Get Big Pivots

by Allen Best

The phrase locavore has been around for almost two decades. It was invented to describe someone who eats locally originated food.

Some years ago, at Telluride Mountainfilm, those providing lunch proudly proclaimed all the ingredients had been sourced from within 100 miles. The spring salad was excellent, but the menu was shy of citrus and sparing of coffee and tea.

Now, in energy, we have a similar movement, a new emphasis and pride on locally originated renewable energy. But, like locally grown food in the San Juans, it’s hard to grow all of your own energy.

Consider Holy Cross Energy, which is seeking to blaze a trail toward 100% renewables by the decade’s end. How will they achieve this? It’s as ambitious a goal as I know of in Colorado or beyond, devoid caveats or asterisks.

Electrical consumers in the Vail and Aspen areas will be getting some electricity from local solar projects but also from a wind farm near Arriba, east of Denver. Photo/Allen Best

The portfolio being created by Holy Cross is a mix of local, mostly solar, and imports, mostly wind. Aside from a few blustery days, mountain valleys are not windy. For that, Holy Cross will secure electricity from turbines 120 miles southeast of Denver, near a town along Interstate 70 called Arriba.

Mountain valleys, though, do have strong solar. There, you see Holy Cross plunging ahead. A milestone will be celebrated on Dec. 8 with a snipping of ribbon at the 5-megawatt Pitkin County Solar Array. Another project is underway near Glenwood Springs, adjacent to the Colorado Mountain College campus. More such solar projects are likely.

A recently completed study by the Carbondale-based Clean Energy Economy for the Region found the solar potential of Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties was 25 times greater than what now exists. Much of this potential is in the Xcel Energy service territory downvalley from Glenwood Springs.

For much of the past century, the energy hopes of this area around Rifle were often focused on oil shale development. So far, it has defied success of commercial extraction at scale. The late Randy Udall used to say that pig manure (well, yes, he used a different word) had more energy than kerogen, the substance of oil shale. Anvil Points was long the central focus of oil shale extraction. It’s a fetching image to now imagine solar panels lining the base of those cliffs.

This solar-generated electricity isn’t necessarily the cheapest available. Electricity, like corn, can be produced most cheaply at scale and in the best places. The study about solar in the mountain valleys makes the argument that cost alone should not be the sole criterion. It points to future job generation as demand for fossil fuel declines. It also points to another benefit of local generation.

That local benefit is illustrated by the 2018 Lake Christine Fire. Centered in the El Jebel area, the fire nearly severed transmission into Aspen during the Fourth of July weekend. Local generation from the new solar farm in Pitkin County coupled with batteries can allow, at least temporarily, continued operation of home refrigerators and oxygen concentrators. The concept here is that of a microgrid, the ability to at least temporarily create self-sufficient islands in our electrical grid.

Colorado together has strong renewable resources. A solar developer of several mammoth projects near Pueblo says the solar resource there ranks eight or nine on a scale of 10. The elevation of the San Luis Valley may make the solar potential there even higher. Wind in southeastern Colorado, at the heart of the Dust Bowl-country ravaged landscape in the 1930s, may be as good as anywhere in the country.

Still, even greater geographic diversification will be needed to achieve the deep, deep integration of renewable generation. Think of Vail Resorts with its corporate strategy. A bad snow year in Colorado? Well, it has properties in New England, and then some in Europe and in Australia.

Most goals for 100% renewables—including those of Holy Cross—are similarly premised on sharing of electricity across broader geographic areas through wholesale market structures. A new Colorado law requires electrical utilities to figure out how to participate in such an organization, called a regional transmission organization, by 2030. It might be a cloudy day in Colorado, but not in Arizona. And the wind is always blowing somewhere.

Other Colorado power providers, including the Fort Collins-based Platte River Power Authority and Durango-based La Plata Energy, similarly hope for a mix of local generation and access to broader markets.

Can local resources be knitted with large-scale resources from elsewhere to meet the 2030 carbon-free goals? Plenty of smart and hard-working people are trying.

Allen Best
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