Matthew Marshall: The sun is rising on renewable energy for Humboldt County – Mad River Union

This month marks the 4th anniversary of the launch of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority’s Community Choice Energy Program. The central objective of the program since we began providing electricity to customers in 2017 has been to advance the use of renewable resources to affordably meet our community’s energy needs. 

Despite the challenges of the last year, RCEA and our customers are making exciting progress on the transition to a community powered by renewable energy, with much of this early success focused on greatly expanding solar energy production while simultaneously increasing local energy resilience. Some highlights include: 

• Redwood Coast Airport Microgrid – Humboldt County has become an industry-leader in the development of microgrids with this project and the other microgrid work of the Schatz Energy Research Center, the Blue Lake Rancheria, and others. Scheduled to be completed and online by the end of this year, RCEA’s solar and battery-storage microgrid at the county airport will provide local renewable power to RCEA’s customers while also enhancing local energy resilience and emergency-response capabilities. 

In addition to these local benefits, this cutting-edge project has provided the inspiration and template for the “Community Microgrid Enablement Program” recently approved by the California Public Utilities Commission that will support the deployment of microgrids serving critical facilities and vulnerable populations across PG&E’s entire service territory. 

• Supporting customer solar – RCEA offers a generous Solar Net Energy Metering program that provides a rate-based incentive to customers that produce power on their property, and we’ve seen the number of RCEA customers with solar on their home or business double to nearly 2,400 since 2017. This program also provides a cash payment to RCEA customers who produce more power than they use over the course of the year – RCEA issues payments for this surplus solar generation every spring, and this year’s total is over a quarter-million dollars going out to RCEA’s hundreds of customer-level power producers.

In addition, RCEA’s Public Agency Solar Program has helped our local government partners secure over $3 million in funding to deploy renewable, resilient energy systems at schools, water-treatment facilities, fire stations, and other critical community facilities across the county.

• Utility-level solar generation – RCEA’s Feed-in-Tariff program offers above-market rates to community-scale distributed renewable generators in the county. Nearly 6,000 kilowatts of new local distributed solar generation capacity has been contracted to date, with projects set to break ground this year. 

RCEA has also entered into a power purchase agreement with a new, 100 megawatt solar project that will be built for RCEA in central California. Construction on this project is scheduled to begin in less than a year, and once online it will generate enough power to meet about 45 percent of the current electricity needs of RCEA’s customers – equivalent to the generation of over 48,000 residential rooftop solar arrays. 

The projects and progress listed above give me hope for the future, but we have much work ahead of us. As the primary provider of Humboldt County’s electricity, RCEA has to balance the goals of reliability, affordability, addressing climate change, and equity. We cannot rely solely on solar energy and distributed, rooftop-scale production to meet our energy needs while also achieving these key goals. For example: 

• The price for power from RCEA’s 100 megawatt central-valley solar project will be about one-third of what RCEA is paying for small-scale local solar power (and also, I’ll note, well below the cost of power generated from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas). This will reduce our power procurement costs on behalf of all of our customers. It is also important to remember that a rural, mostly residential community with a tiny population in a mild climate like Humboldt has very different energy needs and local-generation potential compared to other communities around the state and the world. 

• As sure as the sun rises, it also sets every day – due to our state’s solar energy boom, California has already reached a tipping point where the most costly and technically-challenging period to maintain reliable energy supply is the evening hours after solar power production tapers off and other resources have to ramp-up to fill the gap. Taking a cue from nature and embracing a diversity of resources at a spectrum of scales from small to large will have a significantly-lower cost and reduced environmental impacts than trying to rely on a single “silver bullet” and thinking we can just build enough solar power and accompanying battery storage to provide affordable 24×7 power for our state (let alone the rest of the country and the world). 

Solar energy, and in particular rooftop solar, has an important part to play in Humboldt County’s clean energy future – not as a one-size-fits all panacea, but as part of a diversified portfolio that can also include wind and biomass, supplemented by energy storage, small hydro, geothermal, and other emerging technologies, alongside the key ingredient of customer energy efficiency and conservation. 

To address the magnitude of the climate change emergency, we will need every tool in the toolbox, and we also need to focus on where we as individuals and as a community can have the most impact. 

While we aren’t the sunniest place in California, we are actually the windiest: the North Coast has a truly world-class offshore wind resource. Things have been in a bit of a holding pattern since 2018 waiting for the necessary next steps of the federally-managed leasing process for offshore waters to get moving again, but RCEA has continued to make some steady progress on a proposed project 25 to 30 miles off our coast and I encourage you to stay tuned for offshore wind energy efforts picking up steam starting this year. 

There will be many challenges during the transition to a renewable energy future, and solar energy is only one part of the solution – but a significant new stage of sustainable energy progress for Humboldt County is happening now, and this first big step will be powered by the sun.

Matthew Marshall is executive director of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority.


May 9, 2021 susan ward