What’s Next for Humboldt’s Energy Future?

September, 2012
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With the proposed Shell wind project for Bear River Ridge now dead, some people are breathing a sigh of relief. However, many of us also see this as a lost opportunity, and the question that remains is “what next?”

For the last two and a half years, the Schatz Energy Research Center and the Redwood Coast Energy Authority have been working on a plan to develop renewable energy resources in Humboldt County.  The study, called the Humboldt Renewable Energy Secure Community (RESCO) project has been funded through a grant from the California Energy Commission.  The goal is to prepare a plan for local renewable energy development that maximizes energy, environmental, and economic benefits to our community.

About two thirds of Humboldt County’s energy is imported as petroleum and natural gas.  The remaining third primarily comes from local biomass.  Although the petroleum used for transportation accounts for only one third of our energy use, it makes up about 60% of our greenhouse gas emissions.  Because of our remote, isolated location our connections to the larger energy infrastructure are tenuous.  For this reason we already generate the majority of our electricity locally, primarily at the PG&E Humboldt Bay Generating Station, which runs on natural gas, and three local biomass power plants.

Schatz’s research indicates Humboldt County has tremendous opportunity to secure a sustainable energy future.  With a wealth of local renewable energy resources, primarily in the form of biomass, wind, wave and small hydro, use of these resources will substantially reduce our carbon footprint.  Renewable energy is also good news for our struggling local economy. Development of our local energy resources will mean a significant increase in local economic activity and jobs— more energy dollars will circulate in our local economy.  However, the use of any energy resource has impacts.  The key will be to develop them in a responsible, environmentally sensitive way that is acceptable to the local community.

One sentiment people have expressed is a preference for small, distributed energy systems, like rooftop solar.  People like to be able to do things themselves and like the feeling of independence that comes with a home energy system.  In addition, they don’t want the impacts associated with large-scale projects, nor the large corporate influence that often comes with them. While rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources should be further developed, these resources alone will not be adequate to meet our needs.

For example, if a 3-kW solar electric system were installed on every residence in Humboldt County (all 54,000 of them, a 100-fold increase over our current installed solar electric capacity) and assume they all had optimal solar access (which is not the case), these systems would only meet 20% of our existing electricity needs at a cost of almost $1 billion at current installed prices.  Because of economies of scale, one large-scale biomass or wind power plant could be installed to meet the same needs at a small fraction of that cost.

In any electric power system, supply must match demand at all times.  Biomass and hydro power plants can adjust their output to meet demand; however, wind and solar plants only produce when the wind blows and the sun shines.  Therefore, a mix of resources will be needed—including energy sources like biomass and hydro that can provide a steady output.  Generators that can quickly ramp power output up and down as needed will also be important—like the PG&E Humboldt Bay natural gas power plant, which was recently rebuilt to work well with local intermittent renewable resources.

Other key findings from our work show that energy efficiency is the cheapest “energy resource” and should be maximized (this is a no brainer).  Switching to electric vehicles for transportation and electric heat pumps for heating can also enable us to cost effectively decrease fossil fuel energy use and associated carbon emissions.

So how do we build public support for a local sustainable energy plan?  The loss of the Shell wind project offers us an opportunity, as people appear to be ready to engage in a discussion about energy.  The keys to building public support are to involve the community in the planning process, identify their concerns with particular projects, and work together to find acceptable mitigations.

For more information on the RESCO project, visit www.redwoodenergy.org and click on the “RESCO” link on the left side of the page, or see www.schatzlab.org/projects/policyanalysis/resco.html. A draft strategic energy plan will be released in the next few weeks. We look forward to your input!

Jim Zoellick is a Senior Research Engineer at the HSU Schatz Energy Research Center and is the project manager for the Humboldt RESCO project.

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