A Love for Problem-Solving

Justin Webb loves to figure things out.Silicon Valley Power Generation technician wearing a hard hat with the DVR power plant in the background

After earning a degree in industrial electronics, Justin soon put his problem-solving skills to the test while working at Loma Linda University Medical Center as a central utilities plant technician. One day, a damaged power pole took down the power plant that provided electricity and heat to the hospital. To make matters worse, the black-start generator for the plant failed to start. Justin had four hours to restore steam for heating before hospital staff would have to evacuate patients for health and safety concerns. Thinking on his feet, he was able to jump-start the black-start generator using the engine from a forklift and electric scooters that had 12-volt batteries. He remained calm under pressure and was able to restore power to the generator, plant and hospital.

Justin’s love for problem solving is what attracted him to a career in utilities. After spending five years at Loma Linda University, Justin worked at Calpine, a wholesale electric company, before joining our team at Silicon Valley Power. He has spent the past three years as an electric utility generation technician. In this role, Justin flexes his problem-solving muscles by ensuring that all systems at the Donald Von Raesfeld (DVR) Power Plant are operating correctly both physically and chemically.

“I really enjoy the troubleshooting aspect of my job,” Justin said. “It’s so fulfilling and satisfying when I am able to quickly identify and solve anything I may discover during my inspections.”

Justin also regulates the electrical generation at the DVR power plant, raising and lowering the output of the gas turbines based on demand from customers. He is part of a team of 17 people who all find satisfaction from problem-solving at work. “My team is so knowledgeable, cooperative and fun to be around,” Justin said. “I couldn’t think of a better crew to work with!”

On the weekends, Justin can be found in the outdoors with his wife and two young sons. They enjoy traveling the Sierras for hiking and camping, as well as spending hot summer weekends at the beach. Justin and his wife are currently training to hike Half Dome in Yosemite in the spring. After completing Half Dome, their next goal is to climb Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.

Providing Mutual Aid for the Carr Fire

On Sunday, ten of our field crew members headed to Redding with two digger derricks, two bucket trucks, a 4×4 crew truck, and two foreman trucks to provide mutual aid to the Redding Electric Utility (REU) in response to the Carr Fire. They will spend the next 10-14 days assisting the REU crews in rebuilding the damaged electric distribution system, working 16 hour days to accomplish repairs as quickly as they safely can. We are proud to be supporting our fellow public power utility, and appreciate the mutual aid arrangements that can help utilities to rebuild after a natural disaster.

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How will renewable power affect the reliability of your electricity?

Reliability’ describes how often power outages happen and how quickly the power Wind farm - with logocomes back on. Today, Santa Clara has a high overall system reliability that is aided by our diverse power mix.

What happens when renewable power is added? For utilities and state operators, maintaining reliability will become more complex. Renewable electricity can come from small energy producers in many different locations. For instance, each home with a solar rooftop system produces energy that affects the grid. This can make planning for a steady supply of electricity difficult.

However, even with a more complex process, we will continue providing the same reliable power you expect. Our team is exploring new technologies and processes, like energy storage, that will help us adopt a cleaner power mix and maintain high‑quality service.

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the body that manages California’s electric grid, is in charge of planning how renewables will flow on the grid. CAISO is currently testing tools such as demand response, a larger regional power market to balance electricity flow and energy storage to support this increase in renewables.

Utilities will be a key part of this change. Utility employees will need to develop new skills and styles of teamwork. They will also need to use new automation tools to support renewable power and manage the flow of electricity. Operators will watch automated models, check for correctness and take over manually when needed. The process will look like a pilot flying a modern commercial plane, using automation for most of the flight.

Adopting renewables helps us secure a clean future, but the process requires a careful balance in our operations. Our team is dedicated to managing the process while focusing on our customers’ needs. Visit our website for more information on reliability and our power mix.

Making waves as a power engineer

ChrisKarwick2At twenty-three years old, Chris Karwick was working as a merchant marine engineering officer aboard a commercial ship in Antarctica when he found himself in a perilous situation: The ship had become trapped in a thick sheet of ice due to engine failure. Days passed with no solution, and Chris, a manager with several direct reports, was asked for advice and direction. Together with other crew members, Chris helped organize a makeshift repair to the engine that allowed the ship to break free from the ice pack and be towed safely to New Zealand.  

High-stakes experiences like this have shaped Chris’ ability to think quickly on his feet and communicate in tough situations. After traveling the world, Chris decided to settle down in Silicon Valley and bring his engineering and leadership talents to the utilities and power generation sector.  

In his role as the Division Manager of Power Generation, Chris oversees our power generation assets inside and outside of Santa Clara, such as the Donald Von Raesfeld Power Plant and the Stony Gorge Hydroelectric Facility. On a day-to-day basis, he makes sure that power is produced and dispatched properly, that our operations meet environmental standards, and that the power generation staff maintains a safe workplace. Building off his past experience managing others, Chris enjoys helping his team members develop their skills.  

