Geographic isolation compelled Humboldt Bay to adopt energy self-reliance early on in its industrialized history. Numerous lumber mills supplied ample wood waste for steam-powered turbines as early as 1885, but over time these independent operators merged and consolidated, making conditions ideal for the mighty Pacific Gas and Electric Company to scoop up control of the region’s entire electrical grid by 1927. In its conquest of vast swaths of California, PG&E also vigorously promoted fossil fuel powered plants up and down the state, hence its completion of Humboldt Bay Power Plant’s Units 1 and 2 (in 1956 and 1958) near the town of King Salmon on the bay’s eastern shoreline. PG&E was also an early adopter of nuclear power, and added Humboldt Bay’s Unit 3 Boiling Water Reactor—the state’s first commercial reactor—to the complex in 1963. Unit 3’s controversial fourteen-year run has enshrined itself in local history and legend—with initial fuel assembly design flaws, unintended radioactive releases, and the eventual discovery that the reactor vessel was sited uncomfortably close to an active fault line—spelled the end of Humboldt’s age of atomic electricity. By 1976, the plant had been closed, and by 1988, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted PG&E a SAFSTOR license, meaning that the reactor’s spent fuel could be stored onsite. In 2008, these fuel rods were placed in an Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation—six massive and miraculously engineered concrete canisters now nestled in the Buhne Point promontory facing the mouth of the bay. Additional decommissioning is still under way, including decontamination, dismantling, and export of various structural components to disposal sites as far away as Idaho, Utah, and Texas. The project will ultimately cost upwards of a billion dollars, and is on track for completion by 2018.
In place of the old Units 1, 2, and 3, the Humboldt Bay power plant now features 10 new reciprocating engine/generators that run on natural gas. These engines are very similar in design to those found in conventional automobiles, only far more immense. Compared to the old fossil fuel units, these new engines are 33% more efficient, emit reduced levels of CO2, and possess catalytic reduction equipment that reduce Nitrogen Oxide and Carbon Monoxide emissions as well. They generate up to 163 Megawatts of electricity and are powered by a single 12” high-pressure pipeline that snakes south under Humboldt Hill and College of the Redwoods, turns east along Highway 36 and terminates on the opposite side of the Coast Range at the Gerber Compressor Station. From there the pipe travels northward through California’s Central Valley to the shale fields of Alberta Canada via the “Redwood Path” of PG&E’s statewide and Western Region interstate systems. Ninety percent of the bay region’s natural gas for both electricity and heating traverses this remarkable distance, with the remaining amount produced very locally from gas fields on nearby Tompkins Hill Ridge. Underground gas mains also navigate beneath and around the city of Eureka, northward alongside Highway 101, and bisect the Arcata Marsh before terminating just north of the Mad River Rapids RV Park. Candy-striped, diagonally slanted signs mark these pipes’ trajectories along their rural routes; in towns the locations of this network are harder to spot by the casual observer.
The region’s electrical transmission system includes a 115kV line that links the Humboldt Bay power plant to its main substation on Mitchell Heights Road just northeast of Eureka, and then turns eastward, bifurcates, and roughly follows the trajectories of Highways 299 and 36 to the Central Valley Cottonwood Substation, where both lines hook up to the Western Interconnection of the U.S. electrical grid. Compared to transmission lines to large cities (which can be 799kVs or more) this link to the world is analogous to a two-lane highway—a mere backcountry road on our national grid. Additional 60kV lines from the Humboldt Bay power plant serve cities to the south (including Ferndale, Fortuna, Garberville and beyond) and to the north from Eureka to Orick. A stately transmission line also encircles the entire north half of Humboldt Bay, ultimately terminating at a substation in Fairhaven across the ship channel from Eureka. This prominent girdle of steel and wire limns the bay’s windswept shoreline, and once delivered substantial power to two now-defunct pulp mills. Additional substations along the entire trajectory include two in Eureka (Substations A and E), the Harris Street Substation, and the Arcata Substation, among smaller ones appended to various industries.
Though the PG&E power plant currently generates more than two-thirds of Humboldt Bay’s electricity, burning wood—like in historical times—still constitutes a significant slice of its energy pie. Three biomass power plants generate about 25% of the region’s electricity, and the DG Fairhaven plant—with its mountains of luminous, apricot-hued wood chips, towering boiler, and ceaselessly billowing steam plumes—is majestically sited amid the sand dunes along the bay’s north peninsula. This South Korean owned, locally managed plant burns sawdust, bark, and logs deemed too small, crooked, or otherwise undesirable for dimensional lumber production. The wood is chipped, dried, and blown into a state-of-the-art computer-controlled boiler, which then creates steam for a vintage 1948 Westinghouse turbine and generator, which in turn generates about 15.5 Megawatts of power that is purchased by PG&E. With its towering and impressive electrostatic precipitator, the DG Fairhaven plant burns very cleanly, and most experts agree that biomass energy is the most practical and promising renewable resource for Humboldt County. The carbon expenditures of harvesting, transporting, chipping and combustion of wood will, however, need to be effectively calibrated with the carbon sequestering capacity of still-standing forests—the details of which are now under research.
Distributed generation (rooftop) solar currently accounts for less than 1% of Humboldt County’s electricity output, and hydropower accounts for about 5%. Local wind energy still faces aesthetic and ornithological obstacles, and local wave energy is not yet ready for viable development. The regional grid will require significant upgrades to accommodate solar, wind, and wave, but Humboldt’s new power plant (with its reliable base load and variable output) could operate in tandem with these nascent technologies. This grid’s other stressors include widespread indoor cannabis cultivation—operations that can explode the carbon footprint of an ordinary house into that of a supermarket, and have paradoxically transformed some of this region’s more eco-minded hamlets into the state’s highest per capita energy gluttons, though local municipalities have started to fight back.
This community prides itself as largely autonomous and self-reliant, but is nevertheless decisively tethered to the rest of the world by a pipe and some tenuous wires. Humboldt County could relocalize more than 70% of its electricity demand by 2030 with regional renewables, rigorous conservation, and an overall 5% increase in energy costs, says a recent report by Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Resource Center, but relocalizing control of its grid at this point would prove a far more tactically challenging endeavor.