How will battery storage help Taos' all-solar energy future?

By Doug Cantwell
dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 11/21/19

A chat with Luis A. Reyes Jr., CEO of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative.

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How will battery storage help Taos' all-solar energy future?

Posted

A chat with Luis A. Reyes Jr., CEO of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative:

Taos News: You've announced plans to build battery storage facilities as part of two new solar projects you're developing at Taos Mesa and Angel Fire. How will they benefit Kit Carson Electric Cooperative members?

Luis Reyes Jr.: Most people tend to think of batteries as conventional storage that will kick in when there's no sun. That's just one use case; storage can also be used for resiliency and for backup.

For instance, we have a lot of communities in the mountains, and if there's a power outage or catastrophic event - like the fire we had recently on U.S. Hill - how do we keep serving them? We met with the Forest Service when that fire started to figure out the best strategy: Was it best to shut off the power? We wanted to keep serving our customers but didn't want to endanger first responders or cause another source of fire.

When we have battery storage that's distributed locally across our grid, and there's a fire or other catastrophic event, communities like Peñasco will be able to keep operating, keep pumping water and, if need be, set up a Red Cross emergency shelter. Battery storage puts us in a better position to serve our members - and not just with electricity.

If you look at California, that's exactly what happened there. The utility saw it was windy, they didn't want to be sued, so they just cut the power to affected areas. To me, that's not a solution, because we have an obligation to serve our members.

So, as we introduce storage with the new projects, it's going to have several different uses: to ensure reliable energy for our members, to increase our resiliency as a grid and also to provide backup. The energy markets are getting more and more complex, so when our batteries are not being used, we can sell into the marketplace to support other utilities like Public Service of New Mexico and make some money for our members.

From a larger perspective, battery storage gives us an opportunity to optimize the KCEC grid, which actually is becoming unique among small rural co-ops nationwide. We're creating a distributed energy resource model, so we have a bunch of solar arrays located across our territory that supply power to homes, schools and businesses that are close by.

There's another advantage to this model. Let's say it's cloudy in the eastern part of the system but sunny over on the western side: you never really lose the entire grid all at once. Battery storage can distribute power to the cloudy areas where the arrays aren't currently generating.

But aren't large-scale, long-duration batteries still more a dream than a reality?

LR: Technology is going to catch up - whether it will be a longer-lasting battery or a fuel cell that will last into the evening and complement daytime solar. Fuel cells are prevalent now; they use them in military applications, in space applications and some larger businesses use them. A hydrogen-based fuel cell is also clean because it's carbon-free. That technology will continue to evolve.

There's also the fact that renewable energy is now becoming cheap. Granted, the sun doesn't shine at night, so we still need to figure out how to close that gap. But if you compare a coal plant to a solar plant during the hours that both are generating, coal is currently generating at about 5.5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, while solar has dropped to 2.5 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. Not only is solar clean and renewable, but there's no question that it's now the most competitive resource.

Why has KCEC gone totally with solar? Why not a mix of solar and wind or some other renewable?

LR: About seven years ago, we put together a member focus group and asked, "Do we want renewable energy?" and "If we do, what kind?" Of the available types - wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and biomass - our members wanted solar. If we'd gone with wind, it would be a case of either installing wind farms locally - a major impact on the landscape - or importing wind-generated power from the eastern side of the state, so it would no longer be local.

The arrays we've built are low to the ground and don't visually impact the landscape to any major degree. We have a lot of available property in this area, so that's not an issue. Another thing is that solar generation doesn't require much water, which is a major concern here. We have to wash the panels once in a while, but that's pretty minimal.

The Taos Mesa project we're developing is located in the buffer area between the Taos County landfill and nearby landowners, so instead of having the dump as a neighbor, they'll now have a low-profile solar farm. We also chose this location because it's only a mile and a half from the Las Cordovas power station, so it feeds directly into it and then gets distributed across the system.

Taos Mesa will provide 15 megawatts of solar generating capacity and 12 megawatts of storage. Together with Angel Fire and our existing arrays, that will provide enough supply to meet our goal of 100 percent daytime renewable by 2022 - and probably beat that target date by nine months.

Does KCEC actually build and own the arrays? Who are the other players you mention?

LR: We're a distributive co-op, so we don't own the arrays. Until 2016, we belonged to a generation-and-transmission co-op, Tri-State Energy in Denver - basically a co-op of co-ops - that provided power to us and their other member co-ops. We then switched to Guzman Energy as our power supplier and signed a 10-year contract with them. Guzman sells us any power we need that's not generated by our solar arrays.

Syncarpha Capital and Torch Clean Energy are the ones that actually build and own the projects. Since we have the contract with Guzman, we have to work through them any time we want to develop a new array to determine who will build it. Syncarpha has built four of our arrays and is currently finalizing three others. Torch will build the new arrays and battery storage facilities at Taos Mesa and Angel Fire.

In effect, we lease the arrays from Torch and Syncarpha. They have the cash to build them, and they can use the federal tax credits because they're for-profit enterprises. KCEC, as a nonprofit co-op, is not taxable, so we can't use the credits directly. But Torch and Syncarpha pass along those savings to us, so it's a win-win: for our members because we're getting the price as low as possible, and for them because they can use the credits and have a cash flow throughout the service life of the project.

Where will KCEC go from here to keep improving Taos' energy future?

LR: As I mentioned, we're watching the various technologies and how they evolve to figure out the best solution for nighttime hours and cloudy days. It could be importing wind from eastern New Mexico, or using hydrogen fuel cells or long-duration batteries.

We're also looking at electric vehicles - essentially, how to change the mindset. Any realistic solution to climate change has to include acceptance of EVs. For Taos, buying and using them has to be affordable, because this is not a wealthy community. So we're looking at partnering with someone to provide sufficient charging infrastructure throughout the area to support them.

People have an understandable fear of running out of juice in an EV; they can't just walk to the nearest charging station and fill up a can. Taoseños also have problems with the current EV selection, but I saw that Ford has just rolled out its new electric F-150 pickup, so that might help change perceptions.

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