Redwood Coast Energy Authority staff members Richard Engel, standing left, and Michael Furniss, standing right, explain the potential for Humboldt County to use biomass energy in the near future. (Shomik Mukherjee — The Times-Standard)
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With last week’s Pacific Gas and Electric Co. blackout in the rear-view mirror, local energy officials are looking ahead to how Humboldt County can rely on its own power supply long term.

At a public workshop Thursday, staff for the Redwood Coast Energy Authority discussed alternate sources of power the county could tap into over the long run. Under its current plan, the county’s future energy supply would be fully renewable by 2030.

The projected breakdown of energy supply by that point: 43% offshore wind energy; 24% onshore wind energy; 21% biomass; 8% combined solar power; and 4% small hydrological sources.

RCEA executive director Matthew Marshall said it’s imperative Humboldt County take the first step in becoming fully renewable.

“We need to do this ourselves,” he said, adding that if the county does, it would demonstrate a template for other states and even countries to follow.

Marshall and other staff pointed to small regional developments as being successful displays of energy independence. He specifically cited the Blue Lake Rancheria’s viability during the power shutdown.

The tribe successfully kept its gas station open and running during the daylong outage, and its hotel and casino remained fully operational.

“The whole county can see what the Blue Lake Rancheria very prominently demonstrated,” Marshall said.

Staff members Michael Furniss and Richard Engel discussed the RCEA’s plans to source power from biomass, or the collective energy that comes from plants and animals.

The idea, in simple terms, is that trees, which grow back, could provide a renewable source of energy instead of fossil fuels. But from the outset, Furniss noted that the “carbon neutrality” of biomass is a subject of debate — in other words, it’s unclear whether biomass would result in more carbon in the atmosphere.

“It’s more complex than, ‘Trees grow back and then everything’s fine,’ ” Engel added. “Trees do take time to grow.”

Engel went on to say that Humboldt County’s forests are “remarkably regenerative.”

Dave Carter of the Schatz Energy Research Center of Humboldt State University presented the potential for the county to build solar microgrids, or power structures that operate independently of mainstream energy sources.

Currently, the Schatz Center is overseeing the building of a microgrid at the county airport in McKinleyville. By controlling a microgrid’s output during peak energy times, the grid will be able to supply energy with less of a load.

“Two percent of the time when PG&E’s grid has a problem, that’s when we kick it in and those communities (which have microgrids) get the befit of having a backup system,” staff member Dave Carter said.

He added that the grids will be more effective with earlier notice that PG&E is planning a shutdown. Humboldt County residents were not clear until hours before last week’s blackout began that they would be affected.

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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