as determined by the California Public Utilities Commission. When the pole weights exceed these safety levels, unsafe conditions such as power outages and fires can occur.

Today, utility poles across California are approaching this overloaded status more and more frequently. For example, one region in southern California has seen up to 22 percent of its utility poles reach overloaded status. To keep our community connected and safe, our team is taking comprehensive measures to ensure our community’s utility poles are up-to-date. We’re currently undertaking a multiyear pole inspection program to investigate 10,000 poles and crossarms in Santa Clara for symptoms of overloading and decay.

This information will be stored in a database, which will provide us with an accurate view of every pole in the field, help us create new pole designs, and track overloaded poles. Our new database will also work with pole loading software to analyze features such as pole strength, wire and equipment attachments, environmental factors, and any interactions of these elements that influence a pole’s structural integrity.

With this system, we’ll be able to see when poles need to be updated or replaced before a problem occurs. For example, this spring our crews are set to replace over 45 poles and numerous crossarms with new structures. All crossarms are made with newer composite materials that are stronger and more resilient to wind and other weather than traditional wood materials.

Our team is always on the lookout for new technologies that can improve our services and keep our customers connected. While at first glance utility poles may not seem like an obvious source of technological progress, bringing you more durable infrastructure allows us to provide the reliable service you expect.

These devices may be quietly driving up your home’s energy use

Dish Space HeaterDo you know which systems and appliances in your home use the most electricity? Many people might guess that their heating and cooling systems are the biggest energy users – and for years, that was true. However, the digital revolution means that plug-in appliances are playing an increasing role in the typical home’s energy consumption. We often see three common electrical appliances that can unexpectedly raise customers’ energy use.

Gaming consoles and DVRs seem harmless, but they tend to use much more energy than customers realize. This is not only because consumers are acquiring more entertainment devices, but also because those devices are plugged in all the time, sucking out “vampire power” even when not in use. We advise customers to unplug their devices when not in use, turn to a low power mode, or consider investing in a smart power strip.

While their warmth might be great on a cold winter day, space heaters can heat up your electricity bill if used extensively. Some of our customers use multiple space heaters to heat their whole homes all day long. Others continue to use their space heaters after their circuit breakers trip (i.e., outlets shut off). This is not an ideal way to heat your home. First, if your circuit breakers trip while using a space heater, your electrical system has overloaded and automatically shuts off to prevent a fire. Second, central heating is the most efficient and economical way to heat a large space or your whole home. We recommend only using one space heater at a time and using it to warm up a small space for a short period (one – two hours a day). To find the best space heater for your needs, check our Space Heater Guide and entertaining Space Heater Video.

Another appliance that may be using more energy than you’d think is your second fridgeKill-a-Watt electric consumption meter or supplemental freezer. Having that extra cold storage in the garage for extra beverages might be great for entertaining, but be smart and consider unplugging it during off-seasons or between holidays.

Interested in learning more about how your home is using electricity? Sign up for our free, in-home energy audit or borrow a Kill-A-Watt meter from our free Tool Lending Library.

Cheers to cleaner power for Santa Clara in the new year!

On January 1, 2018, you’ll wake up, roll out of bed, and get ready to start your day. As you flip on the lights, you won’t feel any different. However, something will have changed. Starting in the new year, the electricity that powers your lights, your coffee maker, your morning news – your entire home – will be more sustainable.

How is that possible? We are eliminating coal power from Santa Clara’s electricity supply portfolio by divesting from our small share in a San Juan coal plant. Starting January 1, 2018, all of the electricity supplied to your home will be generated by various renewable, hydroelectric and natural gas resources. This means your carbon footprint will be reduced – without you having to change a thing. It’s that simple.

For years, we used coal power because it was reliable and affordable. However, coal contributed over half of Santa Clara’s carbon emissions from electricity use last year, while making up only 10 percent of our power mix. We knew we needed to move beyond coal in order to reach our sustainability goals.

As a community, moving away from coal will reduce our carbon footprint from electricity use by about 50 percent. This transition to cleaner energy will not only place us ahead of the City of Santa Clara’s Climate Action Plan, but it will also allow us to maintain some of the lowest electricity rates in the state. You might think that cleaner energy would be more expensive, but evolving market forces have made many of these sources more affordable. Powering our homes, businesses, and schools with cleaner energy not only makes sense for the environment, it makes economic sense, too.

We’re proud to move into the new year coal-free. Santa Clara customers who want to do more to decrease their carbon footprint can choose to sign up for our 100 percent wind and solar power option, Santa Clara Green Power.

Read the full press release on our website.

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San Juan Coal Plant

 

 

The Future is Bright in Santa Clara

When driving, biking, or walking at night, what is your number one concern? For most people, safety gets the top spot. Visibility is tied closely to safety on the night street: nighttime driving is three times more dangerous than driving in the day and well-lit streets allow drivers to see pedestrians from twice the distance they do on poorly lit roads. That’s why we’re excited to move forward with Phase 2 of our LED Streetlight Retrofit Project, beginning this week.

LED street and intersection lights provide improved visibility and more controlled coverage than traditional lights. This is because LEDs spread light more evenly across an area and more precisely control where light is directed. That means less light pollution and more uniform lighting with less dark spots between poles, which results in a safer walk or ride for residents.

