By Sarah Smith
Access to reliable electricity is top-of-mind for CREA and its member electric cooperatives. But natural disasters such as wildfires and winter storms can affect that reliability by taking down electric infrastructure and isolating rural areas (sometimes for long periods of time).
Two projects exemplify how Colorado’s co-ops are implementing microgrids, which are autonomous energy systems that serve specific areas and provide backup electricity with common-sense solutions when needed in emergencies. Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association in Fort Collins went live with a microgrid in Red Feather Lakes in October. Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs is moving forward with another microgrid project on the Western Slope.
Red Feather Lakes is 60 miles away from PVREA’s headquarters. Historically, it has been prone to disasters that have major impacts on its single transmission line bringing electricity to the town. High elevation, heavy snowfall, dangerous winter driving conditions, fallen trees, wildfires and even tornadoes put this mountain town at risk for losing power.
PVREA leaders decided to create a microgrid after the local library won a grant to install solar panels and a battery to improve resiliency and cut electricity costs. The microgrid was installed at the local fire station, which has diesel generators and is located across the street from the library. PVREA controls the microgrid and owns the 140-kilowatt/448-kilowatt-hour battery. Now in place, the microgrid will provide secondary power for several hours if a disaster occurs.
“This project is rooted in community, which is a huge part of who we are as a cooperative. The Red Feather Lakes community came together to solve a need and approached us with the project. As we learn more about this microgrid, we can share that information with other cooperatives across the nation so that we all may better serve our members,” said Sam Taggart, strategic communications director for PVREA.
The project also would not be possible without the assistance of PVREA’s partners. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association led the initiative in Red Feather Lakes, which is one of four microgrid projects involving five co-ops nationwide. NRECA connected the co-ops with a U.S. Department of Energy project, which provided $1.3 million in energy storage grants. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories are also partners in the project. In addition, PVREA’s board of directors provided matching funding for its microgrid.
“The partners we had on this project were extremely important to us. We could not have completed this microgrid without our local, regional and national partners,” Taggart said.
HCE is also making headway with the creation of a microgrid system. The electric co-op is working on a feasibility study with Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to determine the practicality of a microgrid connecting a cluster of public facilities near the airport. The microgrid would be powered by renewable energy, independent from the larger electric grid. These facilities, which include the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, the county’s public works facility, and RFTA’s bus barn, also would be protected from outages if service to the rest of the area is temporarily compromised by an outage. The feasibility study is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.
With most of the research completed, HCE is looking ahead and fully anticipating making the microgrid a reality.
The urgency to create a microgrid in HCE territory emerged after the Lake Christine Fire in July 2018, which scorched more than 12,500 acres. The wildfire shut down power to the Upper Roaring Fork Valley, which includes the towns of Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt, with a year-round population of around 18,000. Three out of the four transmission lines running into Aspen were disabled and if the fourth line had gone down, it could have led to days or even weeks without electric service. This is not a possibility HCE is willing to face again for its members.
With the research phase of the microgrid project nearly complete, HCE is busy planning the next steps and the next phase of the project. Several grant opportunities are in the approval process, including one from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. HCE will also cost-share part of the project, with funding going toward staffing needs and a protection plan to ensure the main grid is still being protected.
“Microgrids are really good on ‘black sky days’ and serve as a secondary source of power during a crisis. But there is also a great benefit to the grid on ‘blue sky days,’ and there is value in adding these batteries,” said Chris Bilby, research engineer for HCE.
“By installing a microgrid, we are actually going back to the old days. Many mines and train stations used to operate on microgrids, but because of the pollution, these transmission factories were moved farther away from populated areas, so people didn’t have to breathe that bad air in. With a clear path to clean energy in the near future, we can now move these microgrids back to communities,” Bilby continued.
In the face of a crisis, and especially when it threatens the resilience of the electric system, CREA and its electric cooperatives are working with their communities and other partners to find solutions. PVREA and HCE are examples of what it means to lead and overcome challenges to make reliable electricity readily available, despite any circumstance. Microgrids were the way of the past and now are an important step toward the future.
Sarah Smith is a freelance writer with a fondness for Colorado’s electric co-ops and the rural areas they serve.
Earlier this month, Y-W Electric Association installed a ChargePoint EV charger in Akron. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held November 12 to celebrate this innovative step that supports EV infrastructure development on the eastern plains. The co-op’s goal is to “encourage more folks to obtain EVs, to contribute to the charging infrastructure to reduce range anxiety,” according to Y-W Member Service Manager Andy Molt.
The charger installation was made possible with funds from a Charge Ahead Colorado program grant through the Colorado Energy Office and funds from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the electric co-op’s power supplier.
A first-of-its-kind bucket truck joined United Power’s fleet.
The innovative, hybrid model bucket truck uses battery power to raise and lower the bucket as well as the bucket jib. It was debuted in September by the Brighton-based electric cooperative at the 2021 Utility Expo in Louisville, Kentucky.
