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No more power capacity available in southern Humboldt County, says PG&E

PG&E crews work to restore power lines in Paradise, Calif., after the Camp Fire destroyed much of the Northern California town.
Rich Pedroncelli
PG&E crews work to restore power lines in Paradise, Calif., after the Camp Fire destroyed much of the Northern California town.

The utility Pacific Gas & Electric doesn’t have enough power capacity for new development projects in southern Humboldt county.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors met on Nov. 1 to hear from PG&E on why there’s no more power capacity south of the town of Fortuna.

The primary issues are outdated power lines and significant requests of power from new cannabis facilities. The company says overall power demands have actually decreased or remained consistent over the last 10 years, but they recently saw a sharp increase in the need for power from new business applications.

According to PG&E, there are significant power requirements requested by 76 business applicants, most of which are cannabis-related. Such facilities draw significant power to operate lighting, air conditioning and ventilation systems in greenhouses.

“One megawatt of electricity is enough to power about 600 homes," says PG&E Regional Manager Carl Schoenhofer. "These 76 applications that we currently have are requesting about 25 megawatts, which is enough to power about 15,000 homes in the area.”

He says these new business applications are requesting more than double the current load at four of the region’s substations.

Schoenhofer says cannabis facilities are different from other businesses, as the demands for power will overlap with peak system demand, such as when residents are getting home from work in the evening.

He adds many of these new businesses are located in rural areas, farther from existing substations. That requires greater need for capacity upgrades to serve those customers.

PG&E says existing customers will not be impacted by the power capacity concerns. But the issue could affect future growth.

“It could have significant effects on the ability for the county to provide housing to support offshore wind development,” says Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford.

California’s North Coast is one of the areas identified as having high potential to support offshore wind activities. An auction for offshore wind leases is taking place this December.

The power company says it’s gotten approval for at least $46 million for some upgrades. It says existing applications for power in the Eel River Valley and from Bridgeville to Alderpoint should receive power in around two years. But new requests to connect things like housing developments and businesses may need to wait seven years or more.

The county discovered the problem when granting permits for a new cannabis processing facility that was unable to receive power despite being approved by PG&E.

County and city staff say they’re grateful PG&E is getting more aggressive about upgrading its infrastructure, but they want to make sure the company follows through.

“If it doesn’t happen," says Fortuna City Manager Merritt Perry, "we’ll be back to square one with these consequences of businesses not being able to operate in the city of Fortuna, fewer jobs, reduced sales tax and essentially an economic slump that could be induced by the lack of development.”

PG&E says it still needs at least an additional $300 million to serve 43 new customers in the Garberville area. It says the high costs are because of the need for utility upgrades in mountainous terrain and the required fire mitigation for power lines.

California State Assemblymember Jim Wood said in a statement that PG&E is not willing to meet the demand for new development. He said he’s looking into legislation that would ensure customers who receive a letter promising them power wouldn’t be blindsided after investing in construction of a new project.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.