PG&E gets permits to test Humboldt Bay power plant for future outages

Effort is the first step in running plant in 'island' mode

Officials hope the Humboldt Bay Generating Station at King Salmon could island Humboldt County’s energy supply by some point this year. (Ruth Schneider — The Times-Standard)
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The Pacific Gas and Electric Co. will officially begin testing the Humboldt Bay power plant at King Salmon to see if it can generate enough energy to keep Humboldt County’s power running during future manual shutoffs, officials said.

Spokesperson Deanna Contreras said Friday the utility has run “low-load emissions” tests to prepare the plant for future outage events. In December, PG&E secured authorization to begin testing the plant’s capabilities.

“We completed the testing and provided the results to the air district,” Contreras said Friday. “We are modeling the emission results for a future outage event to help in creation of a permit change request.”

“There are also additional controls and system protections that we are evaluating as part of the overall process,” Contreras added.

The plant’s ability to temporarily run the county’s power supply on its own during larger PG&E outages has been a topic of discussion since the utility manually shut off the county’s power on multiple occasions last year.

And on Friday, over 60,000 PG&E customers in Humboldt County lost power for several hours due to storm conditions and snowfall. When testing is finished, Contreras said, the plant may be able to “island” the county’s energy supply from PG&E’s larger grid during emergencies and shutoff events alike.

As for a direct timeline, Matthew Marshall of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority said PG&E hopes to finish progress this year.

“(PG&E) has communicated officially to the RCEA board that they plan for the plant to supply power locally by mid-2020, or before the next fire season,” Marshall said. “We’re optimistic that they will achieve that; they’re working actively on sorting out everything they need to be able to hit that goal.”

A former nuclear plant that was decommissioned in the late 2000s, the Humboldt Bay Generating Station now produces gas-powered energy (with diesel fuel backups), but operates at only partial capacity.

The plant’s output would need to be significantly ramped up to form a new energy grid, independent of PG&E-supplied power. Even after tests, the plant would need to carry fail-safes for potential shortages and coordinate with various substations around the county.

But with testing completed, PG&E has crossed “one small step in the process of achieving the goal of being able to run (the power plant) in island-ing mode,” Contreras said.

“The fire season is growing in duration but the target is to sort everything out prior to then,” Marshall said.

Following last year’s power shutoffs, 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn and Sheriff William Honsal co-authored a letter to PG&E demanding answers about the plant’s capability — and why it wasn’t viable on its own during the outages.

“We’ve certainly heard a lot of concerns and questions about, ‘Hey, why did we have our local power plant sit there idle when we were being impacted by a PSPS event outside the county?’” Marshall said. “PG&E is working to resolve that.”

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

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