While Colorado is Ready For More Renewable Energy, the Grid Isn’t — For Now

DENVER – By 2030, Colorado plans to cut the emission of climate-warming pollution by 50 percent. By 2050, it will be 90 percent.

That means more of the state’s energy will have to come from renewable energy, up to 100 percent by 2040, according to a vision laid out by Gov. Jared Polis.

One big hurdle stands in their way: The system of wires that stretches from power plants to energy users. The grid was never designed to handle the more fluctuating energy renewables provide and energy providers worry that all that new clean energy could test its limits.

“We’re going to need to have a lot of changes in the system to make a very high penetration renewable system work,” said Richard Sedano, president and CEO of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit focused on the clean energy transition.

That’s because much of the national grid is old, some of it by more than 100 years, and splintered into local and regional sections that don’t connect. Early morning solar energy generated in New York can’t efficiently move west to coffee machines and laptops in Colorado or California.

One National Renewable Energy Lab study imagines a possible fix: high voltage direct current transmission lines that quickly move renewable energy to parts of the country that need it. Right now, just a few such “express train” lines exist in the country. Permitting constraints and cost are two big limitations. The NREL study estimates it would take $70 billion to build such lines. Ambitious climate legislation like the Green New Deal could direct funding for that kind of project, but Congress has steered clear of that kind of investment.

“Generally we don’t get the kind of direction that will motivate these kinds of big picture developments,” Sedano said. With the energy market in flux, private investors aren’t paying for that kind of large-scale investment yet.

That has left any grid improvements to states, cities and local energy providers.

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In Colorado, about a dozen cities and counties have committed to 100 percent renewable energy and the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, plans to generate 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050. That’s forcing the utility to begin to improve its section of the grid.

Xcel is building a system it calls Advanced Grid, which will allow for more customers to attach solar panels onto their homes and provide power to the utility’s system. It will also allow for the two-way flow of information between customers and the company so that appliances could one day take signals from the grid about when to draw power — saving customers money.

Improving the grid may also open up new opportunities. Drake Bartlett, a senior trading analyst with the company, said Xcel will explore ways to share power with markets outside of Colorado. Right now the power it generates in Colorado remains in the state.

“As we move towards a carbon-free grid, we have ideas of where it’s going to come from, how we’re going to get there,” he said. “But there are other parts of it that we don’t know.”

That uncertainty extends to what grid infrastructure improvements will be needed. Inadequate updates to the country’s electric grid now could cost customers later. Worst case scenario, they could lead to brown or blackouts, according to Juan Torres associate lab director for the Energy Systems Integration Facility at the National Renewable Energy Lab.

Colorado Energy Production Estimates 2016 Chart

Without federal guidance, each state has to find its own way.

“You have to work within the constraints of the culture and what the people in the region, what their appetite is,” said Torres. California, which has a carbon-free goal for 2045, is importing some renewables from out of state. Overseeing future grid improvements will be the job of the California Independent System Operator.

The state has already invested billions in updating transmission lines to allow easier exchange of energy into Nevada and Arizona and facilitated quick regional sales of energy using a system called Western Energy Imbalance Market.

Neil Millar, executive director of infrastructure development at CAISO, said it will take a “broad suite” of solutions to update the grid and make a 100 percent carbon-free future a reality.

“Reinforcing those different corridors, and getting the appropriate market structure in place so that people can make the best use of the assets they do have is really playing an important role,” Millar said.

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For Hawaii, which declared a 100 percent renewable goal in 2015, trading wind and solar with other states is not possible due to its island status. Hawaiian Electric Company Senior Vice President of Planning & Technology Colton Ching said the utility is focused on large-scale solar and rooftop solar installations.

Hawaiian Electric estimates it needs to triple the amount of rooftop solar from where it currently stands now to meet its goal. That means getting the grid ready for energy to flow to and from homes, not just to homes as it has in the past.

“We need to get ahead of our own curve and make those circuits ready for two-way power flow in advance of those systems being added,” Ching said.

Boulder resident Jerry Palmer powers up his electric car. His utility, Xcel Energy, is making enhancements to the grid to allow for two way flow of information via the electric grid. (Photo by Grace Hood/CPR News)

Some parts of the system are already ready: On any given day half of Hawaiian Electric’s circuits already push power back onto the grid. But even there, the system will need to be beefed up.

“We’re going to need to enhance the ability of those circuits that already doing two-way power flow so they can do more reverse power flow,” he said.

