Life Won Thanks to the Blue Lake Rancheria Microgrid

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There is no way to say it that doesn’t sound dramatic. The Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid saved lives when its owner welcomed in the broader community during the recent sweep of wild-fire related power shutoffs in northwest Humboldt County, California.

Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid

By jefftakespics2/Shutterstock.com

Some came to the tribal rancheria because they depend on medical equipment that runs on electricity. They had no power, but the rancheria did because of its microgrid.

“In all, we estimate we served about 10,000 people, about 10% of the county’s population, during the outage,” said Jana Ganion, director of sustainability and government affairs at Blue Lake Rancheria.

Ganion said the county estimated that the tribe’s preparations and microgrid saved four lives during the first utility power shutoff, which lasted from Oct. 8 to Oct. 10. 

“It is very gratifying to provide that service, and it casts a light on how much resources need to be available during an extended outage,” she said.

A hero with many faces

Even before the power shortages, Blue Lake Rancheria stood out as an example of how microgrids can serve the greater good. Five months earlier the project received a Microgrid Greater Good Award from Microgrid Knowledge at Microgrid 2019 in San Diego. A team of independent judges chose the project based on its environmental and economic benefits. 

For years, the tribe, which has a 76-acre reservation near the small town of Blue Lake in Humboldt County, has been working toward its strategic goal of zero net carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

The tribe took a major step toward realizing that goal in 2017 when it installed and began operating a 430-kW solar photovoltaic array with a 500-kW, 2-kWh Tesla battery storage system complemented by two legacy diesel generators with a combined capacity of 1.8 MW.

During normal times, the microgrid serves its intended role. During the microgrid’s first year of operation, which was only for part of the year, it was able to reduce the tribe’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by about 175 tons and lower its energy costs by about $195,000. Going forward, the tribe estimates the microgrid will reduce its annual GHG emissions by 200 tons and reduce its annual costs by more than $200,000.

…the county estimated that the tribe’s preparations and microgrid saved four lives

But it was when Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) enacted a public service power shutoff (PSPS) — the term California uses when utilities intentionally shut down service to prevent wildfires — that the microgrid really shined, and not just for the tribe. In addition to keeping the tribe’s casino, hotel and offices powered up, the microgrid enabled the tribe to set aside some of its hotel rooms for medical patients who need electric power for their medical devices.

The Rancheria microgrid was also able to provide a safe, warm environment for local families to charge cell phones and access the internet, power to charge electric vehicles, and it even was able to provide a mobile office for Humboldt’s daily newspaper.

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And, knowing it would have the microgrid to rely on, the tribe was able to strategize in order to provide the reservation’s gas station with power from its backup diesel generators, as well as provide fuel for services outside the reservation such as the town of Blue Lakes’ municipal water system and to the Mad River Fish Hatchery so it could keep pumps running to keep fish hatchlings alive.

The utility shutoffs appear to be “the new normal” and show how “the climate crisis is amplifying conditions on the ground,” Ganion said. “The PSPS did its job and the microgrid did its job.”

Next for the Blue Lake Rancheria Microgrid

The microgrid performed well during the PSPS but even before that, Blue Lake Rancheria began looking for ways to expand its use of zero carbon emission power and “improve out economics by providing more price stability,” Ganion said. To do that, the rancheria decided to upgrade its microgrid by adding another 500 kW of solar power and a 634 kW, 1,014 kWh battery storage system to the existing microgrid.

The new battery is already online — it just required installation and some reprogramming of the microgrid control system. The feasibility study for the rest of the expansion is expected to be completed by next February or March and be implemented soon afterward. “We basically doubled the size of the system,” Ganion said.

The tribe is funding the feasibility and design work for the solar expansion. For implementation, they intend to pull together a partnership or look for other incentives that would make the system more affordable, Ganion said

Looking further into the future, Ganion said Blue Lake Rancheria is looking to get more “sophisticated” about using its battery storage to serve as a resource in the competitive wholesale power market run by the California Independent System Operator and to eventually move away from using its diesel engines as a source of backup power.

microgrids

Blue Lake Rancheria, a low-carbon microgrid in Humboldt County, California. Courtesy of Siemens

Even further out, there are a lot of lumber mills and former lumber mills in the region that already have distribution systems in place. Those sites could be a good locations for microgrids that could provide regional resiliency, Ganion said.

The installation the original Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid was led by the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University along with Siemens, which supplied the microgrid control software, and the Idaho National Laboratory.

Before the microgrid went live, Blue Lake Rancheria had three separate accounts with PG&E. When the microgrid was created, the tribe purchased a portion of the PG&E distribution lines back to a common point of connection with the grid, creating a campus level microgrid and consolidating the three accounts into one.

The microgrid was funded, in part, through a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge.

The Schatz Energy Research Center also led the installation of the battery expansion.

The Microgrid Greater Good Awards

Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid won first place for a grid-connected microgrid in the Microgrid 2019 Greater Good Award competition. The Manipur Microgrid won first place in the remote microgrid category for the economic and educational opportunity it creates for the remote India village of Manipur. The grand prize winner was Solargen Technologies Midnimo Microgrid, developed in partnership with the American Refugee Committee to electrify  homes and public institutions at the Midnimo village for refugees returning from Kenya to Somalia. 

Microgrid Knowledge plans to seek applications for the Microgrid 2020 Greater Good Awards in the coming weeks. The winners will be announced at Microgrid 2020, the microgrid industry’s annual conference, which will be June 2-3 in Philadelphia, Pa.

Interested in submitting a microgrid project for the 2020 Microgrid Greater Good Award? Subscribe to the free Microgrid Knowledge newsletter for notification of the upcoming call for submissions.

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  1. […] also took the lead in designing and implementing the microgrid at Blue Lake Rancheria, a Native American reservation in Humboldt County. The Redwood Coast Airport project was conceived […]

  2. […] article was originally published on Microgrid Knowledge. Reproduced here with […]

  3. […] Blue Lake Rancheria/Siemens: Greater Good Award for a Grid-Connected Microgrid […]

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