Platte River Power Authority nears 60% noncarbon electricity



Platte River Power Authority has a straight shot toward 60% renewable electricity by the end of 2023. The path beyond that is much less clear, but that could change soon.

The electricity provider for Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park is nearing the finish line for its integrated resource plan, which will map out its plan for electricity generation between 2021 and 2040. Platte River will file the IRP in July.

Board of Directors meeting documents posted on Platte River’s website show four rough sketches of electricity resources that could be included in the IRP, including 90% noncarbon by 2030, 100% noncarbon by 2030, 65% noncarbon by 2036, and 90% noncarbon by 2036.

Platte River’s board isn’t locked into picking one of the four options, which they’ll discuss in detail on Thursday. But they offer an early look at the challenges Platte River will have to address to achieve 100% noncarbon electricity by 2030. The board adopted that goal in 2018, attached to a list of caveats. It’s contingent on maintaining affordability and reliability.

The four portfolios will also be up for debate at an upcoming series of community focus groups, where attendees will be able to go in-depth on each option and its corresponding costs (capital, operational, fuel, carbon tax and the social cost of carbon). The Fort Collins outreach event is set for 6-8 p.m. March 12 at Drake Centre, 802 W. Drake Road.

A few highlights from the portfolios:

  • Portfolio 1, 65% noncarbon by 2036, includes coal and natural gas with some additions to storage and renewables. Wholesale rates could increase about 50% (2% annually, on average) between 2021 and 2040. (This is essentially the business-as-usual option, which underlines the reality that electricity rates will increase over time regardless of how Platte River proceeds.)
  • Portfolio 2, 90% noncarbon by 2030, includes no coal and some natural gas, supplemented by more renewables and battery storage. Wholesale rates could increase about 52% (2% annually, on average) between 2021 and 2040. This is the “zero coal” option.
  • Portfolio 3, 100% noncarbon by 2030, includes all renewable electricity with a significant amount of battery storage. Wholesale rates could increase about 130% (9% annually, on average) between 2021 and 2030, and the system would have reliability issues, according to Platte River’s modeling. This is the “zero carbon” option.
  • Portfolio 4, 90% noncarbon by 2036, includes no coal power and some natural gas. Wholesale rates could increase about 52% (2% annually, on average) between 2021 and 2040. The difference between Portfolio 4 and Portfolio 2 is the Rawhide Unit 1 coal plant would stay in operation longer, and this portfolio assumes significant advances in electric vehicles, rooftop storage and battery storage. It’s known as the “integrated utilities” option.

The options show that Platte River is approaching a pivotal point. The power provider is poised to make a major leap ahead in renewable electricity over the next several years. Roundhouse Renewable Energy, a 225-megawatt Wyoming wind farm, is under construction and expected to be finished by the end of 2020. Platte River is in negotiations with two final bidders for an up-to-150-megawatt solar project, which is expected to come online by the end of 2023.

Platte River is investing in these large-scale power purchase agreements now because the price of wind and solar has declined so dramatically, CEO and general manager Jason Frisbie said. Both projects are the biggest capacity that Platte River can accommodate with its existing system. Together with the nearly finished 22-megawatt solar array at Rawhide Energy Station, the new projects will bring Platte River from about 30% renewable electricity to 60% renewable if the solar facility is built out at 150 megawatts.

To move past that benchmark, though, Platte River has to get over a hurdle its leaders have readily acknowledged since they adopted the 100% noncarbon goal: Production of renewable electricity doesn’t align with electricity consumption.

“That’s the $64,000 question that everybody’s trying to answer,” Frisbie said. “As we transition into more renewables, which are intermittent resources, how do we get consumption to better match up with the supply?”

At Platte River, the work to answer that question is well underway.

‘A whole new variable’

Coal power has long been Platte River’s old faithful, and it still provides about two-thirds of electricity delivered to Fort Collins, Loveland, Estes Park and Longmont.

But grassroots efforts in the four communities have led to calls to divest from fossil fuels to mitigate the effects of climate change. Fort Collins City Council adopted a 100% renewable electricity goal in 2018 after years of urging from residents and members of the Fort Collins Sustainability Group, and the city will need all-renewable electricity to meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Partially as a result of those goals, Platte River is backing away from coal. Platte River expects to retire the coal-fired Craig Unit 1 at the end of 2025 and Craig Unit 2 by the end of 2030. Rawhide Unit 1, Platte River’s single largest source of electricity, will have to shut down before the end of its useful life in 2047 for the utility to meet its 2030 goal.

