Cutting-edge power plant coming to Sonoma County
By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 6:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 6:23 p.m.
County of Sonoma officials are set to unveil Tuesday a cutting-edge power plant seen as a key project in the effort to slash the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs.
Located on the county government’s administrative campus in Santa Rosa, the fuel cell plant takes hydrogen from natural gas to create a electrochemical reaction that produces electricity.
The otherwise nondescript 900-square-foot combination of pipes and metal boxes cost about $9.8 million. It will take the county administrative center off the electrical power grid except in emergency situations, and is expected to result in about $20 million in energy savings over its 25-year lifespan.
Along with other improvements to lighting, heating and cooling equipment in county buildings, the new power source is also expected to help reduce the county’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, or 6,000 tons annually, officials said.
“It’s another example of Sonoma County’s commitment to addressing the climate change issue by doing things on the local level,” said county General Services director Jose Obregon, whose department has overseen the project.
The 1.4 megawatt power plant, which officials said is the largest of its kind for any California municipality, began operating Dec. 13 and reached full capacity at the end of December. County officials and other project backers are set to celebrate the occasion with a 1 p.m. ribbon-cutting Tuesday.
The event will mark a milestone for the county, which four years ago agreed to a plan that aims at reducing local greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 2000 levels by 2015.
To achieve those goals, county supervisors two years ago approved a $22.3 million effort, including the fuel cell plant, that would also improve energy efficiency at county buildings, which are the source of about three quarters of the county’s greenhouse emissions.
Those changes to lighting, heating and cooling systems are now nearly complete. Together with the addition of the fuel cell plant, they are expected reduce energy usage by about 13 million kilowatt hours, the equivalent of power used by about 790 homes, officials said.
PG&E has pledged to deliver a $3.5 million rebate for the energy-saving upgrades. The largest part of that rebate, a $3 million check for the fuel cell, will be handed over at Tuesday’s ceremony.
Other upgrades to water fixtures and toilets, especially at the county jail and juvenile justice center, are expected to reduce water usage by 19 million gallons, officials said.
Total cost savings from the project were estimated at about $80 million two years ago.
Officials said a more conservative estimate based on current energy costs is now $40 to $50 million over the 25-year term, including the $20 million savings from the fuel cell.
Cost savings are still expected to pay for the fuel cell within eight years and the entire energy retrofit project within about 16 years, officials said.
“Quite honestly, if it was a $5 million savings, it would still be a good investment,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Valerie Brown. “It’s worth it because you’re doing the right thing.”
The efforts are taking place alongside other energy efficiency and climate protection projects at the county.
Those projects include the recent completion of a large $4.6 million solar power installation at the juvenile justice center and the implementation of a green building policy that will guide future construction and building retrofits.
Upgrades to the county’s vehicle fleet are also aimed at increasing the share of hybrid and electric vehicles, which currently account for about 230 of the county’s 900 cars and SUVs. This year, the county will use grant funding to purchase 20 Nissan Leaf electric cars and two electric Ford vans.
A system of van pools and ride sharing for employees and promotion of bike use in commuting has also been put in place.
The addition of the county’s fuel cell power plant to those other initiatives is cause for celebration, said Jake Mackenzie, board chair of the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority, the body of local governments working on greenhouse gas reductions.
“This is one of those times where the solution is real. You can feel it. You can touch it,” said Mackenzie. “From our perspective, this is what we are encouraging.”
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.