In his free time, Chris loves spending time with his wife and two kids in Santa Cruz camping, fishing, and enjoying the outdoors. He rekindles his sense of adventure as often as possible and tries to pass on his love of travel to his children.

 

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.

 

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

 

 

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.

 

What do a butterfly, cattle and a natural gas power plant have in common?

Checkerspot Butterfly with SVP LogoYou may be surprised at an unusual connection between our Donald Von Raesfeld power plant and the endangered bay checkerspot butterfly. The butterfly once lived in many areas around the San Francisco Bay from Contra Costa County to Hollister, but is now primarily found only in the foothills of southern Santa Clara County. How this colorful butterfly became threatened is a tale of air pollution and invasive plant species. How it is being saved is a story that intertwines native grassland preservation with cattle grazing.

Here’s how it works.

The bay checkerspot requires certain native grasslands that grow only in nutrient-poor serpentine soil in the area. Unfortunately, the nitrogen oxide from vehicle emissions on nearby highways enriches the soil, allowing invasive plants to grow and choke out the native plants needed by the butterfly for food and shelter.

Stanford University researchers identified the resulting drastic decline of the butterfly in the 1960s, leading to the bay checkerspot being federally designated as threatened in 1987. Researchers also found that cattle grazing improved the butterfly habitat, as cattle preferred to eat the non-native invasive plants and did not like the native plants that are home to the checkerspot.

Here’s where our DVR power plant enters the narrative.

While the modern power plant does not emit anywhere near the volume of nitrogen generated by traffic, the federal government still required us to offset DVR’s emissions with a Habitat Conservation Plan. Our staff saw this as an opportunity and we purchased 40 acres of butterfly habitat east of Highway 101 and donated it to the Silicon Valley Land Conservancy for permanent protection. Of course, cattle are welcomed on the land to dine to their hearts’ content on the invasive plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a wealth of information on their website about the checkerspot butterfly and its prospects for survival. We’re happy to be a part of the efforts to protect this South Bay Area butterfly.

By the way, we recently published a blog post about the many community benefits associated with DVR. We can now add the bay checkerspot butterfly as one of the benefactors of our locally owned and operated electricity generating facility.

Our Community Benefits From Having a Local Power Plant

DVR Night Photo with LogoBeing able to generate electricity for a local power plant has advantages for the community we serve. We’ve been fortunate in the City of Santa Clara to have the Donald Von Raesfeld (DVR) modern natural gas facility operating since 2005, and the investment has paid off by providing reliable locally sourced power and adding value for customers by helping keep rates low.

Utilizing power from DVR:

  • Avoids the use of expensive transmission lines to import electricity, a cost that has risen 500 percent in the last 10 years
  • Reduces load on external transmission lines to protect against “brown-outs” or shortages in the regional power supply
  • Supports 18 skilled jobs in our City.

Reliability benefits are most prominent during heat waves when DVR operates near its peak capacity and reduces the dependence on power coming from outside the City.

DVR generates up to 147 megawatts (MW) of power with a modern technique that boost efficiencies and limits emissions. In fact, nitrous oxide measurements show that the exhaust from DVR is actually cleaner than the air it takes in during certain parts of the day.

Our plant has generated over 7 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity since 2005. On average, DVR generates enough electricity to power over 100,000 homes each year The investment in DVR also pays off when excess power from the plant is sold to other utilities. While local customers have priority for DVR’s energy, if SVP-owned sources are generating more than enough power from cheaper or greener resources to meet local demand, power from DVR can be sold on the wholesale market.

DVR is just one of numerous resources that we utilize for our power mix, and it gives us one more option when deciding the best and most economical source of electricity for our customers.

Celebrating Our 120th Birthday

You might say that 1896 was a great year for a number of reasons. The electric stove was Yard Staff - 100 Year Anniversarypatented in June, just before the City of Santa Clara allocated $3,500 to start its electric department, which in time became Silicon Valley Power (SVP). By October 1896 the utility was powering 46 streetlights, a development possibly overshadowed by Harvey Hubbell’s patent on a new light bulb with a pull chain. Other SVP milestones include:

  • 1903: We begin providing electricity to customers
  • 1980: First local electric power plant built
  • 1985: Wind power joins our power portfolio
  • 1988: We add geothermal power to our power mix
  • 1998: “Silicon Valley Power” adopted as our official name
  • 2013: We introduce free citywide outdoor pubic Wi-Fi access
  • 2015: We deliver power that is over 40 percent carbon-free while maintaining the lowest rates of any electric utility in California

Today we serve 53,000 residents and businesses, including some of the world’s most prestigious high technology companies, with power that is nationally known to be very reliable. Our community appreciates our efforts to be as carbon-free as possible (see our Resources Map), and many customers opt to use 100 percent clean, green power by enrolling in the Santa Clara Green Power program. Surveys show that our customers rate us highly for customer service and the lowest rates in the state. We really enjoy that trust from our community, and it inspires us to be even better as we head into our 121st year.