Holy Cross Energy leads Colorado charge to renewables – The Colorado Sun

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Customers of the Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy may soon start getting texts with a lot more retail hustle than they’re used to from the trusty neighborhood power utility: “Looks like a great day for wind. We’ll be making some power. Plug your car in from 10 to 2 today and get a big discount.” 

A little marketing razzle-dazzle is a vital next step for the 45,000-member co-op utility. 

Holy Cross Energy leaped into the upper echelons of green co-ops in December, when wind and solar installations switched on that put it on track for 90%-plus renewable power by late this year. Now the 45,000-member utility must work with customers on the demand side, to stretch supplies when wind and sun are scarce and to distribute power when it’s available to as many batteries as possible. 

Holy Cross has beaten by six years the state’s goal of 80% greenhouse gas reductions from the power sector by 2030. To sustain the change, the utility must interact with customers, not dictate to them, Holy Cross CEO Bryan Hannegan said. 

“Because that’s what our community wants. Our community is very much focused on climate action,” Hannegan said. “We’re a resource-dependent community in the sense that we rely on the natural world around us. We have the ski resorts, we have hunting and fishing and hiking. They’re here because of the climate that we live in. And they want to protect that, and they want to do what they can to protect that. And so they’ve spoken with a very clear voice.”

The co-op has been a leader in renewable energy for years, said Rick Gilliam, formerly director of the nonprofit clean energy advocate Vote Solar. Holy Cross, which serves customers in Eagle, Pitkin, Mesa and Gunnison counties, was among the first to enable community solar gardens, allowing those who can’t put solar panels on their own homes to benefit from lower bills and renewable energy.

“I think overall, they’ve done a really good job,” Gilliam said.

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Holy Cross fulfilling its members’ mandate to expand renewables advanced quickly in 2023, through the following projects: 

  • Bronco Plains 2 wind farm near Flagler contributes 150MW of its 200MW capacity to Holy Cross in winter months, supplying 30% of Holy Cross customer needs. The project was built by the for-profit energy company NextEra Energy Resources. 
  • Hunter Solar near Bennett in Arapahoe County will divide up 75MW of panel power, with Holy Cross taking 30MW, or enough for a few thousand households. The rest of the power goes to the CORE Electric Cooperative, serving 176,000 members in rural areas surrounding metro Denver. 
  • High Mesa Solar and Storage at Parachute brings 10MW of panels and 20MW of storage, an all-important growth area for utilities switching to renewables. The battery array can dispatch power at night, during peak demand or on days when sun and wind aren’t producing adequate supplies. 
  • Mamm Creek Solar and Storage brings the same 10MW of panels and 20MW of storage to the Rifle area. 

Many of the projects came online in December, Hannegan said, after years of planning and preparation for each. 

The growing storage capacity “basically behaves like gas turbines would on a normal power grid,” Hannegan said, with the ability to in effect turn them on at will to send instant power to members. 

(Source: Holy Cross Energy)

Buying portions of projects spread geographically across the state is intentional for the renewables transition, Hannegan said. “It’s less likely that all of those resources are going to be out of commission all at once,” he said. 

Some co-ops and the power-generating utilities they buy from have taken heat in recent years for not speeding up the transition to renewables. Major co-ops have left or are trying to leave the collective Tri-State Generation and Transmission to gain more control over their clean energy moves. 

“Some of their independent brethren sort of got stuck with a lot of fairly expensive coal plants, and in some cases, gas plants that had a lot of economic life left in them. So it’s a difficult transition to make,” Gilliam said. 

The growth in renewables allows Holy Cross to broker away most of its small share of the controversial, coal-burning Comanche 3 plant in Pueblo that is operated by Xcel Energy. Xcel has accelerated its promise to close Comanche for good by the end of 2031. That will mark the last of Colorado’s coal-plant closures. 

While Holy Cross announced a rate increase in February, it says residential rates are still lower than any other Colorado co-op, and that far lower prices for renewable generation projects have helped keep costs low. 

But the newfound reliance on renewables does come with additional work for co-ops, Hannegan noted. 

“The biggest challenge is going to be continuing to balance the supply and the demand of energy, because the wind and the solar are obviously more variable,” Hannegan said. “And so being able to also manage the demand for electricity in a more flexible way is going to be our key to getting 95% to 100% renewable energy in all hours of every year, which is our goal.”

Electric consumers across Colorado have recently gotten used to peak pricing, where they pay significantly more per kilowatt hour of energy used during high-demand times in the afternoons, for example. Reducing demand at peak times can help power companies avoid building expensive generating capacity that sits idle during off-hours, and refrain from paying high prices on spot energy markets to fill gaps. 

Holy Cross already takes that concept a step further, not by raising peak prices but by “paying” customers for cutting back on their normal peak use, Hannegan said. That payback rate will increase in April to $1.50 per kilowatt hour of savings. 

By later this year, Hannegan said, the messages to the consumer will “be the reverse.”

“Today’s a great day for wind. We’re expecting a ton of it between these hours and so between ten and two this afternoon when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, we’ll give you 50% off,” or some other noticeable discount, Hannegan said. “We’re going to have to be creative about managing that.” 

Holy Cross will continue to encourage its customers to become part of the solution by offering rebates for new clean electric appliances, which often replace gas-burning furnaces or stoves. Holy Cross also supports rooftop solar, home battery storage, EV hookups, and community solar projects. 

The overall effect will be creating a “distributed storage” network for Holy Cross customers, where they can pay discounted rates to fill up their energy reservoirs in cars and home batteries with clean electricity.

All those plans line up with what nonprofits like Vote Solar have pushed for a long time, Gilliam said. 

Putting residential customers “in touch with their energy use,” Gilliam said, “makes the connection between when they run their dishwasher and what that energy costs them.” 

Type of Story: News

Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

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