Author: Scot Wilson     Published: 01/01/20       The Washington Post

A Native American tribe has insulated itself from California’s blackouts by creating a microgrid utility

Customers enter the Blue Lake Casino and Hotel in Northern California, where the lights remained on during a recent wildfire-related power outage. (Photos by Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)

BLUE LAKE, Calif. — After months of wildfires, an essential question in a warming, windy California is this: How does the state keep the lights on? A tiny Native American tribe, settled here in the Mad River Valley, has an answer.

Build your own utility.

The Blue Lake Rancheria tribe has constructed a microgrid on its 100-acre reservation, a complex of solar panels, storage batteries and distribution lines that operates as part of the broader utility network or completely independent of it. It is a state-of-the-art system — and an indicator of what might be in California’s future.

Randy Cox, the Blue Lake Rancheria tribe’s electric system director, tests the microgrid transformers.

A rude realization

Humboldt County has always considered itself an off-the-grid kind of place, the remote destination of a post-Summer of Love hippie migration that brought thousands here to live off the land.

A renowned marijuana industry emerged in the hard-to-reach canyons and valleys, and solar panels and generators helped keep the “grows” hidden from the law. That outlaw culture and black-market economy is now struggling to adapt, like the power system itself, to the regulations that come with a now-legal cannabis market.

But the October power shut-off, followed three weeks later by an even longer outage, revealed just how reliant Humboldt is on a vast, regionwide electricity grid.

While low humidity and high winds made Shasta County to the east a high-fire risk in October, cool, damp Humboldt faced no fire threat at all. Yet to protect Shasta, PG&E had to cut off transmission lines that also serve Humboldt.

“We always get the ‘What is going on there?’ question from businesses we talk to,” said Gregg Foster, executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission in Humboldt. “But we didn’t know we were tied to a grid hundreds of miles away, and now we’re looking at why their issues have become our problems.”

On the city of Arcata’s central square, where the bead shops, cannabis oil vendors and vintage clothing stores attract a steady flow of tourists, owners of the Big Blue Cafe turned on their generator in the minutes after the power went out for the second time in October.

A few hours later, the popular diner was in flames, the generator later found to have vibrated across the floor to a wall, where the hot exhaust sparked the fire. The restaurant and its two neighbors are still closed.

The makeup of Humboldt’s population also is a barrier to the large-scale adoption of microgrids. It is more transient than most, with a homeownership rate below the national average. Landlords and renters are far less likely to invest in a new, expensive electricity system. The median household income of $42,000 also is well below the national average.

But use of microgrids is growing with the help of state money.

At the California Redwood Coast-Humboldt County Airport, designed during World War II to train pilots how to fly in fog, an $11 million microgrid project is in the works. It is nearly twice as expensive as Blue Lake’s microgrid but five times more powerful, a sign the costs for the systems are coming down.

When finished next year the microgrid will provide electricity to the airport, a U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, a nearby animal shelter and a few other nearby businesses during blackouts.

Michael Shackelford, manager of the Play Station 777, restocks the store’s shelves. Shackelford is a fourth-generation Tolowa member of the Blue Lake Rancheria.

A place for retreat

Rancheria is the name the federal government gave to a series of small Native American reservations around the state’s far-northern coast, and Blue Lake’s reservation is indeed small. So is the tribe — 50 members, now, after more than a century of federal recognition.

The Mad River Valley flooded frequently until the 1950s, when the government built a levee to contain the unruly river. Now the tribe’s land sits between county sewage ponds and a city dump, although the steep-valley landscape on a clear winter day remains breathtaking.

“For a long time, we have had to rely on ourselves. You couldn’t count on help from the federal or the state government,” said Ramos, the tribal council member. “The sense of tribal sovereignty is strong.”

Of California’s many natural plagues, it was not fire but tsunami that focused the tribe’s interest on creating an independent power supply.

In early March 2011, an earthquake shook Japan, triggering the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The force created a tsunami that moved across the Pacific and flooded California’s northern coast, including parts of Humboldt.

Now, tsunami warning signs line Humboldt’s coastal roads. But the tribe noticed that, when residents sought higher ground at the time, many of them congregated in and around Blue Lake above the flood’s high-water mark.

“The tsunami was really a wake-up call about how people experience a disaster here,” said Jana Ganion, the tribe’s energy director. “We realized that people are going to come here for resources.”

When the lights went out in October, Heather Muller, emergency manager for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency began contacting its nearly 150 patients who use medical devices that rely on power.

Some were admitted to the hospital, which had its own emergency power. Muller said the staff identified eight patients “who were not sick enough to be hospitalized but could possibly die overnight without power for their devices.” They were checked into the reservation’s hotel.

Journalists at the daily newspaper, the Times-Standard, needed power to put out the paper. Five journalists worked through the night in a reservation conference room, publishing updates online and even getting designs for the printed edition to Chico, a city 200 miles to the southeast.

“On a normal night, they send those pages back to us and we print them here,” said Marc Valles, the Times-Standard’s managing editor. “This was not a normal night.”

The paper’s delivery trucks in Humboldt met trucks from Chico halfway, picking up the morning edition and delivering it on time. With PG&E “telling public officials one thing, and the public another,” Valles said, it was especially important to have the paper’s reporting as a guide.

“People are skeptical enough of distant officials already, and these mixed messages really didn’t help,” he said. “That’s true anywhere in America, but more so here.”

The Play Station 777 is lit up at night. The roof is covered in solar panels.

The greening grid

Solar panels cover two fenced-in acres behind the tribe’s hotel and casino, and stacks of Tesla batteries sit in the shade of the building. Across from the hotel, the tribe is growing its own food in greenhouses. It turns cooking oil from the hotel kitchen into biofuel.

Ganion estimates that the microgrid decreases the tribe’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 200 tons a year, pushing toward the tribe’s goal of becoming carbon-neutral over the next decade. In addition, by selling energy to the broader grid during peak-use hours, the tribe saves roughly $200,000 a year in PG&E costs.

And it is expanding its self-run utility.

The roof of the Play Station 777 gas and mini mart is covered in solar panels, the power source for a second microgrid set to come online soon. The storage batteries are tucked behind the store, on the edge of the parking lot, a paved dot in a river valley changing like the state around it.

“The main culprit here is climate change,” Ganion said. “When we look for the solutions to the wildfires and the power shut-offs, examples of our changing climate, we must make these decisions through the lens of clean energy.”