Sacramento Municipal Utility Districtís SMUDGEO No. 1 Geothermal Project (SMUDGEO)

Docket No. 80-AFC-1

Certification Granted on March 25, 1981

Staff Counsel: Gregg Wheatland

Hearing Officer: Ernesto Perez

Presiding Members: Commissioners Ron Doctor and Jim Walker

Project Summary

AFC Filing and Data Adequacy

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) filed an AFC for its 72 MW Geothermal Project, known as SMUDGEO, on February 19, 1980. It was accepted by the Executive Director as data adequate on March 19, 1980.

Geysers Overview and Project Description

Geothermal power was the CECís most successful preferred technology during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with twelve powerplants certified in the Geysers Known Geothermal Resource Area (KGRA) of Lake and Sonoma Counties, making it the worldís largest geothermal field. Geothermal, followed later by cogeneration, was the Energy Commissionís chosen alternative to the large coal and nuclear plants long favored by utilities.

PG&E had pioneered in the geysers, but the municipal utilities, and then the qualifying facilities (QFs) all wanted their share. Projections indicated that a vast potential of close to 1,000 MW existed for additional geothermal plants. This boom would collapse later in the 1980s as the geothermal steam unexpectedly began to decline.

The municipal utilities, such as SMUD, were strongly motivated to build their own power plants in the geysers, as a substitute for purchasing power from PG&E. In their quest for energy independence, SMUDGEO was one of many geothermal facilities proposed by the municipal utilities during the geysers boom period.

SMUDGEO is located in eastern Sonoma County, near the Lake County border, approximately 66 miles north of San Francisco. The project site is on land administered by the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), whose approval, together with that of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), was required for the project in addition to CEC certification. This resulted in a State/Federal Joint Environmental Study for SMUDGEO, to achieve compliance with both CEQA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). A similar joint approach had been followed in NCPA #2, Docket No. 79-AFC-2, which is also on federal land.

Steam Sufficiency Hearing

Under Public Resources Code section 25540.2(a), a 12-month geothermal AFC, without an NOI, can be reviewed by the Energy Commission only if, at the outset of the proceeding, the applicant can reasonably demonstrate that the site is capable of providing geothermal resources in commercial quantities.

The SMUDGEO steam sufficiency hearing was held on March 13, 1980, resulting in an affirmative determination that the site had sufficient steam to operate the facility.


CEC Staff and SMUD worked together cooperatively, so that virtually all the evidence presented in this case was jointly sponsored or uncontested, and the conditions of certification (contained in a CEC/USGS Joint Compliance Monitoring Report, Appendix D to the Final Decision) resulted from stipulations.

Sonoma County intervened in an effort to obtain additional socioeconomics mitigation that neither CEC staff nor applicant favored. Sonoma County unsuccessfully proposed that SMUD, together with other geothermal developers, make a proportional contribution to provide adequate housing for geysers construction workers. (Pages 52-54 of the CEC Decision.)

Both CEC staff and the Committee felt this was a cumulative, rather than a case-specific problem, better suited to the Commissionís new study of geysers cumulative impacts, Docket No. 81-GCI-1. (Page 54 of the CEC Decision.) However, that proceeding lacked jurisdiction over individual geothermal projects, rendering it powerless. 81-GCI-1 did identify cumulative impacts in areas such as roads and housing, but could neither impose any mitigation measures of its own, nor direct siting case committees to mitigate impacts.

By now, both Sonoma and Lake Counties were trying to get geothermal powerplant and steamfield developers to pay for their impacts to the geysers roads. In SMUDGEO, the applicant committed to participate in any special assessment proceedings initiated by the counties. (Page 55 of the CEC Decision.) Sonoma County asked the SMUDGEO Committee to impose a condition forcing SMUD to waive its legal rights to later protest such an assessment. The Committee declined to deprive SMUD of its rights, accepting SMUDís own proposed "willingness to participate" as sufficient. (Pages 56-62 of the CEC Decision.)

Ultimately, geothermal developers did agree to fund a major maintenance and improvement project for key geysers roads, which everyone acknowledged were incapable of properly handling heavy industrial traffic. When the roads were finally re-surfaced and improved, it was reported that industrial vehicles increased their speed, leading to more accidents than had occurred on the old, poorly maintained roads. It is my understanding that this observation was never confirmed.


At the March 25, 1981 Business Meeting, SMUDGEO was unanimously certified.

SMUDGEO was constructed, and the facility began operating in December 1983. This powerplant became known for its efficient use of steam, and for actually generating its 72 MW of rated capacity long after many other geysers plants had fallen victim to the unexpected drop in the steam supply. Although this was SMUDGEO Unit #1, there were to be no further SMUDGEO units. As a 50% partner in a second geysers project, Coldwater Creek Unit 1 (Docket No. 84-AFC-2), SMUDís geothermal luck would run out. Calpine later purchased SMUDGEO.