Cal-ISO pours on the green power message

Electrical grid manager plugs into green technology
By: Don Chaddock, Telegraph Managing Editor
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Going green is a lifestyle for some families, but when a large nonprofit corporation decided to take the plunge, they did so in a big way. Cal-ISO, or the California Independent System Operator, manages the electrical grid for 80 percent of the state and 30 percent of the western U.S. Their recently constructed 278,000-square-foot facility is located in Folsom and they employ nearly 600 people. The building was even awarded platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, meaning it meets certain energy efficiency requirements established by the U.S. Green Building Council. Platinum certification is the highest attainable level. The facility cost $115 million and took 18 months to build. The final price tag, after furnishings, totaled $148 million. Hector Alvarez, director of campus operations, has worked at Cal-ISO for 14 years. The former Navy man is also a reserve officer for the Folsom Police Department. “We spent a lot of time incorporating security, infrastructure and efficiency,” he said. “I was involved in every aspect of this building, right now to the doorknobs.” He said there aren’t a lot of high-tech security measures at the building because the need was lacking. “The campus sits squarely in the middle of the property,” Alvarez said. “It has a fully fenced perimeter. Because security was built into the design of the campus, we didn’t need to design a lot of elaborate security features to compensate for deficiencies.” Cal-ISO officials say the campus was $11.5 million under budget and completed three months early. The company also decided to incorporate a green lifestyle with their employees. “We’ve worked with employees to embrace the green side of the business,” he said. “We replaced all the paper plates and cups. It took about a month to get them comfortable with all the changes.” According to Cal-ISO CEO Stephen Berberich, people had to get used to doing things in a new way. “It went from, ‘OK, I’m sitting in an office now, but I won’t have an office in the new building,’” Berberich said. “It was a different paradigm. It wasn’t long before they adapted to it.” The campus sports three retention ponds, using a system of natural filtration, to gather storm run off. “Gray water use is extensive and 100 percent of landscaping water is reused water,” Alvarez said. “We also use reclaimed water for flushing toilets. All the water used on our campus is used twice.” He said the building was engineered to ensure the water stays in the campus. “We have a series of (systems) in place to make sure this dirty water never gets back into the community water supply.” He said employees can’t use certain soaps or beauty products because if they did, it could kill the landscaping. The employees eventually embraced the changes and even went so far as to create their own community garden, located in an unused piece of the property. “We used our own in-house folks to set this up,” Alvarez said. Dubbed “The Power Plant,” the garden started as just a few planter boxes. “We started out and I had them build four boxes,” he said. “We had such strong interest, we’ve expanded three times to 18 planter boxes.” He said the garden project, while relatively small compared to the rest of the campus, is one of his proudest achievements. “This is one of the most fun things we did,” he said. Greg Ford, of Fair Oaks, works as an electrical engineer for Cal-ISO. He said the garden is a way to spend a few quiet minutes on a break. “I like this,” he said. “It’s nice to relax for a few minutes, get your watering done and go back to work.” According to Alvarez, the garden has been a morale booster. “It cost us next to nothing to start,” Alvarez said. “It’s created a real community feel.” Berberich said the garden “is probably the biggest meeting space we have now. By and large, our people are healthier. They are eating well in the (on-site) cafeteria (and) they’re walking on the paths around the campus.” Solar panels also line the roof of one of the parking lots and certain areas of the long, narrow building. The panels provide 20 percent of the power for the building. “People ask why we didn’t cover the entire parking lot (with panels),” he said. “It’s because the building is so tall, it casts a shadow across that area, so it wouldn’t have been cost effective.” The campus features three separate buildings, but they appear more as one from the outside. “We needed to be efficient and reliable,” Alvarez said. “We have redundant feeds — power and cooling — coming into the building. We have the ability to operate on our own without help from anybody else for a significant period of time.” The offices also use low cubicle walls and the lighting system will dim or brighten depending on the amount of light coming into the rooms. “That’s why this building is so narrow,” Alvarez said. “It allows natural light to come in. We’ve doubled our space (in the new building) and cut our power use by 50 percent.” At the heart of the campus is the control room. A wall of screen show renewable energy production, the current energy on the grid as well as its frequency, a map displaying fires and many more technical read-outs. “This is the first renewables dispatch desk in the U.S.,” said Stephanie McCorkle, director of communications and public relations for Cal-ISO. “It’s primarily wind and solar. … This is one of the most modern control rooms in North America.” She said when renewable energy really kicks into gear, Cal-ISO is primed to handle the influx. “This control room will be instrumental in (managing) this wave of renewable energy to hit our grid,” MCorkle said. According to McCorkle, the facility has been designed as an educational tool, at least in the lobbies. There are large informational boards and charts describing Cal-ISO and what it does. “We manage the wholesale electrical grid,” she said. “Basically, we’re the large towers of lines while PG&E handles the lines that go directly into homes.” SMUD is one of a handful of electrical suppliers in the state who manage their own electricity. Berberich said the company opted to stay in Folsom for many reasons. “We bought this property back in 2000 with the intention of locating here,” Berberich said. “The energy crisis and other issues forced us to delay.” He said the company did consider leaving Folsom. “We looked at locating beyond Folsom but ultimately, we favored Folsom,” he said. “A lot of our people live here. The favorable relationship we have with the city government also played a role. Folsom is a fantastic community to live in or commute to and it’s a business friendly town.” Berberich is a Folsom resident with two grown children. He’s 48 and has spent 20 years in the technology and utilities industries. “We have good roots in the community,” he said. “My wife Kelley is a nurse practitioner.” He said going for a LEED designation just made sense. “(Cal-ISO) has a key role in the state,” Berberich said. “One of the ways we can help the state achieve its objectives was to lead by example. We were originally designed for LEED gold, but we invested a little more and achieved platinum.” He said many residents don’t know what the Cal-ISO is, but they should. “Folsom should be proud to be hosting the ISO,” he said. “We run the state grid right here.”