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Pitkin County’s planned “microgrid” uses renewable energy for disaster resilience

Pitkin County’s microgrid site won’t look unique upon completion; the batteries will be stored in typical energy box-like containers. Right now, workers are leveling and clearing the site and moving boulders to prepare for the batteries.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Pitkin County’s microgrid site won’t look unique upon completion; the batteries will be stored in typical energy box-like containers. Right now, workers are leveling and clearing the site and moving boulders to prepare for the batteries.

In 2018, the Lake Christine Fire came dangerously close to destroying the infrastructure that delivers all of the upper Roaring Fork Valley’s power.

Since then, Pitkin County officials have been working on a way to make sure they can keep essential services operating during an emergency, while also pursuing its renewable energy goals.

A critical component of these plans is located just off Animal Shelter Road, near the Airport Business Center.

At the moment, it’s not very impressive: the dirt has been leveled and cleared of boulders, and the sounds of cars on Highway 82 and planes taking off from the Aspen/Pitkin County airport are constant.

But this location has its strategic benefits.

“If we do have an event, where we need to activate our microgrid, we can just power these facilities being the airport, public works and the RFTA bus facility with the batteries,” said G.R. Fielding, Pitkin County’s construction and asset director.

He’s standing at the future home of the county’s very own battery storage site, which will power a “microgrid” within Holy Cross Energy’s system, connecting these essential facilities.

But what is a microgrid?

“The microgrid is a system where you have generation, you have loads or users, you have storage… all in an area where you can make a micro grid: so a smaller version of the existing grid,” Fielding explained.

Fielding said in an emergency situation, the upper valley can’t always rely on power to be delivered from the main grid downvalley.

“We may need to keep the airport operational, or it might be some sort of winter or freezing rain event where we need to have a large response from our public works department,” he said.

The Lake Christine Fire nearly destroyed the infrastructure that delivers power to much of the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Courtesy Pitkin County
The Lake Christine Fire nearly destroyed the infrastructure that delivers power to much of the upper Roaring Fork Valley.

Although the county has been working on generating renewable energy for a while, there hasn’t been a good place to store it.

Holy Cross Energy operates a five megawatt solar farm just a few miles from where this site is located. Fielding said there’s also rooftop solar at the Pitkin County Public Works building, along with opportunities for solar on RFTA’s bus barn and at the airport.

“It is setting up a basis for us to supply green energy to the grid through that battery storage,” he said. “We have some local solar generation, and we'll have some local energy storage.”

This site will create the necessary storage, in the form of batteries in large storage containers. Fielding said having that storage is a huge step in the county achieving its climate action goals.

“Having that battery on the grid allows for more renewable energy on the grid,” Fielding said.

“It takes power in when there's an excess and it lets it out when there's a need,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman. “It’s a win. It’s fantastic.”

County officials first came up with the idea for the microgrid six years ago. Poschman said to have construction start so quickly after feasibility studies is another big step in the right direction.

“It's not only how to create a new technology, but then it's how to get it deployed quickly,” he said. “If this is an emergency, we can't wait 20 years to get through a permitting process or to get through a red tape process. We've got to figure out how to move quickly.”

Poschman said the county has gotten funding for this project from Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs, and there’s been interest from people on the federal level.

And Fielding says more big renewable projects are on the horizon.

“We need to overlay a project like the microgrid with some sort of geothermal heating and cooling,” he said. “And so we're also looking at that at this time, as well.”

If construction continues on pace, the microgrid will be online and storing renewable energy for Pitkin County starting in summer of 2025.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.