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Regional News: Amid shut-off woes, a beacon of energy

Posted by   /  January 2, 2020  /  No Comments

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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.
/Photo by Mason Trinca for The Washington Post

By Scott Wilson | 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.

In early October, Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to more than 2 million people across Northern California, including all those who live here in rural Humboldt County, where redwood forests fringe the wild edge of the continent. The shut-off aimed to reduce the risk of wildfire, and as the region sat in darkness, the tribe’s multimillion-dollar investment in its power system glowed.

Responding to public needs, the tribe transformed a hotel conference room into a newsroom so the local paper could publish. It used hotel guest rooms to take in eight critically ill patients from the county’s Health and Human Services Department. The reservation’s gas station and mini mart were among the only ones open, drawing a nearly mile-long line of cars.

The Blue Lake Rancheria served more than 10,000 people during the day-long outage, by some estimates, roughly 8 percent of Humboldt’s population. And for a government that had largely ignored the tribe for more than a century, the tribe suddenly became a vital part of its emergency response.

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