Extreme weather challenges Humboldt power grid

Climate change complicates power outages in Humboldt

Increased extreme weather is stressing power grids throughout the United States, and Humboldt is no exception. Recent weather saw many Arcata residents without power during a storm. Though it is not uncommon for the weather to impact power, it is happening more often and for longer periods of time. A PG&E electric reliability report saw increasing trends in power outages for Humboldt county since 2017.

Power outages are becoming more common nationally. According to the US Energy Information Association, outages have been on the rise in frequency and duration. California saw frequent public safety power shutoffs in the fire season. Texas and Oklahoma saw a power grid collapse in response to a cold snap. East coast grids faced stressors from a pronounced increase in Category 4-5 hurricanes according to NOAA.

A 2018 National Climate Assessment mandated by the USGCRP summarized what continual extreme climate and weather patterns might mean for US power grids.

“Climate change and extreme weather events are expected to increasingly disrupt our Nation’s energy and transportation systems, threatening more frequent and longer-lasting power outages, fuel shortages, and service disruptions,” the report said.

The three main transmission lines importing power to Humboldt County are all located in wildfire hazard areas. This complicates hazards as power infrastructure ages over time. Aging powerlines coupled with drought conditions create extreme fire hazards. It’s these exact factors that led to the Camp fire in 2018 and a fire in Blue Lake in 2017. Jeremy Ward, a Fire Captain with the California Forest Service determined the cause of the Blue Lake fire was a faulty connector on a PG&E transmission line.

“[A PG&E troubleman] said they were not supposed to use those anymore, and now use a different style connector,” Ward said in an investigation report. Since 2018 PG&E has created a Community Wildfire Safety Program and plans to upgrade powerlines. Currently, up to one-third of PG&E powerlines are in high fire-threat divisions.

Power outages are an inconvenience on their own, but living in Humboldt means that a power outage may coincide with other disasters. Humboldt is located on a triple junction fault, home to the Pacific plate, North American plate, and Gorda plate. Proximity to the ocean also introduces tsunami risk. All of this coupled with a deactivated nuclear power plant built on a fault create a precarious situation.

Given any seismic activity, there is a good chance that a power outage could soon follow. When preparing a “go bag,” don’t count on reliable electricity. Emergency kits should account for all intersections of disaster that could impact the area. Amanda Admire is an instructor at HSU teaching preparedness in her classes. She specializes in physical and geological oceanography, specifically tsunami current dynamics and hazard mitigation.

“It’s very unique to live here geologically,” Admire said. “In terms of preparedness, the same rules apply. Creating an emergency kit in your home is very important in this area. Power outages are a great time to consider your emergency kit.”

Living in the Humboldt area means you should have a well rounded go-bag. Always make sure to have flashlights and extra batteries. The best place to store extra batteries is in an extra flashlight. Be sure to have shelf-stable food and water. Due to the nature of Humboldt’s geography, access to water can rely on pumps. When the power is out, water is not guaranteed. It is also important to carry first aid kits and rechargeable batteries for phones in case you need to contact emergency services.

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