Life-Saving Energy in Blue Lake Rancheria

Written by U.S.SolarEnergy

When climate events knock out electricity, solar power provides not only peace of mind but also essential and often life-saving services. Blue Lake Rancheria, a Native American community of Wiyot, Yurok, and Hupa tribes in Northern California, is intimately familiar with the power of solar.

Blue Lake Rancheria is a 100-acre reservation located near the cities of Eureka and Carcata in Humboldt County, about five miles inland from the Pacific. The region is disaster-prone. In the past, wildfires, earthquakes, high winds, flooding, and landslides have affected energy access. After seeing the damage in Japan during the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the Tribe took a strong look at its energy resiliency. Shortly thereafter, construction of the Blue Lake Rancheria Low-Carbon Community Microgrid Project began.

The Blue Lake Rancheria Microgrid (BLRM) is a similar concept to a home solar + storage system. In normal times, the microgrid runs in parallel to the traditional utility. It provides on-site power and offsets energy used from the traditional grid. The microgrid is programmed to reduce power purchases during high-priced periods. In its first year of operation, the microgrid saved the Tribe $195,000 in energy costs and reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 175 metric tons. To date, the Tribe’s energy consumption has gone down 40% from their 2014 baseline and they have committed to reaching zero GHG emissions by 2030.

In emergency situations, the BLRM switches to islanded mode, allowing the Tribe to provide the region with emergency power for as long as is needed. The microgrid supports water and wastewater systems, food storage and preparation facilities, electric vehicle charging stations, biodiesel manufacturing, and significant IT infrastructure. The microgrid’s power and consistency have proven essential. Blue Lake Rancheria is home to a recognized Red Cross evacuation center, camps for firefighters battling wildfires, and serves as a respite for surrounding communities during fire season.

During the wildfires in 2019, the Tribe’s microgrid provided power to more than 10,000 people or 10% of the county’s population. The BLRM kept the lights on in the 55,000 sq ft casino which was temporarily used as housing and offices for the local newspaper. The casino also had dedicated rooms for medical patients. At least 8 critically ill patients who were dependent on electricity-based medical devices such as ventilators survived the fires thanks to the BLRM’s consistent power generation. The Tribe’s gas station and mini-mart were the only ones able to stay open in the region.

As the effects of climate change increase in number and magnitude, solar power will be integral. Solar + storage can provide peace of mind at any scale, from keeping the lights on in your family home to supporting an entire community.