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State grant powers ‘innovative’ Pitkin County solar microgrid project

$1.7 million grant kick-starts effort to build more resilient, green power grid

The Basalt transmission substation near the Lake Christine Fire in Basalt on July 4, 2018.
Anna Stonehouse / Aspen Times archives

A recent $1.7 million grant from the state has kick-started an effort to build a more resilient, green power grid in Pitkin County that could keep crucial public infrastructure functioning in the event of another natural disaster like the Lake Christine Fire.

The solar energy-based project is centered around the Aspen Business Center and includes the county, the Aspen airport, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and Holy Cross Energy, and envisions building a “microgrid” capable of both storing clean energy, using it to power local infrastructure and contributing excess generation to the larger power grid, sources said Tuesday.

“It’s super-exciting and where we need to be moving,” Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, a vocal supporter of clean energy, said Tuesday. “I am completely psyched about this.”



The idea is to build a grid that ties together the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, RFTA’s hub just west of the ABC, Pitkin County’s Public Works facility located next to RFTA and Holy Cross’ substation near the ABC, said G.R. Fielding, Pitkin County engineer. While the exact parameters have yet to be determined, each of four facilities could have solar panels for energy collection, each would be tied together through transmission lines and each would be powered by the clean energy generated.

In addition, the 5-megawatt solar array installed near Woody Creek last summer — known as Pitkin Solar — and the existing 104-kilowatt solar system at the Public Works building would be looped in to the grid to further add power generation capability, Fielding said.



The key to the project will be its ability to store solar-generated power in batteries, which is not available at Pitkin Solar.

“You need to have a certain amount of storage to make it resilient,” Fielding said. “We’re going to focus on the storage piece to get started.”

The first phase of the microgrid is estimated to cost about $3.4 million and will include design and engineering of batteries capable of storing 6 to 8 megawatts of power, the implementation of 1 megawatt of battery storage and integration of the Pitkin Solar array into the grid, according to Kara Silbernagel, Pitkin County policy and project manager.

The initial design phase will look at how and where to install the batteries, how to run power lines among the four facilities and how the power would be distributed, Fielding said.

Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs first funded a $200,000 feasibility study for the project, then encouraged Pitkin County to apply for a $2.5 million grant to fund the first phase. The four partners in the project agreed to split the additional $855,000 needed for what is being called “Phase 1A.”

DOLA notified the county in late February that it would be awarded $1.7 million of the $2.5 million requested. Silbernagel said Tuesday she is waiting to hear whether Holy Cross and RFTA can contribute more money to make up the extra $800,000, though Pitkin County commissioners last week said they would make up the difference if no more money is forthcoming, Poschman said.

“We’re committed to it,” he said.

A powerline dangles and burns in the Lake Christine Fire in Basalt on July 4, 2018.
Anna Stonehouse / Aspen Times archives

The idea for the microgrid first came from Chris Bilby, a Holy Cross research engineer, during a workshop sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Institute in 2019, the summer after the Lake Christine Fire burned more than 12,000 acres. During that fire in Basalt, the upper Roaring Fork Valley came within one power pole of losing power for what could have been hours or days, Bilby said.

During the workshop, Bilby said he was asked to circle areas on a map of the upper Roaring Fork Valley where he thought a microgrid might be feasible. His first choice was in Snowmass Village and included the Town Hall, the gas station and the Snowmass Center, which are in the same area.

Bilby’s second choice was the Aspen airport area and the ABC, which included the four facilities included in the current microgrid project, he said. That was because commercial jets cannot take off in a power outage, and it would be necessary to move people out of the area in the event something happens to Highway 82. The RFTA facility also figured into his calculations because the agency has begun using electric buses, which could be used to evacuate people in an emergency if the highway was passable.

Finally, having the Pitkin County Public Works building and the Holy Cross substation in the area made the corridor a clear contender for a microgrid, Bilby said.

The area has “blue sky benefits,” meaning it could add clean energy to Holy Cross’ grid and help the company achieve its goal of producing 100% clean energy by 2030 as well as providing economic choices that could lower energy costs if battery-stored power was utilized, Bilby said. It also has “black sky benefits” in that it could keep crucial public infrastructure functioning in the event of another Lake Christine Fire kind of event.

In addition, the timing was right because the airport is on the verge of a major renovation that could include the infrastructure necessary to make the microgrid happen, he said.

“One thing that’s cool is that we came from microgrids,” Bilby said. “Aspen was one of the first towns west of the Mississippi with street lights. That was a microgrid.”

In addition to being able to construct a cleaner microgrid than was available back then, Pitkin County’s project can be a prototype for other communities, according to Bilby and Fielding.

“We’re hoping to get an example at the ABC that is replicable,” Bilby said.

Silbernagel agreed.

“It’s extremely innovative and could be a model for our community and others,” she said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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