Amid the power outages, a beacon of energy

Scott Wilson

BLUE LAKE, CALIFORNIA (THE WASHINGTON POST) – After months of wildfires, an essential question in a warming, windy California is this: How does the state keep the lights on? A tiny Native American tribe, settled here in the Mad River Valley, has an answer.

Build your own utility.

The Blue Lake Rancheria tribe has constructed a microgrid on its 100-acre reservation, a complex of solar panels, storage batteries and distribution lines that operates as part of the broader utility network or completely independent of it. It is a state-of-the-art system – and an indicator of what might be in California’s future.

In early October, Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to more than two million people across Northern California, including all those who live here in rural Humboldt County, where redwood forests fringe the wild edge of the continent. The shut-off aimed to reduce the risk of wildfire, and as the region sat in darkness, the tribe’s multimillion-dollar investment in its power system glowed.

Responding to public needs, the tribe transformed a hotel conference room into a newsroom so the local paper could publish. It used hotel guest rooms to take in eight critically ill patients from the county’s Health and Human Services Department. The reservation’s gas station and mini mart were among the only ones open, drawing a nearly mile-long line of cars.

Energy Director for the Blue Lake Rancheria tribe Jana Ganion stands near a solar array — part of a state-of-the-art system — on the reservation. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The Blue Lake Rancheria served more than 10,000 people during the day-long outage, by some estimates, roughly eight per cent of Humboldt’s population. And for a government that had largely ignored the tribe for more than a century, the tribe suddenly became a vital part of its emergency response.

“The irony was not lost on us,” said Jason Ramos, a member of the tribal council who ran emergency operations during the blackout. “When these power cuts started, we looked like geniuses for what we had done. But in truth, we didn’t really see them coming when we made our decision.”

California, a hive of rapid private-sector innovation, is adjusting slowly to the accelerating changes in its climate. The sharp transition between heavy rains and hot, windy weather has primed the landscape for wildfires, which have burned larger and deadlier in recent years than at any time in history.

After an autumn of power cuts and economic losses, the reliability of California’s electricity grid and of its three largest investor-owned utilities is among the most pressing public policy issues facing Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. The state lags behind some on the East Coast, where Tropical Storm Irene swamped towns in 2011, causing blackouts and a rethinking of how to strengthen a vulnerable electrical grid.

The ideas under consideration here are complicated by the bankruptcy of PG&E, the state’s largest investor-owned utility. All would require a measure of public money – such as a state takeover of the grid or breaking up utilities into municipal agencies – and changes to a regulatory system yet to adapt to California’s new climate-driven threats.

“It’s like we have a high schooler stuck in the sixth grade,” said state Senator Henry Stern, D-Canoga Park, who represents a district that has experienced several fires and intentional blackouts this fall.

Stern, who lost his Malibu home in the 2018 Woolsey Fire, pushed through legislation that year that directs state regulators to revise the rules around microgrid use to make it easier for private-utility customers to use them. Then-Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, who installed a microgrid on his Colusa County ranch, signed the bill, which sets a December 2020 deadline for the new regulations to be in place. “We’ve got a mature technology stuck in a far less mature regulatory system,” Stern said. “It’s as much a culture shift as an engineering challenge that we face now.”

No one keeps count of how many microgrids operate in the state. But many large university campuses, medical centres and public-safety operations have them.

The idea is simple. Microgrids are connected to the larger utility system when the electricity is on, contributing power in some cases. When there is a power cut, microgrids can become “islands” – disconnect from the system and use solar-generated energy stored in batteries to operate independently.

The chief obstacle to their wider use here is cost and regulations that make them prohibitively expensive for most private customers. The Blue Lake Rancheria operates a 102-room hotel and casino, and the revenue helped pay for its USD6.3 million microgrid, which keeps the businesses and the tribal government building open during blackouts. A state grant secured with help from the Schatz Energy Research Center, a clean-energy institute affiliated with Humboldt State University, also funded the project.

A major issue for microgrids is a rule that prohibits private-utility customers from selling electricity “over the fence” – on the public market – because they are not regulated by the state. The ability to do so would make the economics far more feasible for neighbourhoods, community groups and private customers interested in building microgrids, especially in rural areas, as a backup to the increasingly unreliable utility-provided electricity. One compromise would be to allow some private microgrid electricity sales only during blackouts, a step other states have taken.

“As you think about doing these systems, you have to ask how much they will cost and how do you continue to fund the rest of the grid,” said a senior official in the Newsom administration who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe ongoing government discussions to improve electricity reliability. “Microgrids are a tool, they have a role, and they must be one of many things we have to look at. But they are not a panacea.”

The public policy considerations are similar to those that define the debate around school vouchers: If too many children take public money to pay private-school tuition, what then becomes of the public school system? State regulators say the three utilities need almost USD30 billion a year to operate.

Even those who favour more relaxed regulations worry that, down the road, too many microgrid users could create an electricity system of haves and have-nots in a state where that divide is already canyon-deep in housing, incomes and other aspects of daily life. “Utilities have had the same business model for 100 years, and boy, is it hard for them to change,” said Tom Williard, principal of Sage Energy Consulting, which advises businesses on the use of microgrids. “But this is an issue that must be addressed quickly.”

Humboldt County has always considered itself an off-the-grid kind of place, the remote destination of a post-Summer of Love hippie migration that brought thousands here to live off the land. While low humidity and high winds made Shasta County to the east a high-fire risk in October, cool, damp Humboldt faced no fire threat at all. Yet to protect Shasta, PG&E had to cut off transmission lines that also serve Humboldt.

“We always get the ‘What is going on there?’ question from businesses we talk to,” said Executive Director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission in Humboldt Gregg Foster. “But we didn’t know we were tied to a grid hundreds of miles away, and now we’re looking at why their issues have become our problems.”

Those with generators when the lights went out flipped them on, creating fire risks of their own.

On the city of Arcata’s central square, where the bead shops and vintage clothing stores attract a steady flow of tourists, owners of the Big Blue Cafe turned on their generator in the minutes after the power went out for the second time in October.

A few hours later, the popular diner was in flames, the generator later found to have vibrated across the floor to a wall, where the hot exhaust sparked the fire. The restaurant and its two neighbours are still closed.

The makeup of Humboldt’s population also is a barrier to the large-scale adoption of microgrids. It is more transient than most, with a homeownership rate below the national average. Landlords and renters are far less likely to invest in a new, expensive electricity system. The median household income of USD42,000 also is well below the national average.

But use of microgrids is growing with the help of state money.

At the California Redwood Coast-Humboldt County Airport, designed during World War II to train pilots how to fly in fog, an USD11 million microgrid project is in the works. It is nearly twice as expensive as Blue Lake’s microgrid but five times more powerful, a sign the costs for the systems are coming down.

When finished next year the microgrid will provide electricity to the airport, a US Coast Guard Air Station, a nearby animal shelter and a few other nearby businesses during blackouts.

Rancheria is the name the federal government gave to a series of small Native American reservations around the state’s far-northern coast, and Blue Lake’s reservation is indeed small. So is the tribe – 50 members, now, after more than a century of  federal recognition.

The Mad River Valley flooded frequently until the 1950s, when the government built a levee to contain the unruly river. Now the tribe’s land sits between county sewage ponds and a city dump, although the steep-valley landscape on a clear winter day remains breathtaking.

“For a long time, we have had to rely on ourselves. You couldn’t count on help from the federal or the state government,” said Ramos, the tribal council member. “The sense of tribal sovereignty is strong.”

Of California’s many natural plagues, it was not fire but tsunami that focussed the tribe’s interest on creating an independent power supply.