A clean energy microgrid for the Humboldt County airport

A cutting-edge clean energy microgrid is coming to Humboldt County’s regional airport. Designed by the Schatz Center, the microgrid will generate green electricity, create jobs for local contractors and technicians, and provide an energy lifeline in the event of a natural disaster. Last week, the California Energy Commission announced a $5 million grant award through its EPIC program that will support $6 million in matching funding from the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA), for development of this solar + storage microgrid system.

“The Redwood Coast Energy Authority is excited to be partnering with the Schatz Center, PG&E, and the County,” said Matthew Marshall, Executive Director of the RCEA. “This project will allow us to provide enhanced resiliency and emergency-response capabilities for the airport and Coast Guard and deliver the environmental and economic benefits of developing our local renewable resources.”

Composed of a 2.3 megawatt photovoltaic array covering 9 acres—the largest in Humboldt County—and an 8 megawatt-hour battery storage system, equivalent to the batteries in 100 Tesla Model S cars, the microgrid will support 18 electric accounts including the airport and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station.

The California Redwood Coast-Humboldt County Airport serves 50,000 flights a year and 140,000 customers, including commercial, private, and emergency medical flights. The Coast Guard Air Station Humboldt Bay provides search and rescue for 250 miles of rugged rural coastline, from the Mendocino-Sonoma County line to the California-Oregon border. Since roads into and out of Humboldt County are often closed by fires and slides, energy stability at the regional airport is crucial.

Aerial view of ACV airport from plane

Aerial view of ACV airport

“This is a wonderful project for Humboldt County and we have a great team eager to get started,” said Peter Lehman, founding director of the Schatz Center and principal investigator for the project. “The airport microgrid will make us a safer and more resilient community and plow new ground in developing the electric grid of the future.”

As the first multi-customer microgrid in Pacific Gas and Electric’s service territory, the project will provide a test bed for the policies, tariff structures, and operating procedures necessary to integrate microgrids into California’s electric grid. Lessons learned will help the state strengthen its power grid by creating a roadmap for microgrid integration across the state.

A microgrid combines energy generation–often solar or wind power–with energy storage and smart controls to allow it to run both connected to and disconnected from the larger power grid. Under normal conditions, microgrids add power to the grid and smooth out power fluctuations, adding stability. In an outage, microgrids can “island” and supply electricity indefinitely. As extreme weather events and fires driven by climate change continue to cause regional outages, the ability to maintain independent power generation is key to local resiliency. Microgrids provide life-saving power to transportation hubs and other critical facilities like shelters, hospitals, and fire stations.

The airport microgrid is the second designed by the Schatz Center for the Humboldt Bay region. The Center’s renewable energy microgrid at the Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR) went live in 2017, providing clean energy to the BLR campus and enabling the Rancheria to operate as a Red Cross Shelter. Last fall, the Rancheria was recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its contributions to community safety.