Illuminating Thoughts About Renewable Energy in Humboldt
Alec Brown and Lorelei Walker
What do you think about renewable energy projects? How do you feel about local renewable energy projects like microgrids and offshore wind? What is the relationship between PG&E and RCEA? These are the types of questions Northcoast Environmental Center (NEC) Legislative Analyst Dan Sealy wanted to be answered. Sealy pitched a service learning project to Cal Poly Humboldt students that would help him, and our community, better understand how Humboldt County thinks and feels about energy. In order to get a sense of how our community thinks about energy, we worked with Sealy to create and distribute a survey equipped with questions about policy perspectives, values, energy source preferences, and more.
As our service learning class is only a semester long (16 weeks) we had a lot to accomplish in a short time. We researched local energy policies and agencies, drafted survey questions, vetted those questions, developed the digital survey, did public outreach, and then published the survey. The digital ‘Energy Perspectives Survey’ we created was available on the NEC website for two weeks in March. Humboldt County locals were encouraged to participate through the EcoNews Report podcast, newsletters, social media, and emails. When we closed the survey, we had 176 responses to compile and analyze. We recognize that survey respondents account for only a fraction of the Humboldt County population; nevertheless, the data we received provides a useful glimpse into local energy perspectives.
The Energy Perspectives survey was 30 questions and divided into different categories: Information and Education, Values and Involvement, Economic Impacts, and Environmental Impacts. From the Information and Education section, it was clear that there exists some unfamiliarity with roles that different entities play related to renewable energy – Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is responsible for transmission infrastructure and Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) is responsible for energy procurement that fulfills our County’s current and future energy goals. Only half (50.0 percent) of respondents said they were familiar with the RePower Plan (formerly the Comprehensive Action Plan for Energy or CAPE). Given that over half of the respondents (51.2 percent) are unsatisfied with the amount of information being shared by RCEA and that 72.2 percent would need more information to decide to support or oppose future local energy projects, it is clear that this poses an educational opportunity that can be expanded to support greater understanding of this anticipated transition toward renewables.
From the Values and Involvement section we learned that an impressive 88.6 percent of respondents strongly agreed that renewable energy sources are important to them with a majority in agreement (13.6 percent) or strong agreement (80.1 percent) that they would like to see more renewables in future energy mixes. A vast majority (80.1 percent) of respondents prioritize the types of energy sources in their power mix over the price they pay for electricity. Over half of our survey respondents (54.0 percent) would like to be more involved in conversations surrounding energy development. It is clear that the desires for increased renewable energy, at least as indicated by the participants in this survey, are not being met by local companies and institutions. Whether this discrepancy can be reconciled may rely on greater investment in outreach and the opportunity for locals to voice their concerns more publicly.
Economics plays an important role in big decisions like county-wide energy planning. Over 89 percent (89.2 percent) of respondents agree that local renewable energy development will increase energy independence (self-sufficiency) in Humboldt County and 70.4 percent of respondents believe that renewable energy infrastructure (such as wind and solar) will attract new businesses to Humboldt County. Sustainable rural economic development is important in areas like Humboldt County and we can infer that respondents see renewable energy projects as a benefit to our local economy.
Environmentally, respondents feel strongly (84.1 percent) that renewable energy sources are necessary to offset the impacts of climate change. However, results were less homogeneous when we asked about the potential impacts of future renewable energy projects on local scenery, wildlife, and ecosystems.
It was exciting to engage with the community around an important topic and we hope to have shed some light on the ways the community is thinking about renewable energy. For future surveys of this manner, we recommend improving upon our methods by increasing survey accessibility via multiple formats (not solely digital) spanning multiple language options across diverse media platforms. We would like to thank all of the participants who took part in the survey; your responses and constructive feedback provided us with valuable insight into local energy perspectives. We are also grateful to everyone who helped us improve upon our questions and sequencing during the drafting of the survey. The findings we referenced here can be found in their entirety at yournec.org/energysurvey.
Alec Brown is a graduate student at Cal Poly Humboldt in the Environmental Science and Management program. His thesis project is funded by CSU Council on Ocean Affairs, Science, and Technology as well as the California Sea Grant.
Lorelei Walker is a graduate student at Cal Poly Humboldt in the Energy, Technology, and Policy program. She is a Blue Lake Rancheria Clean Energy Studies fellow as well as a student researcher at the Schatz Energy Research Center.