In June 2015, SVP completed Phase 1 of its LED Streetlight Retrofit Project, installing over 5,000 new LED streetlights. Phase 2 is expected to finish in early 2018 and will modernize intersection lights in southern Santa Clara as well as some streetlights in the northeast.

Not only do these LED street and intersection lighting upgrades mean safer nighttime trips, they also cut down on energy use. LEDs use up to 50 percent less energy than currently installed high-pressure sodium and mercury vapor streetlights. This translates into real energy savings: the 5,000+ LED streetlights installed in the first phase of our LED Streetlight Retrofit Project save us three million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. That’s enough energy to power 600 homes!

LED street and intersection lights also reduce our operational costs. LEDs last up to four times longer than the existing streetlights, which reduces lighting maintenance costs and bulb replacements.

Implementing this technology on a larger scale will help the Santa Clara community achieve a brighter and greener outlook on life.

Brighten up your holidays with home energy efficiency and safety tips

The holiday season brings bright decorations, holiday cooking, visits from family and friends, and festive gatherings – which can also mean an increase in home energy use. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season also makes energy safety more important. Did you know electrical accidents and home fires occur most frequently from December through February? We’re here to help with tips for keeping your home bright, efficient, and safe.

Lighting 

2017 tree with LEDs
Holiday tree with energy efficient LED lights

ENERGY STAR-certified LED lights are perfect for those looking for festive decorations without a spike in energy use. LEDs use 70 percent less energy than traditional lights and last up to 10 times longer.

Ensure your holiday lights are safe by checking each set of lights for frayed wires or damages before use. LEDs run at cooler temperatures so they are less likely to start a fire, but no matter what type of lights you use, it’s important to turn them off before going to bed or leaving the house.

For more helpful tips on using LEDs, read our Holiday LED Guide.

Fireplace

A cozy fire in the fireplace can create holiday cheer, but as much as 80 to 90 percent of the heat produced by a wood-burning fireplace can escape through the chimney if used ineffectively. To keep heat inside your home, close the flue damper when the fireplace isn’t in use. The damper should only be opened when a fire is burning.

For more helpful tips on fireplace dampers, visit our Fireplace Efficiency Guide.

Managing Electricity Use

With extra decorations and social gatherings in the home, high electricity bills can be prevented by choosing efficient lighting and decorations. You can also manage energy use by using timers to turn lights off in the late evening.

For more tips on holiday electrical safety, visit the Electrical Safety Foundation International.

A Local Focus Brings Big Impact

Erica JueFor an energy and environmental policy professional, designing national and international regulations from Washington D.C. or New York City might seem like the ultimate end goal. But to Erica Jue, it was simply a starting point for creating meaningful and tangible change at a local level.

Throughout her early career, Erica worked on large-scale policy at a federal and global level. She was introduced to the energy sector through work with the California Environmental Protection Agency. After that, she honed her technical and policymaking skills at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Center for Clean Air Policy, developing energy forecasts and emissions impact analyses.

Then, in June of this year, Erica decided to join Silicon Valley Power (SVP) as a resource analyst. “My biggest motivation for this role was to move from working at the federal level to the local level. I felt that I could have more of an impact on the area that I live in and see how the work that I do impacts the community,” she said.

At SVP, Erica has found a new avenue for her background in economics and statistics and her creative spirit – she manages our renewable energy portfolio and helps us meet our carbon emission reduction goals. “I like that I am actually implementing those policies now,” said Erica. “Part of that implementation is having an effect not just on Santa Clara, because we do have a cleaner grid, but also nationally because we are setting an example for other regions.”

Her role also involves analyzing potential investments in renewables and the role of new technologies, such as fuel cells and energy storage. “What’s exciting about the industry is that there’s a lot of technological change,” she said. “Not only is the state willing to move forward on green power and innovative technologies, but the industry is too.”

Her refined career focus has accompanied a welcome lifestyle shift. “In my former life, I spent a lot of time in the city,” Erica said. “I love being able to spend more time outdoors now – gardening and hiking in the woods with my fiancé. We have the Sierras, the Redwoods, and the beach all so close by.”

Great news! Electric rates remain flat in 2018

Electricity rates in 2018 will remain flat, thanks to an abundant supply of inexpensive electricity from hydroelectric plants along with recent revenue growth from our business sector. This is in contrast to a series of recent rate increases made necessary by four years of drought that sharply reduced hydroelectric generation. 

The Santa Clara City Council adopted our proposed budget on June 13, 2017. The budget also reflects the ongoing cost of replacing aging infrastructure such as power poles, meeting the rising power transmission costs and replenishing reserves drawn down to buffer our rates during the drought. 

Holding to a zero rate increase is contingent upon legislators in Sacramento defeating a California Senate bill that would negatively impact our rates. SVP and other municipal utilities are working to educate legislators about the benefits of maintaining low rates for customers. 

In addition to the abundance of hydroelectric power, our diverse power resources such as wind, geothermal, solar and the City’s local modern natural gas plant provide managers with cost-effective choices to meet energy demand in the City. Our zero rate increase is in contrast to other nearby electric utilities that are raising rates by as much as 10 to 11 percent.