The electric boom and jib (a small crane attached to the bucket, allowing line crews to lift heavy materials up to bucket height) provide a cleaner, quieter idle time. Not only does this save diesel fuel and reduce emissions, it will improve safety conditions for line crews, according to United Power Fleet Manager Bill Hottell. He said in a recent press release that it’s a safer option than a traditional truck because the bucket crew will have an easier time communicating with the ground crew without having to compete with the noise of an idling diesel engine.
The hybrid truck is assigned to the Carbon Valley Service Center to respond to outages on the west side of United Power’s service territory. People in the community can identify this new truck as the hybrid model because it was branded with green lightning graphics on the side.
Primergy Solar, LLC, recently completed construction on the Pitkin Solar Project in the Roaring Fork Valley. The 5-megawatt installation consists of approximately 13,700 solar panels that include innovative bifacial panels and tracking systems.
Under a 25-year power purchase agreement, energy from this project will be sold to Holy Cross Energy. The Glenwood Springs-based electric cooperative estimates this solar site will generate enough electricity to power about 900 homes and will give consumer-members of the co-op access to locally-generated renewable energy.
HCE President and CEO Bryan Hannegan stated in recent press release that this project “is an important step on our journey to 100% clean energy.”
New devices change one-way grid to multi-directional network
By Reed Karaim and Mona Neeley
It wasn’t long ago that the U.S. power grid resembled a relatively simple one-way street, with power flowing from central generating plants through transmission lines to distribution systems and, finally, to the customer.
But this is no longer the case.
Central-station power continues to play a vital role, but it’s increasingly complemented by distributed energy resources (DER). DER refers to often-smaller generation units that are located on the consumer’s side of the meter. Some examples of DER are: rooftop solar photovoltaic units, wind-generating units and home battery banks. It is these types of DERs that are turning the grid into not just a two-way street, but more of a neighborhood of two-way streets, with electricity moving in and out from locations big and small throughout the day. And let’s not stop there. Microgrids, capable of operating independently, are also part of the mix too.
“It’s all leading to a grid that’s a mesh rather than a single hierarchal entity,” says Craig Miller, former National Rural Electric Cooperative Association chief scientist.
The unstoppable evolution of the U.S. power grid is compelling electric cooperatives to examine which technologies and strategies will help ensure that their systems keep pace.
Most experts agree that central-station generation—fueled by coal, natural gas, hydro, nuclear or utility-scale solar and wind—will remain the core of the system for the foreseeable future. However, DER is expanding rapidly.
Whether it’s behind-the-meter or utility-scale solar and wind, renewable energy is the fastest growing segment of the United States’ electric portfolio. The Energy Information Administration foresees it trailing only natural gas in total electricity output by 2026.
Demand response and energy storage technologies are expected to play a significant role. Energy storage deployments in the U.S. grew by 232% from 2018 to 2019 alone, according to an analysis by Wood Mackenzie, with nearly half coming from the energy user’s side of the meter, including business and home battery systems and electric vehicles.
“As the grid has evolved, our generation is moving to small chunks, and so the grid itself isn’t as inherently stable,” Miller says. “It has to be increasingly actively managed.”
Managing the grid, both at the transmission and the distribution level, in the midst of this change requires rapid two-way communication, a massive increase in data analytical capability, and sophisticated solid-state control technology.
“The challenge is now to pull all of the information together: what the state of the grid is, what controls we can implement, what decisions are optimum,” Miller says. “It’s about deriving value from the new control technology. It’s the synchronization, utilization and coordination of everything that’s happening to get the best of this new agile grid.”
There are several new technologies that will enable this future grid. Here are seven of them available now that will be important in expanding a multi-directional grid and in helping electric co-ops meet shifting consumer expectations in this future energy landscape.
1. Advanced Inverters
If any DER is to feed electricity to a home, business or the grid, that power must first be converted from DC to AC. This is the task of standard inverters, which are relatively simple devices that for decades have been used to integrate solar arrays and batteries.
“Advanced” inverters, which are included on most new DER installations, go even further by providing benefits such as communication capabilities, sophisticated monitoring and control functions, and autonomous operation.
Electric cooperatives recognize that two-way communications are fundamental to making use of smart grid technologies. Faster and higher-capacity backbone networks will be needed more than ever in the future.
Higher-bandwidth, lower-latency communications systems allow broader and deeper use of existing smart-grid components, enabling both the movement of large amounts of data and more precise control over downline devices. New grid functions will also be increasingly dependent on the highest-quality communication platforms.
3. Data Analytics
Electric co-ops have used analytical tools for years, but those tools are growing in capability and are spreading, notes David Pinney, NRECA analytics program manager. Data analytics can help utilities manage DER, forecast and curb peak load, improve power flow planning and reduce line loss, among other functions.
A new generation of sensors is also transforming the ability of electric cooperatives to detect what is happening on their systems. Intelligent line sensors that can pinpoint faults and provide information on circuit performance can present a more granular view of the distribution grid. Combined with substation sensors and advanced metering infrastructure systems, these ubiquitous devices are adding to the data revolution that’s transforming utility operations.
5. Power Electronics
Power electronics, which can include silicon-chip microprocessors with advanced control capabilities, are already improving the reliability and stability of transmission and distribution systems.
