Airport could get 5-acre solar array

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE – Humboldt County is making a move toward renewable energy use by pursuing a plan to install a solar power array at its main airport.

At its Oct. 10 meeting, the county’s Board of Supervisors approved a “letter of commitment” to allow a nine acre-portion of the California Redwood Coast – Humboldt County Airport to be used as a solar power “micro-grid.”

The Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) would own and operate the power system, whose development hinges on a $5 million grant from the state. RCEA is pledging $6 million in matching funds.

The Arcata-based Schatz Energy Research Center is being contracted for the grant application. Before explaining the micro-grid’s features, Peter Lehman, the center’s director, related the power system to an earlier discussion of this week’s AT&T telecommunication service failure.

“This is really appropriate – you’re talking about emergencies here in the county and what we’re proposing to do will give us resiliency and redundancy for energy at the airport, which we’re certainly going to need when we have our own disaster here,” he said.

Lehman added that in addition to resiliency, the solar array will result in cost savings of $60,000 a year and will create local jobs. The solar array will also serve the Coast Guard station at the airport and the county’s animal shelter.

The system will produce two megawatts of power while lowering greenhouse gas emissions, said Lehman.

Lehman said the micro-grid will feature a “sophisticated controller which allows it to operate when it’s grid-connected – which is almost all the time – or when it’s islanded, which would be the case in an  emergency.”

The micro-grid will have a “huge” 6,000 kilowatt hour Tesla battery, he continued, adding that electrical vehicle charging stations will also be installed at the airport.

He added that “for the county accounts, this will be invisible except for the fact that it’s going to be more resilient,” as RCEA will own and operate system and Pacific Gas and Electric Company infrastructure will be used.

County Public Works Director Tom Mattson said the nine-acre micro-grid area at the airport’s south end is part of a 34-acre area identified for airport improvements and leasing.

He told supervisors that the electricity cost savings will be greater than the income the county could get if it leased the land.

Mattson estimated the airport’s total annual energy costs to be $150,000 and he said the micro-grid will cover about one-third of the facility’s energy needs.

Supervisor Mike Wilson noted the availability of completely renewable energy through the RCEA’s community choice energy program. He’s hoping that the micro-grid plan is part of a larger county push toward renewable energy use.

Wilson said that “at some point in the near future,” he’d like the board to discuss signing on to RCEA’s “opt-up” option, which delivers 100 percent renewable energy.

He noted that the cities of Arcata and Blue Lake have chosen that option.

“There’s been some talk of the airport being the first wave of that for the county,” said Wilson.

Other improvements to the main airport’s energy systems are being planned.

Mattson said replacing the airport’s field lighting and aging power cables will likely reduce electricity costs by 80 percent.

Supervisor Ryan Sundberg’s district includes the airport. Sundberg is a state coastal commissioner and was not at the board meeting because he was attending a Coastal Commission meeting.


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