Energy Summit: Utilities implement renewables, but obstacles remain

LOVELAND — Shifting to a renewable-energy future has increasingly become the mantra for municipalities, but the shift poses challenges for utilities and clean-tech providers themselves. And even traditional-energy companies are getting in on the action by adding renewables in their production process.

Speakers at the “Striking a Balance: Blending Renewables with Traditional Energy” panel at the Colorado Energy Summit Thursday outlined some of the challenges that the shift presents. The panel was moderated by Katie Tate, senior community relations specialist at PDC Energy Inc.

Milton Geiger, alternative-energy administrator with Poudre Valley REA, discussed how his organization approaches bringing renewable energy into the organization’s system. Poudre Valley REA is a rural electric distribution cooperative, delivering power to its members.

Those members expect to access power at all times, even as the cooperative seeks to integrate more renewables.

“Things are changing,” he said. “… In the electric industry, in particular, we’re trying to reengineer an airplane, except our airplane has to be up in the air while we’re doing it. We can’t take it down and say, ‘Hey, bring it back up in five years from now with a certain blend of renewables or this amount of carbon. We have to change as we go.”

Poudre Valley REA itself is a member of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., which provides much of its power. But Poudre Valley also generates some of its own power through several solar projects, presenting challenges, as that solar-generated power must be distributed and used locally.

“What we produce for renewable energy has to be consumed locally,” he said. “They  [Tri-State] certainly bring a mix of resources on the transmission line to us. But increasingly, as cost structures have changed, driven by technology and our member preferences, we’re bringing resources on the distribution system.”

That’s largely through solar projects, which account for less than 4 percent of overall consumption but are growing.

“Things are evolving,” he said, adding that for integration of renewables, “the locational value matters” and “the timing value matters.”

Poudre Valley REA seeks to build renewable projects where the electricity generated can be immediately consumed. That’s a challenge, as land can be more expensive in populated areas, and solar projects are sometimes opposed by nearby residents.

Jerry Marizza, new business director at United Power, a Brighton-based electrical cooperative, said utilities must determine how to integrate power coming from many different sources, all while providing reliable power at affordable prices.

“Today, I’ve got thousands of little rooftop solar systems, which I call little generators all over my system,” he said. “I’ve got utility scale solar, just like Poudre Valley does, that is right at the load center. As a distribution company, I’ve got to find a way to manage all of these electrons going in different directions and being generated by different people.”

Marizza said that one of his “pet peeves” is when politicians speak of 100 percent renewables.

“I’m an engineer,” he said. “I have to operate the grid. And unfortunately, my company is not Republican or Democrat. It’s governed by the law of physics. And that’s how we have to deal with this stuff. And so to me, it’s very unrealistic to talk about 100 [percent], even though they do talk about it. But that is a gigantic challenge. And I would say today, there may be a missing technology in there to actually achieve some of that stuff.”

He added that as more renewables come on line, the industry and regulators need to address how solar users will pay their fair share for use of the electric grid. 

“The problem is, with our current net metering policies, on a $100 utility bill, about $40 or $45 of that goes to the maintenance and operation of the grid,” he said. “And when I give a solar customer the full value for that hundred bucks because they’ve got a solar system on their roof, I’m not collecting that money for the operation of the grid.”

Marizza said the utility loses money every time a solar customer connects to the grid, a problem that will get worse as more renewables come on line.

“We have to start thinking about redesigning our net metering policy so that everybody pays a fair share,” he said.

But utilities aren’t the only entities integrating renewables: Even traditional-energy companies are doing so. Jan Kulmann, director, midstream and facilities for Whiting Petroleum Corp., said oil-and-gas companies have embraced renewable energy in the production process.

Power usage can be a huge emissions factor for oil and gas, she said, and as regulations tighten on the amount of emissions that are allowed in oil and gas operations, renewables have become an important part of the mix.

“As we look for ways to ensure responsible energy development, emissions reduction is a crucial part of that conversation,” she said. Energy production — including use of compressors, pumps, vapor-recovery units and other instruments — can use an enormous amount of power.

“The less we have to rely on equipment that produces emissions, the more oil and gas we can actually produce on location,” Kulmann said.

Power lines aren’t always a good option at remote oil-and-gas locations, she said, so “The oil and gas industry is actually a huge user of solar.” Solar power can also be used to remotely shut locations in the event of natural disasters, such as the 2013 floods.

Ali Weaver, senior project development manager with Silicon Ranch Corp., a solar developer, said consumers, municipalities, and companies such as Apple, Facebook and others have driven demand for solar energy.

But construction of solar projects can be obstructed by “NIMBYism, where nobody wants anything in their backyard.”

She said a group of voters is driving the industry toward 100 percent renewable energy. But at the same time, other citizens are showing up at county commissions or city councils and saying that, “aesthetically, solar is not pleasing to them.”

And many land-use codes and zoning regulations are not written to promote or allow large-scale solar projects, even in communities that espouse 100 percent renewables as a goal. Many local governmental jurisdictions are considering revisions of those regulations, especially in the wake of numerous state laws intended to shift Colorado toward renewable energy.

“There’s definitely a give and take that we have to bring on as we’re striving toward these different goals,” she said.

LOVELAND — Shifting to a renewable-energy future has increasingly become the mantra for municipalities, but the shift poses challenges for utilities and clean-tech providers themselves. And even traditional-energy companies are getting in on the action by adding renewables in their production process.

Speakers at the “Striking a Balance: Blending Renewables with Traditional Energy” panel at the Colorado Energy Summit Thursday outlined some of the challenges that the shift presents. The panel was moderated by Katie Tate, senior community relations specialist at PDC Energy Inc.

Milton Geiger, alternative-energy administrator with Poudre Valley REA, discussed how his organization approaches bringing renewable energy into the organization’s system. Poudre Valley REA is a rural electric distribution cooperative, delivering power to its members.

Those members expect to access power at all times, even as the cooperative seeks to integrate more renewables.

“Things are changing,” he said. “… In the electric industry, in particular, we’re trying to reengineer an airplane, except our airplane has to be up in the air while we’re doing it. We can’t take it down and say, ‘Hey, bring it back up in five years from now with a certain blend of renewables or this amount of carbon. We have to change as we go.”

Poudre Valley REA itself is a member of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., which provides much of its power. But Poudre Valley also generates some of its own power through several solar projects, presenting challenges, as that solar-generated power must be distributed and used locally.

“What we produce for renewable energy has…