Local and national leadership in reversing climate change
The Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe—a federally recognized Native American tribe in California—was one of 16 communities selected as a 2015–2016 Climate Action Champion by the Obama Administration for exceptional work in response to climate change.
The Tribe began its strategic climate action planning in 2008 and has become a regional leader in greenhouse gas reductions and community resiliency measures. To date, the Tribe has reduced energy consumption from 2008 levels by 35 percent and has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2018, utilizing a range of approaches—including aggressive energy efficiency upgrades, developing on-site renewable energy (biomass, solar, fuel cells, grid battery storage), and switching to green fuels (electricity and biodiesel).
“The Tribal Council is very concerned about the increased threats—and severe health and economic costs—of flooding, large storms, and other imminent impacts of climate change,” said Jana Ganion, Energy Director for the Tribe. “The Tribe is working to stabilize the environment, and they’re willing to invest in the work.”
Focus on energy efficiency and clean renewables
“Energy interconnects with every aspect of development,” said Ganion, pointing to the energy-efficient hotel the Tribe built in 2009 as an inspiration for follow-on projects. The hotel, which achieved a 17 percent reduction in energy use over plan, was the first in California to be held up as a model of energy efficiency by the local utility.
“The short payback, ongoing energy savings, and greenhouse gas reductions demonstrated to the Tribal Council how the economics of a clean energy strategy could dovetail with the goal of environmental remediation,” Ganion said. “They recognized it was a relatively small investment with a multilayered benefit, and it motivated them to do more.”
Current renewable energy projects at the Rancheria include an innovative biomass-gasification-fuel cell system that turns biomass into electricity. The 175 kilowatt (kW) system is fueled by biomass (plant-based biological material) that has been reduced to sawdust size. The biomass is processed and heated to ~2,000°F to convert the wood fuel into a synthetic gas. A pressure swing adsorption unit is used to refine pure hydrogen fuel; the hydrogen then flows through a fuel cell that generates electricity. The Rancheria has partnered with Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center and Redwood Coast Energy Authority to build the system, funded in part by a California Energy Commission grant. Beyond distributed-generation renewable energy that takes pressure off the larger grid, these systems can help reduce wildfires by using less fossil energy, and making productive use of regional forest understory wood fuel. This brush and woody litter increases the intensity and spread of fires, particularly during wildfire season in a drought-stricken state.
In addition, solar energy arrays were installed on tribal housing with assistance from the California Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) program, which aims to provide low-cost, clean energy sources for low-income families by replacing ~75 percent of their electric need with solar. The projects were managed by GRID Alternatives, the SASH program manager. “The program has volunteer and training components to foster interest in solar industry jobs,” Ganion said. “Volunteers are trained in solar installation in real time, with a real project. For people who are interested in the solar industry as a potential job or career, it’s a no-pressure introduction to how it all works.”
Illustrative Blue Lake Rancheria climate actions
- Community-scale renewable energy—biomass, solar, battery storage, microgrid
- Utility demand response programs
- Residential renewable energy—solar, biomass, bio-oil
- Biodiesel public transit
- Electric vehicles and EV charging stations
- Community-wide recycling program
- Procurement waste reduction guidelines
- Plastics reduction programs
- Water conservation programs
- Drought-resistant landscaping and ecological design
- Energy efficiency programs
- Automated fixtures
- Upgraded refrigeration, motors, and fans
- New and replacement LED lighting
- Low-flow plumbing
- Economizers on air conditioners
- Upgraded heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to high efficiency standards and ratings
- Upgraded insulation and windows
An innovative microgrid and renewable energy project
Most recently, in partnership with the Schatz Energy Research Center, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), and with primary funding from the California Energy Commission, the Blue Lake Rancheria has launched a $6.3 million, community-scale renewable energy project that will demonstrate the tribal community as a “low-carbon community microgrid.”
This project includes 0.5 megawatts (MW) of solar energy, 800 kilowatt hours (kWh) of battery storage, and incorporates the existing renewable biomass/fuel cell system and the Tribe’s back-up generators into an integrated microgrid. The microgrid power will serve the Tribe’s government offices, its casino, hotel, and event center economic enterprises, and may eventually serve the Tribe’s fuel station and grocery store. All components are controlled by a microgrid controller. The system will provide energy savings for the Tribe through peak shaving and demand response during business-as-usual situations and emergency power for critical facilities for months if necessary in climate change-induced or other emergency situations.
Improved resiliency to more extreme coastal weather and higher wildfire risks
The microgrid will increase the Tribe’s community resiliency, as well. The region is rural and geographically isolated, prone to large earthquakes (CA Seismic Zone 4), and at risk of tsunamis. Severe storms with heavy rains, high winds, and flooding are common, as are landslides across major arterials. With local heavy forest cover, wildfires are another threat.
Humboldt County—the county in which the Blue Lake Rancheria community is located—is connected to the larger regional electric grid by a limited ~70 MW transmission line. Power interruptions/outages are frequent due to technical and natural factors; past outages have lasted from several days (2005) to several weeks (1964), and are an ongoing threat to the region.
The Rancheria site is one of the only places inland from the Pacific Coast along California Highway 299 (the major arterial between California Highway 101 and Interstate 5) that has critical infrastructure and emergency power to operate for multiple days. The Tribe’s critical facilities include an emergency operations center; a large indoor area (over 100,000 square feet); facilities for food storage, cooking, and distribution; on-site water supplies and wastewater treatment; a fueling station (including 40,000 gallons of stored fuels); security/surveillance services; transportation; and other capabilities. The Tribe has demonstrated its ability to operate in emergency situations, including managing the 2011 Fukushima earthquake/tsunami voluntary evacuation of thousands of people and vehicles fleeing the coast, serving as an evacuation site and operations center for regional wildfires, serving as an emergency evacuation site for the local school district when a natural gas leak was discovered, and achieving certification as a Red Cross shelter.
Easing pressure on the grid
Since 2002, the Tribe has participated in demand response programs with its local utility, PG&E, reducing power in both mandated and voluntary situations when peak demands start to pressure the larger regional power grid. With the addition of .5 MW of solar energy and 800 kWh of battery storage, the Tribe will be able respond with greater resources when demand strains the grid. For these efforts—bundling energy efficiency, demand response, and distributed generation into energy management solutions that both serve the Tribe’s operations and the community—the Tribe was recognized by PG&E with its “Integration Award.”
Expanding the system
The Tribe is researching the economic viability of expanding both the solar array and the grid battery storage system to fulfill the majority of its community power needs. The Tribe’s utility is also working on long-term plans to integrate and manage renewable energy power generation and distribution Rancheria-wide.