Why and How to Bring Microgrids to Small Town America

March 26, 2021
What does it take to install a small town microgrid? Poudre Valley Electric Association plans to offer a case study example in northern Colorado.

This spring, the Poudre Valley Electric Association (PVREA), which provides power to northern Colorado, plans to test a microgrid for a small town that has experienced outages because of car accidents on curvy roads, extreme weather, and, in September, a fire that left the town without power for 52 hours.

Photo courtesy PVREA

The microgrid, which will replace the single transmission line that serves the town of Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, offers up an example of the value of microgrids to small town, remote communities.

With a population of about 400, Red Feather Lakes sits at an elevation of 8,300 feet and experiences winds as high as 80 mph. The microgrid will provide resilience to the fire station, library and local businesses as well as lowering power purchase costs for the local utility.

Poudre Valley is one of more than 800 electric cooperatives in the United States, a form of utility that, as it turns out, are good candidates for distributed energy resources, according to a report released in February by CoBank.

“Given the successful track record with consumer alignment and behind-the-meter innovations, electric cooperatives could utilize these resources to further insulate their communities against escalating future delivery costs,” CoBank said.

Owned by the members they serve and governed democratically, electric cooperatives emerged out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration, which was created in 1935 in an effort to bring electricity to farms, most of which the grid had yet to reach. Today, rural cooperatives serve a terrain that covers 56% of the US landmass and 42 million people.

The Poudre Valley project is one of four microgrids involving five rural electric cooperatives that are receiving funding from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the US Department of Energy, said Sam Taggart, a spokesman for Poudre Valley. The other cooperatives are the West River Electric Association in South Dakota, and, in North Carolina, Sandhills Utility Services, Tideland Electric Membership Corp. (EMC) and North Carolina EMC.

Of the four projects, two will be integrated directly into separate cooperative facilities and two into military bases served by electric cooperatives.

“This is a case study for how a microgrid can be developed and installed in these rural areas, and how we can adopt it to other areas under different scenarios,” said Taggart.

Rural cooperatives and distributed energy

But it’s critical for rural electric cooperatives to conduct open and transparent planning to understand their compatibility with the technology and how to change traditional business models to accommodate distributed energy, according to the CoBank report.

“The primary role of traditional suppliers might include managing distributed resources owned by their consumers. A move toward a service-based business model could open additional opportunities,” the report said.

In addition, distributed energy could serve rural communities by providing a buffer against future energy costs.

“A future of change brings greater optimism for rural electric cooperatives that have a successful track record with member engagement — a critical element for thriving in this evolution,” the report said.

Inside the Poudre Valley microgrid

The Poudre Valley project’s battery — a Tesla Powerpack — has already been installed at the town’s fire station, where it will provide backup, and it will be integrated into Poudre Valley’s electrical system in the spring, said Taggart. Battery controls come from Encorp’s Egility controller and allow the battery to support the PVREA system.

The 40-KW, 448-KWh battery can power the fire station for more than a day, and possibly multiple days, depending on energy usage during an outage. Poudre Valley installed energy efficiency upgrades at the fire station with a goal of extending the amount of time the battery can serve the community. The battery can be charged with an existing backup propane generator at the station to extend the amount of time the battery is available.

The project came to fruition after the library, located across from the fire station, won a grant to pursue a 20-kW solar array to help reduce its costs and boost resiliency.

The cooperative expanded the project into a microgrid that will integrate the existing propane generator at the fire station to increase the number of days the town can be served during outages.

In addition to providing resilience, the microgrid may be used for peak shaving or reducing the amount of power purchased on the open market.

In the spring, the cooperative plans to test isolating the community from the utility so the town can be served by the microgrid. Right now, the solar on the library goes to the utility’s larger system. When the microgrid is operational, the solar can stay within the isolated environment of the microgrid, Taggart explained.

“When the microgrid is operational, we can use these energy resources [propane generator, any available solar panels and/or other sources of local generation] primarily for resiliency and also potential cost savings,” said Taggart.

Solar and fire spur microgrid

The project was spurred, in part, by the Cameron Peak Fire, which broke out Aug. 13, burning in steep, rugged terrain 15 miles southwest of Red Feather Lakes. It burned about 208,000 acres and prompted large scale evacuations of the town and surrounding area. It was driven by high winds, extreme temperatures and trees affected by drought that served as fuel.

The microgrid also grew out of excitement about the library’s solar grant.

“The library got the grant; it developed into ‘We can do this’ and that snowballed,” said Taggart.

Interested in microgrids? Join us for Microgrid 2021: The World Awakens to Microgrids. Participation is free if you register in advance. Space is limited on the virtual platform.

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

Facebook: Energy Efficiency Markets

Exploring the Potential of Community Microgrids Through Three Innovative Case Studies

April 8, 2024
Community microgrids represent a burgeoning solution to meet the energy needs of localized areas and regions. These microgrids are clusters of interconnected energy resources,...


Can AI Help Build and Optimize a Truly Smart Grid?

In this white paper, you’ll learn how AI can solve the unique challenges of a modern, complex, renewable electric smart grid in real-time and at scale.