Humboldt County Clean Energy Futures

Humboldt Bay Power Plant

RESCO Project Manager Jim Zoellick stands next to a 10 MW Natural Gas generator, one of sixteen that were recently installed by PG&E to replace the aging power plant at King Salmon south of Eureka. The generators will be a good match to intermittent renewable energy like wind and wave power. (Photo credit Jim Zoellick)

The Humboldt County Renewable Energy Secure Community (RESCO) project gives all of us at SERC a welcome opportunity to focus our effort on the community where we live, work, and play. The goal of the RESCO project is to forge a strategic plan for Humboldt County to develop clean and renewable energy resources that meet at least 75% of our electricity needs and a significant fraction of our heating and transportation needs. Our main project partner is the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA). RCEA is focused on political and strategic issues; SERC is doing the technical and economic work.

California continues to be a national leader in addressing climate change; our goal of returning to 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020 (set in Assembly Bill 32) was recently upheld by the voters when we defeated Proposition 23. We hope the RESCO project can help Humboldt County be a model for clean energy development and that California can continue its role as a national trendsetter in addressing air pollution issues.

The main technical analysis tool we are using to explore clean energy futures in Humboldt County is a computer model developed at SERC that integrates energy supply and demand. It uses an optimization algorithm called “Differential Evolution” to find a suitable portfolio of energy generation and conservation technologies given a set of priorities and constraints that we provide. For instance, we can use the model to answer questions like “What is the energy portfolio with the lowest carbon emissions if we want to hold overall energy costs at current- day levels?” We completed the model in December 2010 and have put it through its paces in the first round of validation runs. Once we make a few improvements it will be ready to be used as a tool to help guide the discussion we’ve started with our community stakeholder group on energy development in the county. The stakeholder group had their first meeting December 4, 2010 and will continue working to frame a strategic energy plan throughout 2011.

We knew all along that Humboldt County has bountiful renewable energy resources but through the lens of our RESCO model, we have developed a deeper appreciation for how these resources might fit together both with each other and with demand side technology.

Biomass power generation is a recurrent key player in the RESCO model runs we’ve completed so far. Biomass power already accounts for 33% of the locally generated electricity in Humboldt County. It comes from three plants that total about 60 megawatts (MW) and counts as a renewable electricity source towards California’s greenhouse gas reduction targets. Unlike many renewable energy sources, biomass power plants provide stable, base load power by burning wood waste to turn a conventional generator, and they can be ramped up or down to meet our variable demand for electricity. There is ongoing debate about what level of biomass power generation is sustainable and carbon neutral, and the best estimate we’ve found so far is that Humboldt County could develop up to 250 MW of capacity. As we move forward with the stakeholder engagement process we hope to have a productive dialogue about the future of biomass power in Humboldt County.

Nearly 60% of our current-day, energy related greenhouse gas emissions result from our use of gasoline and diesel fuel for transportation. Every year we burn over sixty million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel in Humboldt County to run our cars and trucks and all of it has to be barged into the county.    We found that electrification of our vehicles complements renewable energy development and is key to reducing greenhouse gas pollution in the county. As we bring renewable power online we expect periods when there is a surplus of clean electricity available – particularly from wind and wave power, which are intermittent by nature. Because our ability to export renewable energy out of the county is limited, building smart, responsive loads like electric vehicles can help to keep our renewable generators humming while reducing our consumption of conventional fuels.

California Wind Turbines

Wind turbines like these may soon be atop Bear River Ridge south of Ferndale. Shell Wind is currently planning a 50 MW project there. (Photo courtesy of Sam Camp.)

In our initial model runs we found that for about the same costs we pay today, we could cut our countywide energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in half. We are working with PG&E to understand how the local electric grid would respond to the additional stress and with RCEA and the stakeholder group to identify community priorities and preferences concerning changes in our energy sector.

In 2011, we will finish our modeling work, create a strategic plan, and submit our final project report to the California Energy Commission. As we continue our RESCO work, California and the world are moving forward to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to address global climate change. We are poised in Humboldt County to not only do our part but also become a model community for encouraging clean energy development.