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by Allen Best

In its Journey to 100%, the plan by Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy to reach 100% renewable generation, the utility has enlisted what might be seen as the equivalent of an air traffic controller.

In this journey toward 100% renewables, Holy Cross wants to import wind-generated electricity from the eastern plains of Colorado and some solar from a farm east of Denver, too. It already gets some hydroelectric power from dams in the Colorado River Basin, and it might get some additional small-scale hydro.

It will be adding more and more solar from where it has 53,000 members, in the Aspen, Vail, and Rifle areas, some on rooftops and some from solar farms, such as the one being assembled near the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley Campus near Glenwood Springs. And at least three of these new solar farms will have storage.

Oh, this gets complicated—but it will get even more complicated as more people buy electric cars and install batteries in their homes.

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But just how will all these wires of electrical supply and electrical demand get connected in an efficient way?

That’s where a relatively new technology created by a California firm comes in. Camus Energy provides the software that allows Holy Cross to better integrate these many variable resources and demands. It calls itself zero-carbon grid integration.

Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive of Holy Cross, likens all this to the tasks asked of a computer. This technology serves as the operating system.

“Our partnership with Camus Energy is providing Holy Cross Energy with the ‘operating system’ to run our electric grid with 100% clean energy by 2030,” he says.

In the past, utilities relied upon several large central power plants, most commonly coal but, beginning in the 1990s, increasingly natural gas. Local communities generated little of their own electricity.

Future electrical generation is shaping up to be a mix of big and little, some distant and some local, nearly all if it—and Holy Cross hopes 100% of it—renewables.

Demands have also started getting more complex. Consider the housing at Basalt that gets no natural gas. Air-source heat pumps provide the warmth needed in winter supplemented by energy stored by a Tesla battery pack.

Astrid Atkinson

Astrid Atkinson, the chief executive of Camus Energy, says she began to understand the need for the technology when she encountered the chief executive of an electrical cooperative from New Mexico at a conference. That was two years ago. Luis Reyes Jr., of Kit Carson Electrical Cooperative, shared the ambitions and challenges of his Taos-based cooperative. Solar farms were being constructed with a goal of being 100% dependent upon the sun during sunny days by 2022. Kit Carson, by the way, is on track to meet that goal.

Reyes explained that Kit Carson wanted to be able to look at not just the dashboards for the various solar farms, but in the context of what was happening on the electrical grid more broadly. He wanted the little pictures integrated into the big picture.

By then, Atkinson had spent 20 years at Google. But she was also thinking about the electrical networks of the future. That spark at the conference launched her on this new odyssey. Camus now has Kit Carson and Holy Cross as customers, but a much larger network elsewhere, including the community choice aggregation network in the Bay area of California.

In explaining the technology her firm has created, Atkinson describes the work of an air traffic controller. That controller can guide the landing of a plane, but it’s imperative he or she know what else is happening in the sky and at the airport. That’s what this technology provides. It allows electric utilities to see bigger pictures.

Atkinson, a native of Australia, has lived in California off and on for more than 20 years, now residing in the coastal range south of the Silicon Valley. Reliability of electric supplies have become more challenged by wildfires. “These areas have been wildfire prone, but this has really changed in the last few years,” she says. In the five days prior to our interview, she says, she lost power 50 times.

This will push even more the idea of microgrids, which might be compared to rooms in a house. They can operate independently, or together. In the case of wildfires, they might have to operate separately, with perhaps diminished capacity but still with function.

That’s also part of what Holy Cross, stung now by several wildfires in the last year, has been putting together.

As weather events become more extreme, she says, more wealthy customers are beginning to buy home batteries, to avoid disruptions of power, or getting off the grid altogether. That will leave others, usually the less wealthy, more vulnerable.

“We really need solutions that can pull together the resources that are available,” she says.

“Our vision is to provide the glue to make the grid work” in the face of this more decentralized generation impacted more by extreme weather events.

Bolstered by an investment of $16 million, Camus hopes to leverage its assets and draw interest from even larger utilities, the Xcel Energies of the electrical world.

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