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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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.

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

 

 

Rate Increase Proposed by SVP; Electricity Rates to Remain Lowest in State

The necessity for system improvements, steadily rising costs to bring power to Santa Clara, and the need to replenish emergency reserves depleted by the drought are among the main reasons why we are proposing rate increases of 3 percent in 2017 and 2018. Our rates will still remain among the lowest in the state. Neighboring utilities are raising prices 11 percent or more next year.

Aging Equipment

Maintenance and upgrade projects include replacing 30-40 year old power poles, cross arms and neighborhood transformers as well as improving power lines to meet growing demand.

Our Director of the Electric Utility, John Roukema explains it this way. “Just like maintaining your car to make sure it doesn’t break down on the freeway, we have to replace aging and outdated equipment to prevent unexpected outages. Equipment failure during a heat wave, while working on a project you haven’t saved on your computer, or while getting the kids ready for school can be a real hardship for our customers.”

Costs Climb

The cost of bringing power into Santa Clara is also a factor in the proposed rate increase, as transmission costs have risen nearly 200 percent in the past few years. While a portion of the electricity used in Santa Clara comes from local SVP generating sources, most power comes from other regions providing energy from wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal or other resources. Also, the cost to deliver natural gas to our power plants doubled this past summer as a part of PG&E’s pipeline safety program.

Electricity usage in the City increased nearly 8 percent last year, requiring an increased use of state-wide transmission services. On the bright side, this increase in sales allowed us to cover some of these rising costs and limit the rate increase to only 3 percent.

Drought Cost Offset by Reserves

Inexpensive hydroelectric power became scarce during the four-year drought, we were able to maintain low rates by dipping into our emergency reserves to offset the higher costs of more expensive energy. We must replenish our reserves so that we can be prepared for the next time there is a drop in low-cost power resources or in case wholesale prices suddenly rise. The reserves give us the stability to weather the storm and keep rates reasonable for our customers when power supplies go awry. The reserves also bolster our credit rating and reduce our cost to finance large projects.

Limit Inconvenience

We will do everything we can to limit inconvenience for our neighborhoods while our maintenance and upgrade program continues the next few years. In some cases there will be scheduled power interruptions and we will notify customers in advance when these are to occur. A planned outage certainly beats the pain of a sudden wide-spread outage caused by ignoring preventative maintenance.

We ask customers to be patient and understand that the system work and the rate increase, first and foremost, support reliable and reasonably priced power for our community.

Fiber Optics is the 100-Mile Communications Backbone of Santa Clara

Just as most of us don’t think twice about where power comes from when we flip a switch youdoodle-2016-10-31t11-23-51z_resizedand the light comes on, rarely do we consider how all that information arrives on our computer screen when we search the Internet. But somewhere in that millisecond journey from a database to your screen, the information passed through hundreds if not thousands of miles of fiber optic cable.

Fiber is the backbone of the Internet as well as critical for numerous companies in our city that rely on high-speed and reliable communications conduits. We entered into the fiber business almost by accident. Many years ago, we wanted the fastest, most reliable and best modern method for sending and receiving data to and from our electric substations, control room and throughout our local grid system.

The answer was a fiber optics network that helped us achieve higher power reliability. In 1995, our leaders came up with the idea of laying down far more fiber capacity than we needed immediately, figuring that future demand from customers as well as our utility would be well served by that extra capacity. That’s how we now have over 100 miles of fiber optic cable in our city, and that number continues to grow.

Our business customers jumped on the opportunity to use an already-established fiber infrastructure to enhance their communications abilities and make those capabilities available to their own customers. The SVP Fiber Enterprise was born 16 years ago and continues to provide data centers and corporations with a most modern, reliable and scalable dark fiber network today. When fiber optic cable is first built and made available for use, it’s called dark fiber. Once electronic equipment is added to each end, the fiber lights up and transmits data via virtually error-free single mode fiber optic cable capable of up to 2 terabits of data per second. That’s 100,000 times faster than today’s consumer speeds at home.

We continually monitor its operation, and a professional fiber team offers technical expertise, engineering design, construction, splicing, and upgrade assistance, as well as on-going tech support and customer service. Santa Clara’s dark fiber system plant has a stellar reputation for reliability and customer service.

That makes sense. After all, those are a couple of the key attributes we pride ourselves on here.

Your Local Utility Keeps Your Best Interests in Mind

Having your own local public power company certainly has its advantages. Being the 2015_svp_logo_with_seal_and_tagline_colormunicipal electric utility that only serves the City of Santa Clara makes us operate like a well-run neighborhood family-owned business. We know a lot about what our neighbors expect from their local utility.

For instance, all of us appreciate the benefits of the lowest electricity rates in the state, made possible in part by our constant work to find the best prices when purchasing power for the City. In fact, compared to what electric utility customers paid in neighboring cities, our residential and business customers spent about $100 million less in electric utility bills last year. That’s $100 million that stays in your pockets and in our community.

As a public power utility serving just our City, with our executive offices and service fleet located locally, we can focus on our citywide service area. The commitment to providing personalized service means very high customer satisfaction, according to surveys of our customers by an independent pollster.

