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Exploring Sustainable Solutions: A Tour of Sonoma Clean Power (SCP) Headquarters

Updated: Mar 31



I have been involved with Sonoma Clean Power (SCP) for many years since being a member on the original task force to help establish them.  SCP provides many benefits to our county including local jobs, cleaner (lower carbon) energy mixes over PG&E and local programs like their GridSavvy car charging program.  A while back, Geof Syphers, CEO at Sonoma Clean Power asked me if I would like to tour their new headquarters building  and last week he hosted a private tour of this facility for First Response Solar, Dylan and I as well as another solar company.  It was co-hosted by Beau Anderson, who is the buildings operations manager. 

 

Their headquarters building was stripped down to its studs and rebuilt so they could implement many new ideas in its design.  While many of the building components are the ones you would expect to see, how they are used and the attention to detail is what makes this building unique.  When you add it all up, you get the first grid optimal building of its kind in the U.S. if not the world. 

 

What is grid optimal?  Grid Optimal is designing a building not for economic payback, but to assist in managing the grid in reducing carbon.   So, in a nutshell, when the grid is using natural gas-powered peaker plants (heavy carbon exhaust load), we want to reduce building loads and export power, and when the grid has a low carbon footprint, we can charge our storage system, draw more power for heating and cooling or charge our electric vehicles (EV).  To be grid optimal, a design must look at several aspects:

 

1)        Starts with energy efficiency.

2)        Grid notification of carbon mix of energy being used.

3)        Use of renewable energy and storage.

4)        Sophisticated building management controls.

5)        Leadership and employee participation.

6)        Leadership who encourages new ideas.

7)        And more:

 

Let’s take this one at a time, starting with energy efficiency.  Designing our homes and commercial buildings to minimize energy usage has been going on for years.  More insulation, efficient appliance, and minimizing heating and cooling losses.  SCP’s new building does all this and so much more.  The design incorporates natural lighting and lighting controls to minimize energy use.  Saving energy is not the only goal, but the skylights were also designed to eliminate hot spots on employee’s desk, improving the work environment.  This attention to detail is seen throughout the building.

 

The one basic component that is required for this system to work is real time messaging from the grid of its carbon makeup.  This message is one of the critical inputs, the conductor to the buildings management system that directs the systems on what to do.  It takes one set of actions when the carbon load on the grid is high and another when the carbon load is low.  Rather than going down the rabbit hole now, lets pack our bag with more information to make understanding this easier.

 



One major area of control for this building is it’s integrated renewable energy system.  It includes both a parking lot shade structure based solar system as well as a 250 KWH storage system.  This solar system was designed not to off-set building loads but to supply the amount of power needed by the grid to off-set carbon.  The storage system was designed to work interactively with the grid, to discharge when grid has a high carbon load and to charge when the grid has a low carbon load.  The storage system will also back-up the building in a grid outage for about 6 hours, and for longer outages, a generator can be plugged into the building.

 



While the system has complex components, some of the ideas follow the keep it simple method.  Rather than installing a few expensive commercial EV chargers, SCP installed residential charging stations in every parking place.  Rather than signing up with expensive charge management companies, SCP offers free charging to these spaces.  And in keeping with their overall goal of working to minimize grid carbon, the chargers only work from 11-4pm which is when grid carbon load is low.  This is also a great, low-cost employee perk and as you would guess the parking lot was full of EV’s from Chevy Volts to Tesla’s.

 




On the other spectrum, both Geof and Beau admitted one of the biggest challenges is the complication of managing the system.  The main culprit is complexity of the 3 layers of controls that don’t always play nicely together.  For example, their Daikin heat pumps have

their own set of controls.  These heat pump controls are integrated into the building management software (BMS) and the third layer is the carbon optimization software.  Adding to that that the carbon optimization software as used did not exist as the software focuses on reducing energy cost, not carbon reduction.  Like many things when you are first, they need to modify the software to convert high carbon use times to higher costs and then use the software to monitor carbon optimization.  Integrating these controls, prioritizing which each should do etc., did make for a complex system.  Geof said if he did it again, he would just use 2 sets of controls instead of 3.

 



It takes a special leader and commitment of company employees to pull this off.   When carbon is heavy on the grid, the controls first begin shedding loads from the heating and cooling.  Depending on the grids carbon loads, it could raise or lower the buildings temperature into less comfortable ranges.  And if ranges are very heavy for carbon, it can even shed lighting in the building.  These actions are done using weighted voting by room so areas of the building can be modified separately.  Not all employees would vote tolerate being less comfortable, to reduce their carbon footprint.  As a testament of the SCP employees commitment, when I asked  Geof what was the number one thing he like about the building, he said it was his ability to  interview and attracting good people. 



 Geoff really wants to share his success of this project and what also really impressed me was the honesty of the challenges at times.  Their desire is to share with others how this design can be replicated and how to avoid some of the pitfalls they faced.   SCP is at the forefront of these concepts and their willingness to try out and adapt new technologies will have an impact.

 

Let me digress to my personal experience.  I remember about 10 years ago when I took my 1960’s home and set the goal to bring it up to current title 24 efficiency standards.  I already had solar, a small storage system and had just purchased an electric car.  The building structure seemed the next logical step.   I started with the blower door test to find all the cold spots where my home leaked both heat in the winter and cold in the summer.  The biggest concept I needed to wrap my head around was changing my natural home venting to sealing the home tightly.  For years natural venting, allowing air gaps in building design was the norm, allowing some fresh air through these small leaks.  And industry changes were now being followed to tightly seal the home as it was more efficient to recycle the air for heating and cooling.  With this in mind, all the holes in the ceiling and floors from years of plumbers, electricians and recessed lighting changes were sealed, New dual pane windows were installed, and my crawl space was also sealed.  A sealed home does have a few issues, the first is it can create a vacuum, so a fan in my community bathroom was set to always run on low, providing air flow.  And I needed to install a carbon monoxide alarm as my gas appliances now needed to be monitored more closely.

 



Okay back to SCP.  Part of SCP’s philosophy was to create a space where they could cook and eat meals together, so they build a beautiful community kitchen and dining area.  One device they installed that reminded me of my experience 10 years previous, was a carbon dioxide meter tied to their buildings venting system. When large groups of people gathered in the kitchen/dining area, as carbon dioxide increased (air became stall and stuffy), the carbon dioxide monitor signaled to allow fresh air to be vented into the room.  And when the room had few occupants the system would recycle the air, which is more energy efficient.  I see how even these simple things, when scaled and included in all HVAC systems may offer the greatest steps forward in energy efficiency.

 

Sonoma Clean Power must be commended on what they have done and the greener portfolio for energy they have brought to Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties.  But what I am most excited about is their leadership in putting their ideas into action.  This building offers several technologies that could positively affect all our futures.  Their commitment to carbon free Sonoma County should not go unnoticed.  An as a teaser for a future blog, stay tuned as SCP is soon to release more information on their new 10-year plan to develop a new closed loop multi-billion dollar geothermal field to supply our county even more carbon free power!   

 

 

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