Reservation's Solar Microgrid Aids Community During Power Shut-offs California utility PG&E continues planned power outages to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires. One Native tribe's solar-powered microgrid is proving to be a lifeline for rural communities.
NPR logo California Reservation's Solar Microgrid Provides Power During Utility Shutoffs

California Reservation's Solar Microgrid Provides Power During Utility Shutoffs

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In recent months, California's biggest electric utility's been taking the unprecedented step of shutting off power to millions. The move is meant to prevent power equipment from sparking catastrophic wildfires. Jefferson Public Radio's Erik Neumann reports on a renewable energy microgrid that's proving to be one solution to this ongoing problem.

ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: The Blue Lake Rancheria tribe lives just north of Eureka, Calif. Behind the tribe's casino and hotel, Jana Ganion opens a chain-link fence.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIN LINKS JINGLING)

NEUMANN: Inside are more than 1,500 solar panels slanted toward the noonday sun.

JANA GANION: We're up just a little on a little platform that can oversee most of the array.

NEUMANN: Ganion is the sustainability director with the Blue Lake Rancheria tribe.

GANION: This is the view that I like the best.

NEUMANN: Ganion helped build this solar microgrid as part of the tribe's goal to have climate-resilient infrastructure and to be ready for earthquakes and tsunamis. But then, beginning in October, it became useful in a whole new way. The utility Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, shut off power to more than 30 counties in central and northern California on October 9.

GANION: We had probably 30- to 45-minute gas lines - people that were fueling up vehicles but also their home generators. That continued basically for the duration of the 28-hour outage.

NEUMANN: As one of the only gas stations with power, they gave diesel to United Indian Health Services to refrigerate their medications and to the Mad River Fish Hatchery to keep their fish alive. The local newspaper used a hotel conference room. Area residents stopped by to charge their cellphones. They estimate that on that day, more than 10,000 nearby residents came to the reservation for gas and supplies.

Ryan Derby is the emergency services manager for Humboldt County. He says they'd been warned about these shut-offs but didn't know they were happening until that day.

RYAN DERBY: So our entire planning model, you know, for the last 18 months got thrown out the window.

NEUMANN: Suddenly, Humboldt, a county of 136,000 people, was in the dark.

DERBY: Humboldt County prides itself on being resilient. But I think in light of these public safety power shut-offs, we realized how dependent we really are on electricity.

NEUMANN: The county focused on people who relied on medical devices, like respirators or oxygen tanks. At the Rancheria, Anita Huff was directing emergency services for people with critical medical needs.

ANITA HUFF: We had eight people in here who could not have lived without electricity. So we saved eight lives.

NEUMANN: The tribe built the microgrid with help from the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University. Dave Carter was the lead technical engineer.

DAVE CARTER: Microgrids are very complex. And they're - in some ways, they're kind of like snowflakes, where there's - no two of them are the same because it depends on where you are on the grid and what your facility is.

NEUMANN: Microgrids keep the energy flowing to customers even after disconnecting from the overall power grid. The Blue Lake microgrid goes into island mode and a large Tesla battery system balances energy supply and demand. By comparison, conventional solar arrays have to automatically shut down during outages so they don't electrocute power line workers.

Microgrids do come at a cost. This one was $6.3 million. Jana Ganion with the Blue Lake Rancheria says with future electricity shut-offs, rural communities need to be especially resilient. And that's true for reservations, as well.

GANION: Many, many tribal nations are located at the end of the line in terms of the electricity grid. They may have no power. They may have poor-quality power. And microgrids are a way to just do an end run around all of that.

NEUMANN: Last month, PG&E announced it's soliciting bids to build 20 new microgrids near utility substations that could be affected by future power shut-offs. They're hoping to have them running by next fall, the season with high winds and extreme fire risk.

For NPR News, I'm Erik Neumann in Blue Lake, Calif.

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