Speakers at a recent Power Forum hosted by the Willits Economic Localization group shared new information about Mendocino County’s local transition to a carbon-free future, advice for coping with losses of electricity, and how to save money on energy.
Keith Rutledge of the Renewable Energy Development Institute (REDI) in Willits and Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, the public power provider serving Mendocino County, shared the insights summarized here.
How did utilities manage power continuity during the recent heat wave?
If temperatures in Northern California topped a record 116 degrees in September, the electric grid would have been forced to shut down if not for the public’s response to the state’s Flex Alerts. An emergency appeal to reduce energy use is sent to every cellphone by the California Independent System Operator, which manages the electric grid. Within 10 minutes of receiving the alert, people responded and reduced the demand for electricity by 2,000 megawatts, which is significant. However, utilities should develop ways to store power to cope with demand during these heat waves, such as batteries distributed in public locations such as schools, because relying on Flex Alerts will not solve the problem. Also, utilities can market electricity savings programs such as Sonoma Clean Power’s GridSavvy Rewards, where a customer receives financial rewards for reducing their electricity use when there is excess demand on the grid.
Are there cheap ways to keep my refrigerator off and on during a power outage?
Everyone has access to backup power for very little cost. If you hear there’s a power outage, put a few gallons of water in the freezer (with enough room at the top for expansion if the water freezes), and then put those frozen gallons in the refrigerator in case of a power outage . They will keep your food cold for several days. You can buy a small, inexpensive battery inverter from a camping store or online that can also keep your fridge, most lights, phone and computer running for a few days. An electric car can power a house for days too.
What are we doing to create cleaner, renewable energy in Northern California?
There is a lot of innovation happening behind us. Humboldt County is leading the state’s efforts to develop offshore wind energy and could generate 30 percent of California’s target for wind energy. Mendocino County joins GeoZone which is tasked with developing 500 megawatts of new geothermal energy in the region. Lake County plans to install a new system that will use solar energy to pump water from a giant storage tank located below to a storage tank above, and then release that water to generate electricity when required.
But how do we get rid of fossil fuels once and for all?
Solar power is now the most economical way to generate electricity on the planet. The problem is that it only produces electricity when the sun shines. No matter how much solar, wind and back-up batteries we have, we will never shut down all natural gas-fired power plants until we have enough baseload renewables. In our region, that means geothermal. That’s what Sonoma Clean Power is doing to develop today.
What are the best first steps to reduce my use of fossil fuels?
Take some of the money you spend on your home’s utility bill and invest it in inexpensive weatherstripping, caulking and insulation to seal the holes in your home where heat and cold can enter. Mendocino County public libraries have a free do-it-yourself toolkit that you can borrow and use to find leaks and fix them. You will save money on your utility bill and also improve the value and comfort of your home. Continue to invest some of your financial savings in additional energy improvements that will save you even more money. If you need help getting started, North Coast Energy Services in Ukiah offers low-cost and free weatherization services. REDI offered in-home do-it-yourself classes before COVID and may start again. State and federal governments help by subsidizing insulation and efficient electrical appliances. You can check out all the electric appliances and rebates available to you at Sonoma Clean Power’s Advanced Energy Center in downtown Santa Rosa.
How can a local household or business completely stop using oil and natural gas fossil fuels which are the main cause of climate change?
Perhaps the best way is to switch to EverGreen electricity—a 24/7 mix of local solar and geothermal renewable energy offered in Mendocino County by Sonoma Clean Power—and convert a house or building with all electricity if you can afford it. Add an electric car that you charge at home and you eliminate carbon emissions from the most polluting sectors, electricity and transportation. You can go ahead and add rooftop solar panels and a back-up battery that will protect you from electricity price fluctuations, stabilize your expenses, and keep the lights on during power outages. Rebates and tax credits are available or available to help you pay for all of these changes.
What is the best time of day to charge an electric car?
From the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions, noon between 11 am. and 3 p.m. is the best time to charge an electric car—and people who charge their cars at that time are actually providing a service to the rest of us in California. That’s because solar energy in California is abundant and supplies so much electricity to the grid during the day that the state sometimes has to send it out of state to another utility that can use it. Conversely, charging an electric vehicle at night puts more pressure on the grid at a time when electricity is generated almost entirely from natural gas, a fossil fuel.
Would it benefit Ukiah residents to have their own electric utility in the city?
Ukiahans are lucky that their city owns and maintains its own power lines, because their rates are 30-50 percent lower than PG&E’s rates. Customers outside the city of Ukiah can choose to purchase electricity generated by Sonoma Clean Power or PG&E, but the electricity is provided by transmission infrastructure owned and maintained by PG&E. The maintenance of such electricity infrastructure contributes at least 30 percent of the household electricity bill. The city of Ukiah provides power and maintains its own power lines.