Colorado receives $17.2 million in federal funds that will be used for microgrids and other strategies to ensure the lights stay on
by Allen Best
Five years later, the Lake Christine Fire still provides the best example in Colorado as to why we need microgrids.
Microgrids provide the ability to become ultra-local in our electricity, both supplies and demands, when circumstances require. They can keep the lights on, the cash registers operating.
In 2018, the lights nearly went off in Aspen as a result of the fire that had spread downvalley near Basalt. Firefighters arrived just in time to extinguish the flames that had started climbing a wooden transmission pole. Had the pole burned, disrupting transmission, Aspen would have gone dark during the busy Fourth of July weekend.
The Aspen area now has a solar farm near its airport andm with the addition of storage and controller software, could have a microgrid. (See illustration top). Holy Cross Energy, the primary energy supplier in that area, is working on it.
That project is just one of scores or even hundreds of places in Colorado that could potentially be aided by $17.2 million in new federal funding. The money was authorized by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The Colorado Energy Office expects more federal money to follow in subsequent years.
As anticipated by the federal law, Colorado wants to help utilities prepare for the likelihood of weather that is warming, perhaps windier but altogether more erratic. Resiliency is a key word.
“This is trying to focus on preventative measures that utilities can take,” says John Parks, who is an electricity markets and transmission policy analyst with the Colorado Energy Office.
If weather is always variable, and even our limited human history full of extremes, Colorado seems to be moving into new territory. Consider the fire history of recent years.
Just three years ago in October, the East Troublesome Fire roared from its origins near Kremmling and across the Continental Divide to the outskirts of Estes Park. The next year, the Marshall Fire started in late December just outside Boulder and, whipped by high winds, destroyed nearly 1,000 houses.
Parks further points to the role of high winds in both the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in and around Paradise, Calif., in 2018; and of this year’s Maui Fire in Hawaii, which killed at least 97 people.
Flooding can also create circumstances where microgrids and other elements of grid resiliency could become even more important, points out Parks.
Here’s how the new federal funding, augmented by state funding, will be allocated in Colorado:
Colorado has a program called Microgrids for Community Resilience, one of the few such programs in the United States. The state used its own funds in July to award grants to eight utilities for microgrid projects in smaller places: Beulah and Gardner, plus Bergen Park and Livermore, all along the foothills of the Front Range. Also: Ophir, Rico and Delta on the Western Slope.
This new federal funding will deliver $12.3 million for construction and implementation during the next two years. Electrical cooperatives and municipal utilities will be able to compete for $500,000 to be used for planning purposes.
Think of a microgrid as being like an island or a castle, connected to the rest of the world or at least electrical grid most of the time but able to pull up the drawbridge and continue to function, when necessary. For a deeper dive on microgrids, see this 2021 story in Big Pivots, “With wildfire risk rising, utilities bet on solar + storage.”
Colorado also wants to develop a microgrid roadmap, to identify where microgrids are needed most to “harden” the grid and increase reliability of electricity. Especially if that electricity comes from renewable generation.
The focus will continue to be on communities located in remote areas of the mountains and prairies and also in disproportionately impacted communities. The state is currently selecting a consultant to lead this effort.
The federal legislation requires that 40% of all funds it delivers to Colorado must go to smaller communities. By the law’s criterion, that excludes Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities, Xcel Energy and Colorado Springs Utilities.
That means that all the other utilities will be able to apply for a pool of $4.2 million to grants to implement fire resistant technologies, underground electrical equipment, even relocation of power lines, among many possible uses.
Finally, Colorado will distribute not quite $2 million to utilities who want to use new and updated technologies to monitor their grids.
“This is the opportunity for utilities to really understand what is happening on the grid in real time and have the ability to disconnect a section of the grid in the case of an extreme event, or if there’s high risk of wildfires moving through that area,” says Parks. In real time, utility managers could then disconnect a circuit remotely.
The Colorado Energy Office and the state’s Department of Local Affairs will conduct an informational webinar about these opportunities on Thursday, October 5, from 2 to 3 p.m. MST.
See the Colorado Electric Grid Resiliency Funds website for more information about all of this.
Top illustration of a microgrid courtesy of the Sierra Club.
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