“I like to say that silicon is the new copper,” Miller says. “It’s becoming that important. There’s a lot of silicon out there making decisions on the grid.”
The diversity of DER — from solar arrays and gas-fired peaking plants to aggregated water heaters and home battery banks — means an increasing number of resources need to be integrated with utility operations, which cannot happen without seamless communication.
“Having diverse generation sources is a desirable thing, but without the ability to communicate and manage those resources, their value to the grid will be minimal,” says Venkat Banunarayanan, NRECA’s senior director for the integrated grid. “Interoperability is the key that unlocks all the potential of these DER technologies.”
For electric cooperatives, data about an energy resource, which could be located beyond the meter inside a home, and its operation must be readable and actionable by a supervisory control and data acquisition system (SCADA) at the distribution co-op. For behind-the-meter resources, interoperability details will be specified by the electric co-op in an interconnection agreement.
7. Interconnection Standards
Revised standards that the power industry is adopting to help deal with the growth of distributed energy resources on the grid marks a change in outlook and approach to integrating DER into the nation’s grid.
The changes will impact the interconnection of solar, wind and other distributed generation. Some of the most significant changes come in the “minimum trip” settings for DER, which have been loosened to allow a much greater variance in voltage and frequency.
Reed Karaim writes for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Mona Neeley is the editor of Colorado Country Life magazine.
Researchers find potential in two low-carbon options
By Maria Kenevsky and Mona Neeley
When it’s time to fuel up your vehicle, you’re likely heading to the gas station or an electric vehicle charging station like most drivers in the U.S. But those might not be the only options in the future.
Research continues into alternative vehicle fuels, including hydrogen and biodiesel. This shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles comes with several benefits, including improving the country’s energy security and lowering vehicle emissions.
Hydrogen as fuel
One of the alternative ways to power a vehicle is with hydrogen in the form of a fuel cell. This form of fuel is potentially emissions-free and can be produced using domestic resources, according to a panel discussion at CREA’s October Energy Innovation Summit.
Just as with all-electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles use electricity to power an electric motor. However, they use a fuel cell powered by hydrogen to create an electrochemical process to produce electricity. The hydrogen goes through an electrochemical process to produce the electricity, which then powers your car.
The only byproducts of this process are water and heat, emitted in the form of water vapor and warm air. Since the byproducts are clean, vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells produce no tailpipe emissions and are classified as zero-emissions vehicles.
Extracting the hydrogen itself can be a carbon-free process, depending on the way it’s done. One way is to perform electrolysis is using water to extract hydrogen, which requires power from another energy source. Using renewable energy, such as solar or wind energy, to power electrolysis provides a carbon-free process to extract the hydrogen. (There are other hydrogen sources that are less sustainable, such as producing it from natural gas, which emits carbon dioxide as a byproduct.)
Advantages of hydrogen-powered vehicles include fast fueling, long cold-weather range and high cargo capacity. With hydrogen, drivers can refuel a vehicle in under five minutes and gain more than 300 miles of driving range.
However, there are currently only a limited number of hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., and most of these stations are in California. Colorado’s lone public hydrogen fuel station was installed at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in 2020. It is maintained by the CSU Energy Institute at the Powerhouse Energy Campus on North College Avenue.
It generates hydrogen on-site and is used to train students in hydrogen technology and by researchers gathering cost and operational data as they work toward future hydrogen station deployment for commercial operators in Colorado.
Another form of alternative vehicle fuel is biofuel. Renewable biofuels are produced from biomass, which can be used in conventional gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles. These fuels work in the same way gasoline or diesel does by fueling compression-ignition engines. Almost all diesel vehicles are capable of running on biodiesel blends, although vehicle owners should check their OEM engine warranty to ensure that higher-level blends of this alternative fuel are approved by the manufacturer.
One of the most common biofuels is ethanol, which is produced from sugars in corn or other grains, like sugar cane, sugar beets or rice. Sometimes biofuels can be blended with gasoline or diesel, or they can simply be used in pure form. Almost all gasoline sold in the United States includes 10% ethanol blended into the fuel, mostly from distilled corn. Scientists are currently working to find new ways to expand ethanol production by experimenting with different plants.
Biodiesel, a different form of biofuel, can be produced from vegetable oil, animal fats or recycled cooking grease, and can be used to power older cars that run on diesel. Since biodiesel is nontoxic and biodegradable, it is much safer than petroleum diesel if it’s released into the environment.
The most common sources for biodiesel production in the U.S. are soybean oil, corn oil and recycled feedstocks. There are several other nonmainstream biodiesel sources that can be manufactured from algae, municipal waste and wood chips. However, these options are much less common. The most common biodiesel blend is B20, which ranges from 6% to 20% biodiesel blended with petroleum diesel.
These alternative vehicle fuel options may not be mainstream yet, but as they come on line they can help lower our reliance on gasoline and diesel. As a bonus, these clean-burning options help to improve air quality and lower greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.
There is great potential to see these alternative fuels expand over the years, and additional research efforts may help these fuels reach more individual consumers nationwide.
Maria Kanevsky writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Mona Neeley is the editor of Colorado Country Life magazine.