In a wide open room that her team calls the power pit, high above Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square, Deb Emerson spends much of her day watching at least four computer monitors flashing with mutating hieroglyphics. As data scurries across her screens, she is tracking, assessing, calculating and planning her next move on one of the most demanding commodity markets in the world, the market for electricity.
Emerson is Sonoma Clean Power’s director of power services.
The electricity needs of the county’s residents and businesses change by the split second, and it’s Emerson’s job to make sure that Sonoma Clean Power’s 224,000-plus customers can get exactly what they need at any given moment.
Emerson has been navigating this energy netherworld for more than 20 years.
Most recently she was vice president and senior trader for Constellation Energy, one of the industry giants, where she managed their western United States hydropower and wind portfolio from her desk in Baltimore. Before joining Constellation in 2001, she was an energy trader for Tulsa-based Williams Energy Market and Trading for three years, where she traded through the chaos and collapse of the California electricity market in 2000 and 2001. She has a Master's in Business Administration from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
"Sonoma Clean Power is very fortunate to have someone with her background and skill managing our power supply," said CEO Geof Syphers. "Incredibly exciting" is what he told his board of directors when he announced that she would be joining Sonoma Clean Power in March 2015.
Today Emerson is not an energy trader. In industry jargon, she’s an “originator,” which means that she manages Sonoma Clean Power’s energy portfolio, buying both long and short-term contracts and adjusting as needed. She reports transactions to the California Independent System Operator which manages the region’s electricity grid from its headquarters in Folsom.
“I put the pieces of the puzzle together,” she said.
Working with her in the power pit are senior power services manager Rebecca Simonson, a mechanical engineer with advanced degrees from Sonoma State University and the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and Carlos Gomes, a financial and market analyst with a degree from the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro and a Professional Certificate in Finance from the University of California at San Diego.
By email and telephone, Emerson is in frequent contact with other energy experts, many of whom she has worked with for years. On her screens she watches for emails, breaking news, Nymex natural gas prices, charts, graphs, forecasting, market action, weather trends and more.
A simple check she does, and anyone can do, is to click on the Price Maps at caiso.com/Pages/PriceMaps.aspx to see day-ahead, 15-minute and real-time pricing for western energy markets.
Sonoma Clean Power buys electricity from energy giants like Constellation, and it is also diversified into multiple types of contracts from generators in several states.
Buying power is challenging. Besides standard contract risks like whether the supplier will perform as promised, the contracts themselves are fiendishly complex, easily 30 to 100 single-spaced pages of charts, jargon, contingencies, damages, indemnities, covenants, collateral requirements, defaults, downgrades, disruptions and remedies. No one knows where energy market prices will be a few weeks from today, much less for the years covered by some contracts.
Yet when Emerson buys power, she needs to get prices and products that will let Syphers keep Sonoma Clean Power rates competitive with PG&E for decades.
If not, Sonoma Clean Power's customers might get huffy and go back to PG&E.