With coal and natural gas, utilities can overbuild facilities and increase or decrease their output with the push of a lever. That’s obviously not an option with solar and wind power. If Platte River tried to achieve its renewable electricity goal by overbuilding wind and solar facilities, it would end up having to sell large amounts of unused electricity at unpredictable prices — and peak power production still wouldn’t line up with people’s electricity use.

Wind and solar power production is hard to predict on an hour-to-hour basis. During intermittent periods known in the industry as “dark calms,” a wide geographic region might see little or no wind or sunshine.

“We’re introducing a whole new variable,” Frisbie said. “The customer used to be the side of the equation that was unpredictable.”

The unpredictability is a big challenge, considering people’s dependence on reliable electricity. Battery storage can make up for some of that unpredictability, though, and industry experts expect that batteries will become higher-capacity and cheaper as technology advances. Platte River is dipping its toe into the utility-scale battery pool with a 2-megawatt-hour battery on its to-be-completed Rawhide Prairie solar array.

The advent of utility-scale electricity storage will bring several questions along with it, Frisbie said. How long will the batteries last? How much will they cost? When will they be charged?

Broadening the footprint

Platte River will need to join a power market to get past about 60% noncarbon electricity, Frisbie said. Markets allow the utilities involved to buy and sell renewable electricity among each other so each utility can access renewables at the lowest cost available. If one utility’s renewable resources aren’t producing anything, its operators can buy renewable power from another area where the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

Platte River spent years planning an entry to the Southwest Power Pool along with several other regional utilities, but those plans fell apart when Xcel Energy backed out. Platte River leaders decided to join a mini-market — the Western Energy Imbalance Market (WEIM) — instead, although they’ll ultimately need to join a full market. They hope to join the WEIM in 2021.

“It’s a significant step,” Frisbie said. “When you are managing those renewables over a broader geographic footprint, there’s a lot better opportunity for them to be more efficiently utilized.”

To get to all or nearly all renewable electricity, Frisbie predicts communities will also have to make big strides in integration, or making city utilities, businesses and residents a more active part of the grid so everyone can act together for the benefit of the system.

That means incorporating distributed energy resources — electric vehicles, rooftop solar, small-scale battery storage, energy efficiency and electricity demand management — into the grid. And, if you ask Frisbie, it probably involves some kind of dynamic pricing where customers pay more for electricity when it’s less plentiful and are encouraged to conserve electricity during certain periods.

He envisions something like a smartphone app that notifies people when, say, wind generation is unusually high and it’s a good time to charge an electric vehicle. On the other side of the coin, customers could get an alert when generation is low and the price of power has increased.

It’s all about “getting people to understand the equation and be part of the solution,” Frisbie said. 

“If we’re going to accomplish these goals and continue to decarbonize our portfolio, we’re going to have to consume electricity differently,” Frisbie said. “The challenge is to make it as seamless as possible and as easy as possible for the consumer to respond to that.”

Time-of-day electricity pricing, adopted by Fort Collins Utilities last year, gets at a similar goal because it encourages customers to conserve electricity when community demand tends to be higher. Loveland, Estes Park and Longmont will probably have to work with their respective communities to develop their own strategies for forward-thinking electricity pricing, Frisbie said, whether it’s time-of-day pricing or something else.

The pricing question is just one of many that don’t have answers yet. But Platte River’s leaders believe answers will come.

“I can’t think of a better time to be in this business,” Frisbie said. “We are in the process of reimagining the future of electricity generation, and we’re doing it transparently. … It’s an exciting, fun, innovative time to be in the business, and I’m confident we’re going to figure it out.”

Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support stories like this one by purchasing a digital subscription to the Coloradoan.​​​​​​

Get involved

Learn more and make your voice heard by attending one of Platte River’s upcoming community focus groups. Attendees will review the four resource mixes mentioned in this story, along with their forecast capital, operational, fuel and environmental (carbon tax and social cost of carbon) costs.

Longmont: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, March 4

17th Avenue Place Event Center, 478 17th Ave.

Estes Park: 6-8 p.m. Thursday, March 5

Ridgeline Hotel, Ballroom/Salon DE, 101 S. Saint Vrain Ave.

Loveland: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, March 11

Embassy Suites, Devereaux room, 4705 Clydesdale Pkwy.

Fort Collins: 6-8 p.m. Thursday, March 12

Drake Centre, 802 W. Drake Road, Suite 101

Community members interested in attending a focus group session are encouraged to RSVP online or call 970-229-5657. 

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