In early October, Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to more than 2 million northern California residents to reduce the risk of wildfires. Amid the darkness, the lights stayed on in one region of Humboldt county thanks to a multimillion-dollar investment in a microgrid by the Blue Lake Rancheria tribe.
The grid is a complex array of solar panels, storage batteries, and distribution lines that served over 10,000 residents during the blackouts. Given that the state has largely ignored tribal needs over the years, the county’s dependence on the tribe’s microgrid during the crisis was an ironic turn of events.
Blue Lake’s experience is reflective of a potentially large scale change in the way electricity grids operate. Smaller-scale microgrids are economically beneficial for small regions and allow these areas to adapt their grid to their specific local power needs. Their reliability is also critical for residents dependent on electricity for medical support who face dangerous consequences as a result of rolling blackouts. Their use of solar and other renewable energy sources also makes them a valuable asset for reliable green energy in the face of climate change.
Too many private grids could potentially make the public grid prohibitively expensive, but they serve as a major solution for geographically isolated communities or for vulnerable areas in need of back-up systems during power outages.