Climate change is the environmental issue of our time. Because of our addiction to fossil fuels, the world has already warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius. As a result, we are experiencing more frequent and more severe droughts, storms, floods, heatwaves, wildfires, sea level rise — you name it. These impacts are threatening both human lives and entire ecosystems around the globe, and every additional molecule of carbon released into the atmosphere amplifies and accelerates those effects.
Potential development of offshore wind energy has begun an important conversation about new electric power transmission infrastructure on the North Coast. Transporting the electricity generated by offshore wind turbines to places with high demand for electricity will require an enormous buildout of transmission lines — but transmission infrastructure improvement is something to consider regardless of offshore wind. EPIC recently spoke with Arne Jacobson, Director of Cal Poly Humboldt’s Schatz Energy Research Center, on the EcoNews Report discussing in more detail why building new transmission lines is essential to reducing our carbon emissions — you can read or listen to that conversation here.
Here in Humboldt, our electricity primarily comes from PG&E's Humboldt Bay Generating Station, which constantly burns fracked “natural” gas to keep our lights on. Transitioning from fossil fuel power is necessary for the climate, but our current transmission infrastructure hinders our ability to undergo this shift. Our existing transmission infrastructure is so old and frail that it doesn’t matter how many solar panels or wind turbines are constructed throughout the country; if we don’t build new transmission infrastructure to bring energy to and from Humboldt, we won’t ever be able to shut off the major local polluter that is the generating station. Frankly, our current electricity transmission capacity is laughable. PG&E announced in 2022 that there was no new electric capacity in Southern Humboldt due to inadequate transmission. If our existing transmission infrastructure can’t support our current economy, it certainly can’t support an economy powered by renewable energy.
Building new transmission infrastructure will take considerable time. An analysis by the Progressive Policy Institute found that permitting electric transmission lines takes 4.3 years on average. Siting electric transmission is notoriously complicated because transmission line right-of-ways pass through many different private properties and political jurisdictions, plus lots of people don’t like electric transmission lines and these projects can get mired in regulatory review and litigation. This is partly why new transmission lines take on average more than a decade to complete. Given these realities, and the impending climate crisis, it is imperative that we start planning for new infrastructure now.
Highly complex, controversial projects benefit from more public process, not less. Policymakers should facilitate a coordinated, integrated planning effort for major transmission infrastructure upgrades on the North Coast. We should invite the public, industry, local, state and tribal governments, and all other interested parties to work through the complicated issues surrounding transmission infrastructure so that we can resolve issues. We need to consider the best routes, strategies for mitigation, and cultural and economic factors in order to site these lines in the best possible places.
We should also consider the potential positive impacts of new transmission infrastructure. Our region is home to many communities that have suffered from a lack of reliable access to electricity. For example, the Hoopa Tribe suffers from frequent power outages due to inadequate transmission and distribution infrastructure. Offshore wind energy development presents an opportunity to secure the investment necessary to provide reliable clean energy to the more remote, rural communities on the North Coast. Whether that means linking these communities directly to the larger electric grid or developing closed-system renewable-powered microgrids, these communities ought to benefit from the development associated with Humboldt offshore wind.
Early stakeholder engagement not only produces better projects, but it can also speed up project completion through early problem-solving. Those who are skeptical that such an approach could be successful should look to the Last Chance Grade project on Highway 101. A stakeholder group convened by Representative Huffman successfully hammered out many of the key issues during project development, reducing impacts to the environment while also expediting the project timeline. Transmission planning deserves a similar deliberate and inclusive process.
All of this will take time — which, I cannot stress enough, we really do not have. The best time to start this planning would have been 20 years ago, and the next best time is now.