Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, May 31 @ 3:07 p.m.

Tapping Into Curry's Electric Grid Could Cost $80 Million, Del Norte County Supervisor Says. Are Microgrids a Viable Alternative?

Pacific Power brought in 81 industrial-sized generators to bring electricity to Del Norte County during the Smith River Complex wildfires last summer. | Photo courtesy of Valerie Starkey


With an estimated $80 million price tag attached to connecting Del Norte County’s power grid to the system serving Curry County, District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard and other local officials are pursuing a short-term option.

Howard said he has spoken with consultants at SitelogIQ, a national energy efficiency provider, about the possibility of creating a microgrid in Del Norte County in partnership with Crescent City, Del Norte Unified School District and Sutter Coast Hospital.

“Obviously we had huge issues with last year with the fire,” Howard told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Tuesday. “Where it became a real concern for me is just seeing the lack of infrastructure if it were to happen again that would support emergency services here in our community, and that’s critical infrastructure.”

During his report at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Howard said the ultimate goal is to build a system that could kick in with the flip of a switch should the main power grid short out. He said he plans to bring a discussion back before the full Board in about two weeks with the hope that they’ll form a committee to pursue grant funding to construct a microgrid.

As residents up the U.S. 199 corridor fled their homes ahead of the Smith River Complex wildfires on Aug. 18, 2023, Pacific Power de-energized their transmission lines, cutting off electricity for roughly 12,000 customers.

It took the utility nearly a week to restore power to Del Norte County, using 81 industrial-size generators — an unprecedented endeavor, a Pacific Power spokesman told the Outpost in September. Until then, communications, Internet access and even water access were limited in Del Norte County.

It was Del Norte Unified School District that helped alleviate much of the strain, Howard said. This includes providing food, ice, internet access, parking lot space for emergency apparatus and powering Del Norte County’s Emergency Operations Center during the the power outage, the District 3 supervisor told the Outpost.

DNUSD Superintendent Jeff Harris said it took the Smith River Complex wildfires for him and his staff to realize how many services it provides the community.

“What really came to light in August was how much we are a part of the response to a county emergency,” he said. “Whether it was us providing food to the Red Cross shelter, us providing food and manpower to the EOC, us providing internet access, tech support, evacuation support — whatever that was.”

Del Norte Unified even tapped into the contact records it keeps on its students to send out countywide alerts, Communications Director Michael Hawkins said.

“While everybody is connected to someone who has a kid, only a very small portion of the population has actually signed up to be on the county’s emergency alert notification system,” he told the Outpost. “When it came to sending out as many countywide messages to as many people as possible, it was us. It was me.”

Hawkins said he updated Del Norters on where they could find food, shelter and what communities were being told to evacuate. DNUSD sent these messages out to about 20,000 people, he said.

Howard pointed out that in addition to DNUSD, the county’s most critical infrastructure is concentrated along the Washington Boulevard corridor. This includes Crescent Fire Protection District, which transforms into the EOC during emergencies, and Sutter Coast Hospital.

Federal law requires hospitals to have a backup power source in case of an electrical outage. On Tuesday, Howard told the Outpost that Sutter Coast Hospital’s new CEO, Michael Lane, informed him that the hospital only has one backup generator.

“The bottom line is when your critical infrastructure’s not there to support the community, we are hogtied. We have an Achilles heel,” Howard said. “How do we work together as a community and find a way to bring in all players? That conversation is now started between the county, the city, the school district and the hospital.”

During the wildfire, the Tri Agency Economic Development Authority — a joint powers authority consisting of Crescent City, Del Norte County and the Crescent City Harbor District whose continuance is uncertain — began advocating for a redundant electricity source.

The hope was to reconnect Del Norte County’s power grid with the Coos-Curry Electric system that serves Curry County, Howard said. That connection had been severed in the 1960s, he said. However, since Del Norte’s grid served through 65 kV transmission lines and Coos-Curry Electric’s system is 125 kV, the two aren’t compatible, according to Howard.

The microgrid idea may happen a little quicker at a much lower cost, he said.

“Obviously, we had huge issues last year with the fire,” Howard said. “And what drove this conversation was the fact we had a large price tag on something that could take years and years to get to fruition and we can’t wait that long.”

Howard noted that with Pacific Power, Pacific Gas & Electric and other utilities conducting planned outages to prevent their infrastructure from sparking in heavy wind conditions, the need for a redundant electric system is more important.

SitelogIQ is currently determining how large a microgrid system serving Del Norte’s critical infrastructure, including the wastewater treatment plant and the jail, would need to be, Howard said. This is based on how much electricity is used at peak hours and during down time, he said.

Crescent City, Del Norte County, DNUSD and the hospital will play key roles in this determination, Howard said.

“Our next step is to wait to get the calculations back on what a grid might look like as far as energy consumption within the city, county and the school district, and the hospital’s infrastructure,” he said, “then assemble that group back together to hear a proposal from SitelogIQ.”


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