Humboldt Towns Protected Against Shutoffs, Locals Say the Change is Overdue

16 Jun 2020

When power is deliberately shut off to avoid fires amid high wind in Pacific Gas & Electric territory, 20 cities along the North Coast won’t have to worry. That is because PG&E reconfigured its 163 MW natural gas fired power plant in Humboldt County so it can disconnect from the grid and continue supplying the region. The cities powered by the islanded plant include Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville and Fortuna, as well as some tribal communities.

“Our residents and businesses endured hardships during safety shutoffs even when there wasn’t a wildfire threat in Humboldt County,” Rex Bohn, First District Supervisor for Humboldt County, said. He welcomed the reconfigured plant.

The fossil plant has been running since 2010. It is sited near the shuttered Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant.

Late last October, Bohn and Sheriff William Honsal asked PG&E why islanding of the 163 MW plant was not part of the initial construction since the region has paid a price for weather events happening in neighboring counties. Power shutoffs as far away as the Central Valley have affected transmission to Humboldt County, keeping the local gas plant and two biomass facilities, which supply the Redwood Coastal Energy Alliance, from powering the region.

After saying for months that islanding the gas plant wasn’t possible, PG&E executives said in late February it was working on such plans, the Local Coast Outpost reported Feb. 25.  “That’s friggin’ huge,” Supervisor Bohn told the news site.

The Outpost had repeatedly investigated the islanding question. “This was a case of journalists actually effecting change,” J.A. Savage, former co-editor of Current, said.

The Redwood Alliance serves the County of Humboldt; the Cities of Arcata, Blue Lake, Eureka, Ferndale, Fortuna, Rio Dell, and Trinidad; and the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District.

The ability to sever the connection with the grid means that up to 67,000 customers, who could otherwise lose power, will continue to receive electricity, the company stated June 12. How much of the region will remain energized depends on the extent of a given shutoff and other conditions impacting the grid, it added.

The gas fired plant is not as polluting as the 50-year old fossil plant it replaced. According to PG&E, the 163 MW plant is 33% more efficient and releases 83% fewer ozone precursors and 34% fewer C02 emissions. But it also has a diesel back up, which spews carcinogenic emissions when fired up.

Unlike its predecessor, the generating facility does not use 40,000 gallons of seawater per day to cool spinning turbines. Instead, it is air cooled. In 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board mandated the phase out of once-through cooling at the state’s coastal power plants. The sucking in and expulsion of heated wastewater has wreaked havoc on sea critters–from seals to fish larvae.

The Humboldt gas plant employs 17 full-time workers and contributes more than $4 million a year in taxes to Humboldt County, PG&E stated.

Elizabeth McCarthy

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