After Lake Christine Fire, Holy Cross Energy seeks more resilient power supply for Aspen |

After Lake Christine Fire, Holy Cross Energy seeks more resilient power supply for Aspen

As the Lake Christine Fire smouldered near the point of origin on July 4, 2018, the sheared and seared power poles were evident above Basalt. Three of four lines supplying electricity to the upper valley were knocked out of commission.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times


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The Lake Christine Fire in Basalt came perilously close July 3 and 4, 2018, to knocking out power in the middle and upper Roaring Fork Valley and delivering a multimillion-dollar economic blow.

Holy Cross Energy and Rocky Mountain Institute are studying how to prevent that from happening again.

RMI released a study this week that looks at the work of Holy Cross and its partners to boost energy resiliency in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“We’re looking at all options we have for supply of electricity,” said Brian Hannegan, president and CEO of Holy Cross Energy. “What’s our plan B if the Holy Cross grid isn’t available?”

The goal, he said, is to create a more resilient system so that if another wildfire torches power poles in the Basalt State Wildlife Area or a major blizzard causes a multi-day outage, residences and businesses aren’t left in the dark.

“I’ve always thought of resilience as ‘Can I take a punch and still be standing?’” Hannegan said.

The Holy Cross system was barely standing during the thick of the Lake Christine Fire. Power poles for the transmission lines of Holy Cross and Xcel Energy were severed by the flames in the high ground above El Jebel and Basalt.

“Three out of four transmission lines running into Aspen were disabled. Had the fourth line gone down, it could have led to days to weeks of no electric service,” RMI’s report said. “The fire started during peak tourist season, as thousands of visitors filled the valley for the Fourth of July week — a factor that would have exacerbated the impact of an extended power outage.”

Hannegan said the fourth transmission line was one pole away from going out of commission.

“That’s how close it was,” he said.

The event was a “wake-up call” on the importance of resilience planning, the RMI report said. Holy Cross, which serves 43,500 members in the Roaring Fork, Eagle and Lower Colorado River Valleys, teamed Basalt-based RMI to explore community-based solutions for increasing the energy resilience in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley.

Kevin Brehm, RMI manager and author of the report with Mark Dyson and Emily Goldfield, said the case study of the Lake Christine Fire’s near catastrophic effect on the energy grid could be a helpful tool for other utilities trying to boost their system’s resilience.

“For both RMI and Holy Cross, (we’re saying) ‘Hey, we’re in the community and we want to make it a better community,’” Brehm said.

The core message of the report is that communities must gather their key stakeholders and plan with their utility companies to build resilience. Holy Cross is a leader in reaching out to seek a community-based approach, he said.

“They are rolling up their sleeves and talking to the community,” Brehm said.

Holy Cross has undertaken several steps to try to ensure a near miss doesn’t happen again. It has “hardened” its grid infrastructure. It placed fire retardant wrapping on several power poles located in inaccessible places and difficult for firefighters to defend in case of wildfire.

In simple terms, it has also developed detours in its grid that help feed areas in different ways.

Holy Cross is also working with Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and partners at the Aspen Business Center on a micro-grid that could be utilized to keep essential services operating during a sustained outage. They landed a $2 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to study how to develop that small-scale power supply. One part of the equation is the 5-megawatt solar farm that has been approved in the Woody Creek area. Construction will start this year.

When completed, it will supply about 5% of the energy input need via the Holy Cross system in Aspen and upper valley on a typical busy winter day.

“It’s a drop in the bucket but it’s an important drop in the bucket,” Hannegan said.

Its value is enhanced when looking at alternative energy production just for the ABC and airport — a process that Brehm called “islanding.”

Another component of making that neighborhood energy self-sufficient in a time of need could include installing a substantial amount of batteries that could store energy, Hannegan said.

Holy Cross also will explore battery storage with individual customers in a pilot program designed to launch later this year. The energy cooperative is looking into providing low-cost financing for a “handful” of homeowners and businesses who want to install batteries, Hannegan said. Those batteries could support the grid by providing power at times when its needed as well as storing power for emergency use.

Brehm said that is an important component of energy resiliency. Optimal systems would provide year-round benefits when times are normal, referred to as “blue sky” times, as well as provide backup during emergencies, known as “black sky” times, he said.

Hannegan said Holy Cross is pursuing another project in tandem with Snowmass Village. A micro-grid project is being pursued to use solar panels for energy production, batteries for storage and a sophisticated control system to regulate use for the neighborhood that includes Town Hall, the town’s only gas station and other essential services. They are hoping to land grants for the project.

RMI’s report found that first-response agencies in the upper valley generally have adequate backup power generators in place to keep them operating for a “finite time.” That’s obviously critical for any community.

“We want to make sure the firefighters and police officers can do their jobs when they need to,” Brehm said.

Most of systems are generators that operate on diesel fuel or natural gas. Brehm said options are being explored to replace fossil fuels with renewable resources and battery storage — systems that help with the “blue sky” goals.

Brehm said the Roaring Fork Valley isn’t necessarily leading national efforts to increase energy resiliency, but it’s making big strides thanks to the efforts of Holy Cross.

“The wheels are already turning,” he said. “Beyond the Roaring Fork Valley, this is a question a lot of communities are working on.”


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