Ultimately, customers will be the ones who pay for grid updates. That means utilities and states will have to take into account their preferences, attitudes and beliefs. The most challenging of this group will be people like Boulder resident Jerry Palmer, who hopes to one day cut electric company Xcel Energy completely out of the picture.

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Standing in front of solar panels as his electric car charges in his garage, Palmer discussed future plans to add a battery storage system from Tesla.

“I could actually go off the grid, and generate and store that energy right in my own garage,” Palmer said.

Right now that’s an aspirational goal. But if more customers prioritize independence that could create a bigger challenge for utilities in the future: Convincing customers not to leave the grid.

Utilities Across the U.S. Help Connect Navajo Nation Residents Without Electricity

NAVAJO NATION – Neda Billie has been waiting to turn on lights in her home for 15 years.

“We’ve been living off of those propane lanterns,” Billie said. “Now we don’t have to have flashlights everywhere. All the kids have a flashlight, so when they get up in the middle of the night like to use the restroom, they have a flashlight to go to [the outhouse].”

Billie, her husband and their five kids live in a tiny one-room hogan, a traditional Navajo home. Their three sheep graze on sagebrush that carpets the rolling hills of Dilkon.

They watched two men in a cherry picker hook up the last wire to their home. Billie said they’ve gone through too many generators to count.

“My two boys they have really bad allergies, and they have asthma, so sometimes they need the nebulizer, so we usually go to my mom’s house travel in the middle of the night over there back and forth,” Billie said.

The Billies are not alone. About one in 10 Navajos live without electricity. And as many as 40 percent of the tribe have to haul their water and use outhouses. A poll of rural Americans conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found more than a quarter of Native Americans have experienced problems with electricity, water and the internet.

Northern Arizona University professor Manley Begay, who is Navajo, said the numbers are probably even higher. Begay said electricity provides more than just light. With electricity, a family can pump water, charge their phone, store food, even get and maintain a job.

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“Electricity itself provides a tremendous amount of convenience and having access to the world at large,” Begay said. “You can just imagine if you were to fill out an application for a job, you do it online and you send it in. Or you’re Googling for information, if you don’t have electricity, you’re in trouble.”

Begay said he recently saw something strange when he pulled into a hotel parking lot in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. He noticed a bunch of teenagers in their cars.

“You could tell they were high school students,” Begay said. “And so they were doing their homework outside this hotel in the parking lot. They had the light on in their cars and doing their homework. It became quite clear that they didn’t have internet.”

Outside the Billies’ home, the couple waited patiently for the crew to finish the job. Brian Cooper from P&M Electric had an update.

“We’ll get a meter going and you should have electricity,” Cooper said. “Can’t wait to see the real smile here in a minute. Don’t cover it up I want to see it. That’s what joy looks like.”

Cooper traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to install electricity. The utility also donated a refrigerator to the Billies.

Brian Cooper, who traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, with P&M Electric, just told the Billies they’re bringing a refrigerator to their house. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

P&M along with several other crews from around the country have volunteered their time to connect people to the power grid.

On the Navajo Nation, the homes are so spread out it costs on average $40,000 dollars to hook up one home to the grid. And half the tribe is unemployed. So you can’t raise rates to energize all those homes. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the nonprofit American Public Power Association have put a call out to utilities across the country to help.

“I had no idea that there were people still in 2019 without power,” Cooper said.

Finally after waiting for so many years, the Billies watched the foreman turn on the meter behind their house and snap the cover shut. Neda then ran inside to flip the switch.

“It’s so exciting to finally have electricity here after so many years without it,” Billie said. “My kids are going to be so happy they keep asking everyday … They go, ‘mom we’re going to have light. We’re going to finally have light!'”

Now the family will wait and pray for running water and internet.

The Irony of an Electric Car Named ‘Tesla’

Thomas Edison became a household name for inventing the first practical incandescent light bulb. But because of what happened in a small town in Colorado, his bitter rival Nikola Tesla won the bigger prize to electrify our modern grid. Over a century later, could revenge be in the offing?

DENVER – In the late 1800s there was a battle raging. It wasn’t over territory, ideology, or settling old grudges. It was a clash over how we—and for that matter the world—were going to get our energy. Although the ability to generate electricity had been established, just how to deliver it to the masses—primarily for the purpose of lighting—was still unanswered. It was a contest that about a century later inspired a rock band to name itself “AC/DC.”

The “War of the Currents” as it was called was between Thomas Edison, who backed direct current or DC, and Nikola Tesla, who was promoting something different—alternating current or AC.

