Colorado co-op goes to NREL for next chief executive

Holy Cross goes to NREL to help figure out the utility of the future

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — When a utility needs a new chief executive, it usually promotes from within its ranks or finds somebody with a depth of experience running a utility.

Not so Holy Cross Energy, the electrical co-operative that serves six ski areas, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen, and Snowmass. For its next chief executive it has plucked Bryan Hannegan from the staff at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in suburban Denver.

Bryan Hannegan

Hannegan has been associate director of the Energy Systems Integration Laboratory. At that lab, NREL has been trying to integrate the many things happening in energy. How will electric cars fit into the new grid? How can consumers be more actively involved in choosing when to use electricity to take best advantage of lower prices or renewable energy?

“Utilities don’t like to experiment on their systems,” Hannegan—who holds a Ph.D. in earth science systems as well as a master’s degree in engineering—told the Vail Daily. The experiments are run at the laboratory.

Holy Cross was early among electrical co-operatives in trying to push the integration of renewables and carbon-reduction strategies.

For example, the co-op offered a premium rate for electricity generated by a plant that burns wood, mostly trees killed by bark beetle, from the Vail-Summit County areas. The co-op also offered a price premium for electricity that is produced by burning the methane being emitted by a nearby coal mine. The burning of methane still produces a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, but CO2 is far less potent than methane.

Adam Palmer, a member of the board of directors from the Eagle area, says that Hannegan “just really nailed the vision that was shared by the board.”

That board sees utilities of the future operating very differently. Customers could be able to choose when to do run their dryers, for example, to take advantage of lower rates. The utility will also have deeper penetration of renewables. Wind is now the cheapest form of electricity, but solar has been rapidly dropping in price.

Yes, but the sun doesn’t always shine. True, but storage prices have been sliding downward. Palmer cited a report from Arizona about a solar-plus-storage deal that put the price of electricity at 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, lower than most fossil fuel generation.

In Telluride, there’s news about efforts to pressure electrical providers to boost the renewables. The Telluride Daily Planet says that directors of the San Miguel Power Association—which is, like Holy Cross, a co-operative—are asking for permission to generate up to 10 percent of their power through renewables. The co-op is currently capped at providing 5 percent of its own generation. The rest must come from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the wholesale supplier.

Tri-State points out that 26 percent of energy delivered to local co-ops in Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico comes from renewable sources. Much of that comes from hydroelectric dams in the West. Other co-ops, including La Plata Electric, which serves Durango, are also limited by Tri-State’s 5 percent cap.

Elsewhere in ski towns, Park City has set out to plant 500 trees in open space areas. The trees, say city officials, will become a sponge, soaking up carbon.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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