Could the King Salmon plant power Humboldt County? It’s complicated.

Not yet, experts say; it's complicated

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When Humboldt County residents learned they’d be among the hundreds of thousands affected by the recent Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power shutdown, many asked if the Humboldt Bay power plant in King Salmon could keep the county running on its own.

Not yet.

While the plant generates large amounts of power, it would need to be significantly ramped up to accommodate for PG&E transmission lines shutting down. It isn’t yet fully capable of forming its own energy grid without relying on PG&E-supplied power.

“The plant has the capacity to keep the lights on if we’re disconnected from the broader grid,” said Matthew Marshall, Redwood Coast Energy Authority executive director. “The challenge is figuring out how it could be disconnected.”

As recently as the morning before the shutdown, PG&E was eyeing the plant as a potential power generator during the shutdown, according to a Humboldt County announcement at the time. Experts say the modeling involved would be extensive, likely taking a number of months.

“It’s certainly technically possible, but it’s not something we would undertake lightly,” Dave Carter of the Schatz Energy Research Center said of the plant’s ability to power the county. “No one wants to rush and compromise. … (PG&E) will definitely not compromise on safety.”

The research center, an affiliate of Humboldt State University, has partnered with PG&E on past energy projects, such as the Blue Lake Rancheria solar microgrid that stayed up and running during the shutdown, as well as a similar ongoing project at the county airport in McKinleyville that should be completed by summer 2020.

When finished, the airport grid looks to be “the first of its kind,” Marshall said. But keeping Humboldt County energy-independent during another outage would require more microgrids, and each would involve challenges similar to those facing the King Salmon plant.

The planned shutdown, which lasted just over one full day in Humboldt County, affected more than 60,000 county residents. If necessary, PG&E plans to initiate another shutdown this wildfire season. The King Salmon plant likely wouldn’t come to the rescue before then.

Just off U.S. Highway 101 in King Salmon, the power plant is most famous for its nuclear unit. The boiling water nuclear reactor was built in the early 1960s and shut down in 1976. PG&E began decommissioning the unit in the late 2000s.

Now the plant carries mainly natural gas units with diesel fuel as a backup. It also serves as a stabilizing station for PG&E transmission lines, controlling the voltage and frequency of the utility power so it can be distributed to the farthest reaches of the county.

But if PG&E’s transmission lines were shut down again, or if the county declared energy autonomy and anointed the King Salmon plant as its new primary provider, then the power plant would need to scale up its production.

“The plant doesn’t run at full power practically ever,” said 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell, who sits on the Redwood Coast Energy Authority’s board of directors. “It would be a matter of putting infrastructure in place.”

The infrastructure would also need to be precise. Carter pointed out that most everyone has become accustomed to their energy running perfectly 99% of the time. An autonomous power plant would need to be “black start capable,” which means it could be fully restored on its own without power from elsewhere.

There would also need to be major “circuit breakers,” or failsafe switches, to protect from significant damage in the event of a shortage. And there would be no more stabilizing of PG&E transmissions: The plant would need to form its own original grid and be programmed to “coordinate” with various substations to process all the power supply.

“The (plant) would be our main grid-forming generation in the event we had to island our whole county,” Carter said.

If it did make it past all those barriers, the plant would be set to provide power during a shutdown. But could the plant power Humboldt County full-time, creating an energy-independent region?

It’s possible, Carter said, but that doesn’t mean the county ought to immediately secede from PG&E’s energy services.

“It’s sort of an isolationist type of approach,” he said. “It’d be a pretty extreme way to proceed.”

Meanwhile, the plant’s reliance on natural gas means it isn’t using a renewable source of energy. That doesn’t align with the county’s vision to become fully renewable by 2030.

“Definitely in the long run, Humboldt County has a goal of moving away from fossil fuels,” Marshall said. “But to have the King Salmon plant in an outage situation … that’d be a short-term goal.”

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

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