Without getting too far into the weeds, the main difference between the two is the way the electrons move. DC travels in only one direction and is the electricity that comes from batteries. AC reverses direction at regular intervals and is generated by moving a magnet through a coil of wire. But one of the most important differences at the time was that AC could be transmitted long distances—an advantage that would prove decisive.

Suffice it to say there was a lot at stake over which system was going to electrify the nation, and at times it got a bit ugly with Edison launching a propaganda campaign — what today we might call “fake news”—by doing things like electrocuting animals with AC to try to prove its dangers. Tesla meanwhile had teamed up with entrepreneur George Westinghouse, who saw electrification as an enormous business opportunity and had purchased Tesla’s patents.

This high stakes war ended with a victory in, of all places, Telluride, in southwest Colorado. Back around 1885, mines were a huge industry in the state, but they were starting to fail because they lacked a power source to operate. Nearby forests had been cleared for fuel and the cost to bring in coal by burros was too expensive. The Gold King mine above Telluride (not to be confused with a mine of the same name near Durango, which had the devastating spill into the Animas River a few years ago), had a lot of ore left in it, but production costs were getting too high to make it feasible.

The Telluride mine also had a river nearby — a fork of the San Miguel. A man named Lucien L. Nunn, who was a major investor at the time, thought it would be a perfect source of hydropower—if only they could get the electricity transmitted the two miles up the mountain to the mine. So Nunn approached Westinghouse to try out Tesla’s idea for alternating current.

Interior view (c.1900) of Ames powerhouse showing switchboard on left and generator on right. (Public Domain)

Tesla himself did not come to Telluride. Westinghouse sent a team of engineers to Colorado to build the Ames Hydroelectric Plant based on his designs for the generator and induction motor. On the 19th of June 1891, they flipped the switch and sent electricity along newly constructed transmission lines up to the Gold King, which was at 12,000 feet in elevation. The engineers were so amazed—and nervous that it worked—that they didn’t turn it off for thirty days. When they did turn it off—and turned it back on—it continued to work, and the Ames plant made history as the first hydroelectric facility to generate and transmit alternating current for industrial purposes in the U.S. The success at Ames proved that AC was a viable option, and, shortly after, the same design of the plant was built on a much larger scale at Niagara Falls.

Lucien Nunn went on to install similar systems at other mines and eventually provided electricity to Telluride—making it the first town in the country to be powered by alternating current. The Ames hydro plant runs to this day and is owned and operated by Xcel Energy. Mychal Raynes, a plant specialist, says it’s only needed a few improvements and otherwise is still using the original equipment.

Directly Back to the Future?

So the rest was history and alternating current won. Or did it?

As Stephen Frank, a research engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) near Golden, Colorado, explains, a home built in the 1950s would probably have all its fixtures and appliances running on alternating current. But that all changed with the advent of the transistor in the 1950s, which opened the door for power electronics that help convert electricity for use in numerous devices we use today. Pretty much everything in a modern home—from computers and televisions to lights and washing machines—are all using direct current because of the electronics inside. That white cube that plugs into the wall to charge your phone? It’s a power electronic converting AC to DC.

But every time these conversions happen energy is lost in the form of heat—something undesirable in the middle of summer. And given that you might use an air conditioner to cool down a building warming up from multiple appliances, conversions are wasting electricity.

So because our infrastructure is still running on AC but a lot of end-use or “load” is DC, Frank and his colleagues are doing much research on direct current technology to save energy, especially in buildings. In the aggregate, Frank says, “we’re talking about maybe being able to save 5-10 percent of all of the electricity that we consume in this country. We’re talking about roughly the amount of electricity that the state of Oregon uses in a year.”

Changing the grid itself is not something that would happen in the near term, but finding places to increase efficiency is the focus of much research. However, right now if someone wanted to design a new building to run completely on direct current, it would be challenging because they can’t go down to a home improvement store and pick up a DC outlet. The marketplace isn’t there yet. Frank says in order for there to be a change, standards need to be developed about everything from the shape of outlets to how to reuse AC wiring.

The bottom line about whether DC is the right choice for a new building Frank says, depends on a lot of factors: the availability of products, electricity rates, and capital cost of the equipment—many factors that don’t have anything to do with efficiency difference between the two systems. All factors have to be considered in order to make an informed choice about which system is best on a case-by-case basis.

But there may be a very compelling reason to incorporate more direct current into the grid—the surging sales of electric vehicles (EVs) that need charging stations for their batteries.

