Electrical cooperative sees multiple paths to the summit of 100% clean energy by 2030
by Allen Best
Like its namesake mountain, Holy Cross Energy sees multiple pathways to the top, 100% renewable energy, which it seeks to achieve by 2030.
Implicit in the announcement by the Glenwood Springs-based utility today was recognition of the rapid acceleration of the energy transition as well as growing worry about the risk of the changing climate.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis credited Holy Cross with being a state leader but also a national leader in executing the energy transition. Holy Cross has shown that “you can do more, better, faster,” he said.
Polis ran for governor in 2018 on a platform of achieving 100% renewable energy in electrical generation by 2040. “My ideas were bold, but they weren’t bold enough,” he said.
Change has accelerated in just the last two years. Holy Cross in September 2018 adopted a goal of 70% renewable generation by 2030 with 70% reduction in greenhouse gases as compared to 2014 levels.
In 2018, three months after directors of Holy Cross set the 2030 goal, directors of Platte River Power Authority set a goal of 100% carbon-free energy by 2030. However, that Fort Collins-based cooperative attached a set of conditions in order to attain that goal, such as matured battery storage technology and declined prices and creation of a regional transmission organization.
Neither Platte River–which delivers power to Fort Collins, Longmont, Estes Park, and Loveland—nor Holy Cross are anywhere near their goals yet. Platte River expects to move above 50% with addition of a new solar farm later this year.
Holy Cross as of last year was still below 40%. But it will likely blow past its 70% renewable goal by the end of 2021, nearly a decade early, while marching toward 80% to 85% renewables penetration by the end of 2024.
In an announcement on Monday of its goal, which is branded as Journey to 100%, Holy Cross mentioned no set of conditions. In a follow-up e-mail, Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive of Holy Cross, described multiple pathways for the utility to achieve its goal.
“Based on our recent research and innovation efforts, HCE believes that there are multiple pathways we can take on our Journey to 100%, including through the development of robust and open wholesale markets for electricity and the regional transmission grid coordination to support them, as well as through development of local flexible clean energy resources directly connected to our distribution grid,” Hannegan wrote.
“We are committed to finding the best possible route to our strategic goals that preserves and extends our ability to safely provide reliable and affordable electric service even as we move towards a carbon-free power supply.”
At the heart of the vision is greater deployment of new local energy resources as well as a variety of new programs and technologies that better allow demand to correct directly with the variability of renewable supplies.
For a fuller explanation, see last week’s story, How Holy Cross Energy intends to deepen penetration of renewables.
Some of this gets very technical. For example, Holy Cross has partnered with Camus Energy to develop a distribution grid operating system that will help the co-op’s members/customers realize the many values of distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar or “behind-the-meter” batteries for energy storage.
“We believe that distributed energy resources will be a key element of our Journey to 100%,” said Hannegan.
Another crucial step forward will require integration of Holy Cross and other Colorado utilities into a regional transmission organization, or RTO. Colorado utilities have so far advanced toward creating an RTO with the rubbery legs of a 6-month-old child. Holy Cross in concert with another electrical cooperative, Intermountain Rural Electric Association, commissioned a study by Boulder-based Vibrant Clean Energy to document the benefits. That study concluded Colorado would be better served by integration into the California-based RTO called CAISO.
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Expanded energy storage will also be necessary. Holy Cross has launched a program to begin installation of batteries into homes, which can better take advantage of locally generated electricity while creating resilience in the case of transmission disruption such as wildfires. It’s part of creating “more flexible” energy demand. The batteries of electric vehicles will also likely play a role in this new more distributed energy paradigm.
The utility is also thinking bigger with grid-tied resources, including pumped-storage hydroelectricity. Pumped-hydro was conspicuously mentioned in the Holy Cross press release, and it is also mentioned in the strategic plan adopted by directors. Colorado’s largest energy storage project even now is the Cabin Creek pumped-storage hydro project, which uses two reservoirs along the road between Georgetown and Guanella Pass. The water is released when needed to meet peak demands of Xcel Energy, such as on hot summer afternoons, then pumped back uphill when electricity is plentiful.
Holy Cross hasn’t shared details of its thinking, but it obviously has giant amounts of vertical to work with in its service territory.
“We are exploring potential options with respect to pumped-storage hydro in our region. As we move towards 100% clean energy, there will be a need for the kinds of grid services and balancing capabilities that pumped-storage hydro and other long-duration energy storage technologies can provide,” Hannegan said in an e-mail response.
In decarbonizing its electrical supply, Holy Cross has avoided raising rates during the last three years and plans no rate increase during the next year, said Dave Munk, chair of the board of directors of Holy Cross.
Still unanswered is what Holy Cross will do with its 8% ownership stake in Comanche 3, the coal-fired power plant near Pueblo. Holy Cross consigned the power production from the power plant to Guzman Energy a year ago. The plant, however, has produced little power since then, as it has been plagued by debilitating problems, a theme since it began operations in 2010. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission earlier this year decided that it was a fair question whether the power plant might best be closed decades ahead of its originally scheduled retirement in 2070. Xcel Energy is the primary owner.
Holy Cross is paying for that plant, with payments currently scheduled to continue until 2042, according to the electrical cooperative’s strategic plan.
In a “travel guide” released in conjunction with the “Journey to 100%” announcement, Holy Cross noted that it has several “unique characteristics that enable us to take these bold steps.” It has strong relationships with its resort and agriculture communities who depend on a healthy environment. It also enjoys strong support from in its clean energy goals from the large employers—including Aspen Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts—along with member communities who have adopted climate action plans.
It also has legal wiggle room. “Our power supply and transmission agreements give us additional clean energy options that may not be available to other utilities.”
See also video announcement posted on YouTube,