II. The Geysers Boom (and Bust) 1979-1985
Years before creation of the CEC, Pacific Gas and Electric had pioneered the development of geothermal energy in the geysers area of Sonoma and Lake Counties, north of San Francisco. Additional geysers plants were the only part of PG&E's resource plan that the Energy Commission approved of. Geothermal energy was considered relatively clean, definitely a preferred alternative to the conventional utility coal, oil, and nuclear projects.
In 1979, PG&E's Geysers 17 would be the first AFC certified by the Energy Commission. To encourage more geysers facilities, the Commission declared that all geothermal plants meeting legal requirements would automatically be found needed. (1981, Page 374 of the CEC's Electricity Tomorrow.) PG&E pushed ahead, joined by the municipal utilities, the California Department of Water and Power (DWR) and others in the creation of a geysers development boom. Based on optimistic forecasts of sufficient steam to power thousands of megawatts, the largest geothermal field in the world kept growing.
A scenic rural area quickly turned into an industrial construction zone. The geysers had their share of environmental problems, including air pollution, endangered species at risk, inadequate roads, accidental chemical spills, new burdens upon local schools and housing from an influx of workers building the plants, plus other impacts upon the small towns and hamlets near the geysers sites. Geothermal may have been a "preferred" technology, but it was far from perfect. This lesson would be learned more than once. Every powerplant technology the CEC has tried so far came with its own bundle of negatives.
But the individual geysers plants, usually no more than 110 MW each, were a vast improvement upon the giant nuclear and coal facilities offered by the investor-owned utilities a few years earlier. Geothermal power also was much cheaper than its defeated rivals. But Mother Nature ended the geothermal dream. The estimates of vast steam reservoir supplies, upon which the CEC and all utilities relied upon, turned out to be dead wrong.
It all came to an end in the mid 1980s, when the geysers began to run out of steam. Every utility started canceling their geysers plants and some closed down prematurely. The boom had gone bust.
Before then, PG&E's Geysers 16 was probably the most contested case of this era, based upon a disputed transmission line. It led to an override of Sonoma County and a California Supreme Court decision. The Geothermal Public Power Line (GPPL) was another massively controversial transmission line that ultimately went nowhere.
While the last geothermal AFC was licensed in 1985, the geysers facilities with sufficient steam continue to be an important source of California's electricity supply. Calpine purchased all the modern PG&E geothermal plants as part of de-regulation and continues to operate them today, along with SMUDGEO which it also aquired.
As the geysers declined (collapsed), the Energy Commission had already found a new favorite preferred technology: cogeneration.
CEC Chairman Chuck Imbrecht
During the geothermal boom, former Assemblyman Chuck Imbrecht became Chairman of the Energy Commission in 1983. He was Republican Governor George Deukmejianís first appointment to the CEC, an agency strongly identified with Governor Jerry Brown. Imbrecht, not a typical Republican, opposed nuclear power, and the CEC staff welcomed him as a brother.
Chuck Imbrechtís leadership skills saved the politically vulnerable Energy Commission from being destroyed during the terms of two Republican governors. Imbrecht kept nearly all CEC policies intact, while promoting on both the state and national levels conservation, research and development of new technologies, plus alternative fuels for both powerplants and vehicles. He also avoided partisan conflicts between Commissioners, that would all become Republican, and a holdover staff from the Jerry Brown era. Imbrecht also improved relations between the CEC and the utility industry.
During Chuck Imbrechtís 14 years as CEC Chairman (1983-1997), the Energy Commission even became popular. The media declared the CECís balanced approach on energy and environmental policy to be a great California success story. Legislative attempts to abolish the agency were replaced by Imbrechtís efforts to expand CEC funding and increase its licensing jurisdiction.
We were all very fortunate to have Chuck Imbrecht as our Chairman.