Our community seems to be proud of our sponsorships of school and local activities. We provide support to fun events like the Santa Clara Art and Wine Festival and fireworks shows, and we take pride in establishing Santa Clara milestones like the biggest electric vehicle charging center in the area. And, as we modernized our metering technology, we were able to create free outdoor Wi-Fi access throughout most of the city using the metering system’s wireless communication capacity.

The American Public Power Association (APPA), which serves more than 2,000 locally owned utilities like SVP serving over 47 million customers in the U.S., points out additional benefits of public power, such as the boost to a city’s economic development and how the utility is governed by local elected officials who act in the best interests of the community. Our neighborhoods and our business community have a voice about their power. As your local municipal public power utility, we listen.

The Wisdom of Wind

Wind has come a long way since the 1980s in terms of the power industry and wind powerLooking up at wind turbine - with logo. It’s hard to believe that many of the wind turbines we put into action in 1982 were able to generate only about 100 kilowatts of energy, maybe enough to power about 36 homes when the wind was blowing at our first wind farm at Altamont Pass. Soon we will have giant turbines that can put out almost 2 megawatts (MW) of power each, enough to power 730 homes, and they’re more efficient (taking up less space for more power).

Plus they are a clean, green source of electricity.

The Altamont Pass location has changed in recent years. Towers now can be 100 feet or more in height, utilizing wind that is stronger and more consistent than breezes closer to the ground. Lattice support towers that encouraged bird nesting are being replaced by towers designed without nesting opportunities and bird collisions have been significantly reduced as modern turbine blades over 100 feet in diameter turn slower than those on older windmills.

The U.S. Department of Energy says that most windmills in the country are started when wind speeds are between 8 and 16 miles per hour and turned off when winds exceed 55 mph. Higher winds can damage the windmills, so operators remotely stop them from spinning.

Today we can generate almost 200 MW from wind for local distribution, using turbines at Altamont as well as power from wind farms in Washington and Southern California (see our energy resources map). Combining that wind energy with the electricity generated by solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and landfill gas resources, we’re able to keep our power generation for our Santa Clara customers over 40 percent carbon free.

When the West Coast Went Dark: What We Learned from Massive 1996 Power Outage

On August 10, 1996, a massive power outage struck Western North America, knocking out power in several U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and Baja California during a heat wave. In less than two hours, five high voltage power lines came into contact with trees in Oregon and Washington and a domino effect took out dozens of critical power lines as well as large electricity generating units from British Columbia and Alberta in Canada to New Mexico and Baja California. Since the nature of electricity is to flow in the most efficient direction (or path of least resistance), a tree can give it a way to flow straight to ground, interrupting power flow and causing breakers to trip when they sense a problem on the line. One such incident can impact a relatively small area, but a series of outages such as occurred in 1996 is a serious problem.

Power was out from a few minutes to six hours in California, according to a California Energy Commission survey, and the Union of Concerned Scientists says approximately 7.5 million people overall were affected by the power failure. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, those affected were located in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Nevada, Texas, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming and Washington, and Mexico’s Baja California.

What we and other utilities learned from this outage is that we need to proactively address hazards. We know that tree limbs cause outages, and we know that old and outdated equipment such as power poles and cross arms can fail. Trimming tree limbs before problems occur has long been part of our ongoing commitment to reliable delivery of electricity.

That’s why we encourage our customers to let us know if they see a branch that appears too close to a power line; we’ll inspect it and trim it if it’s a problem. We’ve also hired a company to accelerate our continuing replacement of power poles and cross arms, many of which are over 40 years old.

This ongoing methodical program of maintenance and system upgrades will continue for a few years, and it will increase our reliability and decrease the possibility of an unexpected power outage that can be inconvenient at best and create dangerous traffic and health facility problems at worst.

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.

His Best Pitch Was A Slider

As a right-handed pitcher in the Cleveland Indians pro baseball minor league system, Randy Rambis Baseball Card PhotoRandy Rambis was working his way up to the major leagues when a shoulder injury and surgery sidelined his career. Drafted by Cleveland out of California State University-Hayward, Randy pitched for teams in New York, Iowa and Tennessee.

Baseball’s loss was our gain. Randy went to work for the city in 1988, first in the Parks and Recreation Department and then as an electrician for SVP. Now, as one of our veteran troublemen who works on the front line, Randy often braves weather that would postpone a baseball game when he’s the first person on the scene of an outage.

Rambis sometimes has to make an evaluation and help with the decision on what to do next. He knows how to look for signals.

“I’ll patrol the power lines and look for fault indicators that can let us know where an outage problem is. Branches, birds, squirrels and balloons cause a lot of our outages.” Working in that environment, Rambis earns his rest days.

While road trips were not always the favorite part of the athlete’s job, Randy now uses them to get away with his wife Caryen. One of his best memories is a weeks-long drive through the Northwest and then the Midwest with no real itinerary. “Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) and Glacier National Park helped make it one of the best trips of my life.”

When he returns, he’s ready to take the mound for our customers. And with the ability to get electricity back on in a neighborhood, you might say he has his power delivery down pat.