Profile: Geof Syphers, Chief Executive Officer of Sonoma Clean Power

By
Bill Skoonberg (Guest blog contribution to the The Climate Center)

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Ever
wonder what you can do to address the climate crisis? The folks at the Center
for Climate Protection have been working on that question since their founding
in 2001. In 2005, they identified Community Choice energy as the single most
powerful tool available to local governments to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas
emissions.

Following
several years of community outreach and education, the Sonoma County Water
Agency stepped up to the plate in 2011 and allocated the funds needed to kick
off a formal evaluation. This led to the formation of Sonoma Clean Power in
late 2012 with the goals of offering a choice regarding electricity supplier,
reducing greenhouse emissions, and supporting the local economy by developing
local energy resources.

Local
resident Geof Syphers was hired as Chief Executive Officer the following year,
and the agency “went live” on May 1, 2014. SCP purchases electricity on the
open market and delivers it to approximately 200,000 Sonoma County customer
accounts over Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s power lines.

A
graduate of Sonoma State University, Syphers holds a bachelor’s degree in
applied physics, and a master’s degree in energy engineering from the
University of Massachusetts. Responsible for the strategy and vision of SCP,
Syphers oversees a staff of nine and works with a Santa Rosa-based call center that employs two staff
exclusively dedicated to Sonoma Clean Power.  

“The
Board has been quite pleased with Mr. Syphers’ performance,” said County
Supervisor Susan Gorin, a member of SCP’s Board of Directors. “He was
instrumental before Sonoma Clean Power was an entity and has been key to
assembling an entire organization focused on providing renewable energy to our
ratepayers.”

Syphers
took an hour out of his busy schedule to talk about his background and the
future of his organization.

How did you end up running
Sonoma Clean Power?

Soon after entering the work
world, I realized I was pretty good at something people needed, and that was
taking very complicated topics and communicating or “translating” them to
people in the industry in ways that they could understand. I worked as an
energy consultant to several clients, among which was the Sonoma County Water
Agency designing their energy management programs and helping them find
financing.

I began to work as a consultant
with Sonoma Clean Power in 2012, helping get the program started. This was an
exciting project for me; I was very attracted to it. While helping with the
candidate search and recommending people for the position to head up Sonoma
Clean Power, we found three really good people but each of them ultimately
turned the job down. Then I was asked by the group to see if I would consider running
it myself, and I said no. Then a month or two went by, and the Sonoma County Board
of Supervisors approached me and asked me to consider taking the position,
which turned out to be the culmination of everything I had done before. I
applied, the application process went long, and I was ultimately selected.

Have you experienced any
failures along the way?

Scientifically, if you don’t
have any failed experiments you can’t find the ones that work. In the world of
energy management, what I’ve learned is how to set up these experiments so that
the risks are well managed. You get a tremendous amount of data, then you study
it, and get other people to study it, and you learn everything you can.

For example, in the early ’90s
the focus was on renewable energy, as a goal. What’s really fascinating is that
there are a number of people who still see that as a key goal of Sonoma Clean
Power.

One of my jobs is to educate
people that renewable energy is a tool and not a goal. The goals ought to be
reducing greenhouse gas emissions, providing energy at competitive prices, and
helping employ people in local jobs. That is what we ought to teach. Renewable
energy is a tool that we can use to get there, but it is only one of a whole
bunch of tools. There is conservation, efficiency, controls, education, the
whole package.

My translator role at SCP has
been to communicate the clarity of staying focused on the real goals so we
don’t confuse the tools with the goals.

Who are your biggest influences?

It’s a long list, but I’d like
to call out one person in particular, and that is Ann Ludwig, an Alameda County
employee. She was one of my clients when I was a consultant. Very early on in
my career she taught me that “being right” has virtually nothing to do with
human decision making. The notion of convincing someone to do something because
it is the “right thing to do” needs to be thrown out, because it has never
changed anyone’s mind.

Finding the real motivators of
why people can learn new things and change their behavior is one of the lessons
she really, really taught me. The reason people change their behavior is
because their peer group is changing and the reason people change their
behavior is because they are rewarded in some way, or they feel included, or
heard, or respected, not because of a moral compass, or because of facts or
data. That insight was so important in learning whether an environmental
initiative could succeed or fail. I see SCP as an environmental initiative, but
run within the context of a business.

It is really important for us to
understand that to reduce greenhouse gases, we are providing our customers with
the tools that they need to succeed by their own metric. That might be saving
money, that might be getting credit on their annual report if they are a big
company, might be feeling good about helping out a local school district.

What did you set out to do with
your life, and what have you accomplished?

