Energy innovation in Grand County

Solar Panels providing power to John Erwin’s residence in Grand County.
Solar Panels providing power to John Erwin’s residence in Grand County.

by Tara Walker

Grand County Innovators presented an Energy Innovation event at the Headwaters Center in Winter Park on September 24th. Presenters explained that electric vehicles, energy research, green architecture, and solar energy are impacting Grand County and the future of energy in the United States while sparking local economic development opportunities.

The new Fraser Solar Project from Middle Park Electric, the need for policies to support energy innovation, co-working in Grand County and the innovative solar capabilities of the new Headwaters Event Center was discussed by knowledgeable panel members during the event.

Kristin Taddonio is a board member for Grand Innovators and facilitated the meeting. She has experience working for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Protection Partnerships Division (which runs the ENERGY STAR program). Taddonio is also a board member for Mountain
Parks Electric and is on their Green Power Advisory Committee.

Taddonio, “We are familiar with energy as it powers our lives, fuels our cars, powers our laptops and electricity and energy as radically transformed our world. When people think of stable business models, they think of utilities, but the interesting thing is that there is a lot that is changing in the energy industry and an incredible amount of innovation recently.”

Renewable energy started with hydropower until researchers explored wind and solar power in the 1970s. Solar and Wind power were expensive and innovators were developing new ways to get natural gas out of the ground with fracking in the 1990’s and coal plants started shutting down. Replacing coal with national gas was the trend and in 2014 energy forecasters expected that trend to continue.

“In the last 5 years, renewable energy got real cheap real fast. Even a decade ago, we didn’t expect it to be cost-competitive until 2030 or 2050, but technology evolved faster than expected and records were broken in Colorado recently with 2 cents a kilowatt-hour. The power supplier Tristate put out a bid for renewable resources. The landscape is changing fast and that brings opportunities and challenges,” Taddonio went on to explain that major changes are occurring in the automotive industry and experts are predicting the end of the internal combustion engine and that more electric vehicles will be in our future.

“Even the most conservative automotive forecasts expect it to be cheaper than internal combustion.

If trends continue, we could see an explosion of electric vehicles and what does that mean to our grid to charge those vehicles?” explained Taddonio.

Taddonio introduced Pete Van Deusen, Architect and Project Manager for the Headwaters Event Center in Winter Park. Van Deusen explained that innovative green technologies were used when constructing the event center. 128 kilowatts come from solar panels with an additional 35 kilowatts from the solar panels on the canopy over the performance stage. Power is transferred into DC and routed throughout the entire building to run almost everything from lighting to communications.

Scott Simmons is the Mountain Parks Electric Assistant General Manager and an engineer. He told the audience that the MPE Solar project on County Road 5 will provide 1 megawatt of solar and power 300 homes. MPE financed the project and it is currently under construction with projected completion in November.

Simmons thanked the county and the commissioners help with providing the land for the project. Commissioner Rich Cimino explained that the land is definitely available for 20 to 30 years to MPE, but that the gravel pit may need to be expanded and the solar panels may need to be removed in the future depending on county needs.

Innovative Board member Austin Gray then spoke about coworking. He’s a partner with Green Spaces Coworking. Green Spaces provides well-designed shared office space in Denver and Winter Park where companies and members can utilize the desks and office space rather than have expensive long term leases for office buildings. Gray, “It’s great for productivity and you are also buying into a community and network of people. Whenever you bring bright innovative individuals under one roof, ideas and action take place.”

Forum participant Quinn Antus is the Executive Director for Responsible Growth. She encouraged a focus on energy policy and the importance of getting the technology industry involved with the policy regarding energy innovation and environmental policies.

Audience members took the time to explain the positive impact that solar energy and energy innovation has had on them. MPE board member Liz Mcintyre talked about the MPE Green Power Program that was established in 1999 so that members could voluntarily support renewable power by donating as little as $1 on their energy bill. Since 2011, more than $170,000 has been invested in local green projects like electric vehicle charging systems, the Walden floating solar array on their water treatment plant, and the Granby water treatment plant to name a few.

John Erwin lives part-time in Adams County and part-time in Hawaii. His home in Grand County has 217 photovoltaic (PV) solar panels that were installed by local business owner Guy Larson with Simply Efficient. The solar panels use a unique Freon based tracking system to follow the sun yielding about 35% more electricity than fixed panels.

Erwin, “I haven’t paid an electric bill for 7 years and that includes charging an electric car and powering everything in the house. The other thing is that I’d like to emphasize that I wouldn’t have done everything I did without the support of the government credits. Many people can’t make an investment in solar without help from somewhere and I got help from the state, MPE and the federal government.”

Erwin explained that through MPE’s net metering, “I am a power plant for Mountain Parks Electric and they get to take credit for renewable energy. They accept me on their network as a node that produces power and they give me credit for everything I produce.”
Grand County Innovators encouraged participants to become involved in energy innovation and policy initiatives whenever possible and to expect more changes in the grand county for electric car charging, solar energy, and efficient green buildings and homes.

Scott Simmons with MPE, “Decentralizing big offices to coworker spaces can lead to more efficiency. The same trend is seen in the electric industry. Solar projects in Grand and Jackson county, the hydro facilities and the small local generators are part of that trend. The challenge is that the system and grid are designed to take power from one plant and move it out to the consumers rather than the small generators and the engineers are working on that.”