“Vehicle diversification is happening rapidly,” says Greg Martin, an electrical engineer who works at the energy systems integration facility at NREL, and that raises several questions: What is the impact to the grid? Where does it make sense to do the conversion to DC? If you want to rapidly charge your car in five minutes you really want to be hooked up to a DC charging system. Martin adds that in light of trends in transportation there’s a question about to what extent do we want to generate and distribute DC to support it. “These are topics in research right now as we speak.”

The ubiquity of power electronics and the trend toward EVs is a twist that should make fans of Edison smile—if not feel some vindication. As Frank says wryly, “I find it deeply ironic that an electric car using battery storage and charging with fast DC chargers has Tesla’s name on it.”

This article was first published by H2Oradio.org on March 22, 2019, and is republished with permission. You can find the original article here.

From Kaiser to Vail Ski Resorts, Companies Doubled their Wind and Solar in 2018

DENVER – Corporate investments in renewable energy used to be symbolic. A few solar panels here, a small wind farm investment there. But in 2018 some companies became voracious green energy consumers.

Kaiser Permanente’s Denver administrative office is awash with rooftop solar and solar panels on carports.

The arrays were added in 2015, but in 2018 Kaiser wanted to make a bigger dent toward the company’s carbon neutral goal. So it inked a deal to buy 180 megawatts of new wind and solar from sites in Arizona and California. This is a tremendous amount of green power, a magnitude that only interested utilities a decade ago.

“Corporate procurement has really started to drive a lot of the market….[That] supports an incredible amount of jobs for consultants, for engineers, for contractors and construction workers. It’s definitely driving a lot of economic activity,” said Brian McCurdy, founder of Greycliff Advisors LLC, a consultant that represents renewable energy developers, utilities and large corporations.

Across the nation, companies doubled the amount of wind and solar purchase agreements in 2018. One driver was soon to expire federal tax credits. The key driver, however, is investor and customer preference for green energy. Even after President Donald Trump announced plans to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, companies continued to double down on green efforts.

“Are they losing money? Hopefully not,” said Kevin Haley, a program manager at the Business Renewables Center at Rocky Mountain Institute. “These contracts are long term. Many of them are anywhere from 10 to 20 years, and over the lifetime of that contract they are projected to be revenue positive for the company.”

Here’s how these power purchase agreements work: A company like Kaiser agrees to buy green power at a fixed price for several years, typically decades. That energy doesn’t directly power company buildings, it instead goes into the electric grid. Over time, companies can make money through sales of that wholesale power on the market. The ultimate goal is for the revenue to be greater or equal to a company’s overall electric bill.

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Corporate giants like Facebook, Walmart, Microsoft and Apple made big deals in 2018, but now smaller corporate fish have waded into the pond.

“We had Etsy do a deal last year, J.M. Smucker Company that makes jellies and jams,” Haley said. “It’s a great way for them to reduce a lot of carbon all at once.”

Colorado-based Vail Resorts has joined the ranks of small companies as well. It inked a 12-year agreement to buy new wind that will be produced from a Nebraska farm starting in 2020. When the wind farm is operational, the purchased power will offset Vail’s fossil fuel use across North America.

“This is the way that a company that’s geographically diverse can make a significant impact and bring new renewable resources online,” said Kate Wilson, director of sustainability for Vail Resorts.

The ski company won’t talk about how much that’ll cost. They’ve taken other steps though, such as the installation of solar at resorts. Vail has also signed up with Xcel Energy to pay for a solar energy subscription.

That’s one small way utilities are helping companies get more renewables. Xcel’s subscription program, Renewable Connect, sold out in one day.

“That was a pretty good indicator that this 50 megawatt resource, there’s more interest out there beyond that,” said Ryan Matley, product development team lead with Xcel.

The utility wants to launch more subscription programs. Xcel also started to tailor specific projects for bigger clients. In 2018, Xcel got regulatory approval to build a 240 megawatt solar array for EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel in Pueblo. Matley said the project wasn’t driven by climate concerns, but by EVRAZ’s desire for cheap reliable energy.

“As renewable costs have come down, this looks like not just a great sustainability opportunity but a great economic opportunity,” he said.

Ultimately, the future of corporate investments in renewables could be about large-scale production right on site. Boulder-based Black Bear Energy helps commercial real estate owners add large solar arrays to office parks, apartment buildings and industrial sites. As battery technology evolves, CEO Drew Torbin said companies are opting for larger and larger installations.

“If you think about how many buildings don’t have solar and don’t have batteries, the fact that the industry is so new, and that’s a great thing,” said Torbin. “Because we have a long way to go and a lot of benefit we can create.”

Black Bear booked twice as many projects in 2018 compared the year before. As the price of solar continues to drop, Tobin expects 2019 to be its busiest year ever.