The Lumberjack

Microgrid is in the works

An aerial view of Arcata-Eureka Airport in Humboldt County, California. Courtesy of Humboldt State University.

Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State was awarded a $5 million grant. The money is going to be used to build a microgrid at the Arcata-Eureka Airport in Mckinleyville. Peter Lehman, director of Schatz, said he was overjoyed when the good news broke.

“Everybody was high-fiving and hugging,” Lehman said. “It is a big deal for us, and a big win.”

Lehman spent about three months working on a proposal for the grant with his colleagues.

“It was really competitive,” Lehman said. “The California Energy Commission only funded one proposal out of ten. There was a lot of universities that didn’t get funded, and we did.”

The microgrid will be composed of a 2.3-megawatt photovoltaic array, or solar power system, and cover nine acres.

“It is one thing to have an idea, but it’s gotta be based in reality,” Lehman said. “First you have to conceive the idea, flesh out the idea and decide what partners need to be assembled. It’s not easy.”

Redwood Coast Energy Authority, or RCEA, partnered with Schatz, matching $6 million in funds to help the project. Executive director of the RCEA Matthew Marshall is optimistic about the project.

“We were waiting to hear back from the Schatz Center to see if they received the grant before submitting the application for the loan, but it’s now in the works,” Marshall said. “I’m optimistic.”

The RCEA is financing the upfront costs of the project with a low-interest loan from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.

“We’ve got a goal to support the development of local solar projects,” Marshall said. “The project is pushing the envelope. It’s exciting being on the forefront.”

In addition to generating green electricity, the microgrid will create jobs for locals.

“Somebody has to pour the concrete, drive the post into the ground to mount solar panels and run the wires,” Lehman said.

In an emergency situation, the airports and United States Coast Guard could run for hours off energy gained from the microgrid .

“The airport and the Coast Guard are really important,” Lehman said. “The Coast Guard can’t fly if the airport doesn’t have electricity.”

RCEA owns the solar array and PG&E owns the wires, but who gets paid what for the electricity produced? How do customers get charged for that?

“It’s all new, its never come up before,” Lehman said. “We are going to be plowing some new ground trying to figure that out.”

The project is expected to begin this summer. PG&E will do a number of tests after the completion of the first multi-customer microgrid.

“PG&E is careful about what goes on their grid,” Lehman said. “There are a number of tests we will have to pass with them, looking over our shoulder to make sure that is it safe.”

PG&E communications representative Ari Vanrenen said PG&E is committed to clean energy.

“We are a community partner dedicated to building a better, more sustainable future for all Californians,” Vanrenen said. “This includes understanding and responding to the different needs of our customers and communities.”

Once the microgrid is established, the Schatz Center will spend a year writing reports on how it works and share their findings.

“Lessons we learn are going to be valuable for other people. That’s how progress happens in technology,” Lehman said . “You do things and try something. You tell people about it. The next time you build it, you are a little smarter and you do a better job.”