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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Large-Scale Power 'Island' Tested Successfully In Humboldt County

Courtesy of Pacific Gas and Electric
Map of parts of Humboldt County able to be energized by the Humboldt Bay Generating Station when operating separately from the overall power grid.

Humboldt is one Northern California county that will be less affected by future electricity shutoffs thanks to a revamped power plant in the county.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) says the Humboldt Bay Generating Station has been successfully tested as a stand-alone power source for communities in the region during emergencies.

The generating station is a 163-megawatt power plant that uses natural gas to create electricity, while also bringing in power from PG&E transmission lines. Originally built in 2010, the station is the main power generator for the county, but it relied on electricity from outside transmission lines to control the demands from power users.

Now, with upgrades made to the Humboldt Bay Generating Station, it can operate as an island of electricity without depending on the overall grid.

“This will allow our region to operate even during the fire season during most circumstances,” says Arne Jacobson, director of the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University. “That’s a great thing for our region.”

In the fall of 2019 power was shut off to thousands in Humboldt County during PG&E’s “public safety power shutoff” (PSPS) events, intended to reduce the risk of wildfires sparked from transmission lines during high wind events.

While coastal Humboldt County is often at lower risk for fires during the PSPS events than nearby inland counties, shutting off power to more high-risk communities resulted in Humboldt going dark as well, since the county is located at the end of the utility line.

“That makes us vulnerable in many ways because we’re not as connected, but it also creates a situation where it’s not as complicated to set up this kind of island mode because there are fewer points of connection that have to be controlled,” Jacobson says.

According to a statement from PG&E, the generating station will be able to supply power for up to 67,000 customers “depending on the situation” in 20 cities and towns including Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville, Fortuna, and some tribal communities.

Still, while the Humboldt Bay Generating Station improves resiliency in the region, it’s a temporary solution, Jacobson says, and with California moving towards 100% clean energy, the natural gas plant needs to be phased out.

“We do need to be thinking past this solution,” Jacobson says. “Not on a next year basis, but on a 10-15-year basis thinking about how do we continue to have the resilience that we have but to begin to do it without relying on fossil fuels.”