When I was in high school, I was
going to go into mining landfills for valuable materials, or I was going to
test whether nuclear energy or solar energy was going to win. As I left high
school, I saw that nobody was mining the landfills yet, so I went into a
combined nuclear and solar program to study the difference between them. I was
definitely motivated to try to find ways to make a living doing things that
would also bring benefit to the planet. My theme was “try to find ways to
achieve environmental outcomes by moving the center of gravity of human
behavior.” So instead of trying to look at extremes, and instead of looking at
outliers, let’s focus on ordinary people who may not be thinking about these
things in their daily life, and make it so easy, convenient and attractive so
they do it naturally. It is not an issue or a campaign for them, but becomes
the default.

What is it that makes you who
you are?

I have been unbelievably blessed
by having strong, caring people in my life who told me things like “everyone is
doing the best they can, and if you don’t see that, it just means that you
don’t understand them well enough.” And that led to a philosophy of kindness,
believing that there’s an obligation to give back when you’re privileged, when
you’re born in the United States, when you’re born Caucasian, when you’re born
male. I grew up with tremendous privilege. That kindness, along with a sense of
privilege, has led me to a sense of duty and obligation.

We in Sonoma County have a
history of getting involved, and have left our mark on things like the Coastal
Commission and the Golden Gate Bridge. There is a legacy of giving that
prevails here, like the Doyle Scholarships that make a difference in people’s
lives. The world looks at us to see what’s coming next.

What would it take for you to
leave this job?

I would only leave if it would
make the organization stronger. One of the most powerful things that a manager
can do is to recognize that the organization they are leading could be better
off without them. That happens in the evolution of an organization at some
point. It might happen after a very long time, or shorter if it turns out that
the organization needs a totally different kind of leadership. That’s what it
would take for me. This is not just a job for me but something I want to feel
incredibly proud of late in my life. Sonoma Clean Power is doing better than I
ever thought. This is an all-consuming proposition, and I have narrowed down my
life to keep my focus here.

What’s in this interview for
you, why are you doing this?

My default is to be open and
responsive when I can. I guess what is different about a local organization and
power agency, is that we get to have a connection with the people in our
community in a way that is atypical. When I worked as a consultant to PG&E
in the early ’90s there was a sense of being out in the community, and
connecting. Here, what excites me, for example, is that we had a third grade
class that wrote letters to us suggesting what they wanted to see with clean
power. And we got to write back. That kind of connection with the community
creates a sense of pride in ownership, and I think when that is real and it
gets deeper over the years instead of shallower, then eventually people will
believe in and understand that Sonoma Clean Power is theirs.

What’s in it for me is the sense
that little by little, after we have done a thousand things like this, the
community understands that they not only can manage environmental problems, but
that they can be successful. If they want to see something happen, it may take
a few years, but they could do it and it’s theirs. That sense of empowerment is
the goal. To have the community feel like they are in charge of their energy
and their economy. And as a result, that means they are in charge of economic
development and in charge of how they contribute to climate issues.

In fact, we are turning
seriously to transportation, and trying to figure out how to electrify personal
transportation. That idea came to us from community members who said we
shouldn’t be trying to reduce total electricity usage, but instead we should be
trying to reduce total emissions. That’s what’s in it for me.

What is it about you that you
would not want us to know?

As the CEO I am out in front of
this organization, and am a reluctant public figure. I am more interested in
the results than in the fame. I do have a private life that I don’t plan to
give up. I see the value of being in the public because it is helping achieve
what we are trying to do here.

What do the next three years of
Sonoma Clean Power look like to you?

I think in three years we are
going to make steady progress on greenhouse gas reduction through wholesale
contracting. We are going to build out a significant amount of local solar
capacity and maybe some other types of resources, and we are going to get some
consumer programs up and running. I am excited about programs like Energize™ that
will allow customers to manage their energy use and get paid for responding to
events when wholesale prices go high. And there are other tools for engaging
customers.

In that time we will have enough
data and political buy-in that we will be able to articulate some of our
long-term goals. We should be able to form a consensus of where we are going
and how fast we want to get there.

What makes you happy?

Working with people I respect,
doing something I can feel proud of. When you do something you love it doesn’t
feel like a job. I think that the lesson is that worrying about picking the
right thing is not helpful. But diving into the thing that feels engaging and
exploring it and really giving it your all, gives you the opportunity to feel
happy with something that you might not have expected, but it also gives you
the opportunity to adjust and fine-tune over time.

Where are you in your life?

I keep learning how and why to
go back to the basics of life, like why it is important to have a good
marriage, good friendships. I have been a planner my whole life, thinking
ahead, planning my career, my retirement. But I stopped doing that about 10
years ago when I began to pay more attention to what was going on in real time.
I realized that I wanted to take care of the present, to be more attentive to
it. Planning served me very well, and I can’t tell you why I turned away from
that mode. I can say that I am feeling freer, and able to be more responsive to
what is happening now and to take the opportunity when it comes along. That has
been an evolution for me.

Bill Skoonberg is a retired PG&E Electric Metering Systems
Technician and a student at Santa Rosa Junior College. He can be reached at
billskoonberg@gmail.com.

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