Colorado State University’s Energy Institute is revving up its hydrogen and natural gas research capabilities with the recent arrival of an industrial turbine generator slated to be installed at the Powerhouse Energy Campus. The acquisition positions CSU among just a handful of academic institutions across the U.S. that have similar engines for conducting large-scale research and testing.
San Diego-based manufacturer Solar Turbines donated the turbine, which will be stationed in the Powerhouse’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory. Solar Turbines is a subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc., the world’s leading manufacturer of diesel and natural gas engines.
The turbine’s arrival at the Powerhouse this past spring marked the beginning of its new life in higher education research.
Capable of producing 4,700 horsepower and 3.5 megawatts of electricity, the massive turbine will dwarf the existing research engines at CSU – and at nearly any other academic institution – by a long shot: In just one hour of runtime, the generator could produce enough energy to power the average U.S. household for more than three months.
“We have a track record of working with Caterpillar on large-scale energy solutions over several decades, and now this collaboration with Solar Turbines and the equipment they’ve provided will allow us to expand our work on clean turbine technology even further,” said Bryan Willson, Executive Director of the CSU Energy Institute.
The Energy Institute’s 30-year history partnering with Caterpillar on engine research projects has resulted in numerous applied solutions for improving engines and decreasing emissions across industries, he said.
“This new turbine will provide truly unparalleled access for faculty and students to advance their research on these critical greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies and develop solutions around combined hydrogen and natural gas power generation,” Willson said. “It will be an incredible addition to the facility and our research capabilities.”
Hydrogen combustion research
Bret Windom, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is leading CSU’s team of researchers developing kinetic models of hydrogen combustion. This work is part of a larger four-year, $4.5 million U.S. Department of Energy project led by Solar Turbines to develop a retrofittable dry, low-emissions gas turbine combustion system that can run on 100% hydrogen as well as blends of hydrogen and natural gas. Researchers from University of California-Irvine, Energy Research Consultants, Ltd., and the Southwest Research Institute are also contributors to the project.
“We’re currently in phase one of this project, where we’re developing combustion models and supporting computer-aided engineering of the combustor design,” Windom said.
In collaboration with Solar Turbines, Windom’s team will also be studying the turbine’s potential to run on varying fuel blends of natural gas and hydrogen and what, if any, modifications need to be made to the equipment to account for the enhanced reactivity of hydrogen and its unique combustion behaviors. This research could play a key role in advancing hydrogen-powered turbine technology, work that could have scalable impacts on decarbonization in the industrial and power generation sectors, he said.
“We have a track record of taking solutions from the laboratory and getting them into the field at-scale, and the addition of the turbine in our lab facility is going to allow us to do that now,” Windom said.
For CSU student Miguel Valles Castro, the addition of the turbine will bring more than just new equipment into the lab; it will broaden opportunities for students to develop and apply their research skills in a real-world setting. Valles Castro is a mechanical engineering doctoral student, graduate research assistant and Cogen Renewable Energy Fellow working with Windom on internal combustion engine modeling.
“The Energy Institute at CSU has many years of experience in internal combustion engines and other renewable energy devices to reduce emissions,” Valles Castro said. “The arrival of the turbine is exciting because it expands our areas of expertise.”
“This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC. “It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.”
The world faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C (2.7°F). Even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible. Risks for society will increase, including to infrastructure and low-lying coastal settlements.
The Summary for Policymakers of the IPCC Working Group II report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability was approved on Sunday, February 27 2022, by 195 member governments of the IPCC, through a virtual approval session that was held over two weeks starting on February 14.
Urgent action required to deal with increasing risks
Increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals. These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage. They have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on Small Islands and in the Arctic.
To avoid mounting loss of life, biodiversity and infrastructure, ambitious, accelerated action is required to adapt to climate change, at the same time as making rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. So far, progress on adaptation is uneven and there are increasing gaps between action taken and what is needed to deal with the increasing risks, the new report finds. These gaps are largest among lower-income populations.
The Working Group II report is the second instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which will be completed this year.
“This report recognizes the interdependence of climate, biodiversity and people and integrates natural, social and economic sciences more strongly than earlier IPCC assessments,” said Hoesung Lee. “It emphasizes the urgency of immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risks. Half measures are no longer an option.”
Safeguarding and strengthening nature is key to securing a liveable future
There are options to adapt to a changing climate. This report provides new insights into nature’s potential not only to reduce climate risks but also to improve people’s lives.
“Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and provide life-critical services such as food and clean water”, said IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair Hans-Otto Pörtner. “By restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving 30 to 50 per cent of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean habitats, society can benefit from nature’s capacity to absorb and store carbon, and we can accelerate progress towards sustainable development, but adequate finance and political support are essential.”
Scientists point out that climate change interacts with global trends such as unsustainable use of natural resources, growing urbanization, social inequalities, losses and damages from extreme events and a pandemic, jeopardizing future development.
“Our assessment clearly shows that tackling all these different challenges involves everyone – governments, the private sector, civil society – working together to prioritize risk reduction, as well as equity and justice, in decision-making and investment,” said IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair Debra Roberts.
“In this way, different interests, values and world views can be reconciled. By bringing together scientific and technological know-how as well as Indigenous and local knowledge, solutions will be more effective. Failure to achieve climate resilient and sustainable development will result in a sub-optimal future for people and nature.”
Cities: Hotspots of impacts and risks, but also a crucial part of the solution
This report provides a detailed assessment of climate change impacts, risks and adaptation in cities, where more than half the world’s population lives. People’s health, lives and livelihoods, as well as property and critical infrastructure, including energy and transportation systems, are being increasingly adversely affected by hazards from heatwaves, storms, drought and flooding as well as slow-onset changes, including sea level rise.
“Together, growing urbanization and climate change create complex risks, especially for those cities that already experience poorly planned urban growth, high levels of poverty and unemployment, and a lack of basic services,” Debra Roberts said.
“But cities also provide opportunities for climate action – green buildings, reliable supplies of clean water and renewable energy, and sustainable transport systems that connect urban and rural areas can all lead to a more inclusive, fairer society.”
There is increasing evidence of adaptation that has caused unintended consequences, for example destroying nature, putting peoples’ lives at risk or increasing greenhouse gas emissions. This can be avoided by involving everyone in planning, attention to equity and justice, and drawing on Indigenous and local knowledge.
A narrowing window for action
Climate change is a global challenge that requires local solutions and that’s why the Working Group II contribution to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) provides extensive regional information to enable Climate Resilient Development.
The report clearly states Climate Resilient Development is already challenging at current warming levels. It will become more limited if global warming exceeds 1.5°C (2.7°F). In some regions it will be impossible if global warming exceeds 2°C (3.6°F). This key finding underlines the urgency for climate action, focusing on equity and justice. Adequate funding, technology transfer, political commitment and partnership lead to more effective climate change adaptation and emissions reductions.
“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner.
For more information, please contact:
IPCC Press Office, Email: email@example.com IPCC Working Group II:
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Click the link to read “Humanity has a ‘brief and rapidly closing window’ to avoid a hotter, deadly future, U.N. climate report says: Latest IPCC report details escalating toll — but top scientists say the world still can choose a less catastrophic path” from The Washington Post (Sarah Kaplan and Brady Dennis). Here’s an excerpt:
Unchecked greenhouse gas emissions will raise sea levels several feet, swallowing small island nations and overwhelming even the world’s wealthiest coastal regions. Drought, heat, hunger and disaster may force millions of people from their homes. Coral reefs could vanish, along with a growing number of animal species. Disease-carrying insects would proliferate. Deaths — from malnutrition, extreme heat, pollution — will surge.
These are some of the grim projections detailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body dedicated to providing policymakers with regular assessments of the warming world…
Low-income countries, which generate only a tiny fraction of global emissions, will experience the vast majority of deaths and displacement from the worst-case warming scenarios, the IPCC warns. Yet these nations have the least capacity to adapt — a disparity that extends to even the basic research needed to understand looming risks.
“I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement. Noting the litany of devastating impacts that already are unfolding, he described the document as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”
Yet if there is a glimmer of hope in the more than 3,500-page report, it is that the world still has a chance to choose a less catastrophic path. While some climate impacts are destined to worsen, the amount that Earth ultimately warms is not yet written in stone.
The report makes clear, however, that averting the worst-case scenarios will require nothing less than transformational change on a global scale.
The world will need to overhaul energy systems, redesign cities and revolutionize how humans grow food. Rather than reacting to climate disturbances after they happen, the IPCC says, communities must more aggressively adapt for the changes they know are coming. These investments could save trillions of dollars and millions of lives, but they have so far been in short supply.
The IPCC report is a warning letter to a world on the brink. The urgency and escalating toll of climate change has never been clearer, it says. Humanity can’t afford to wait one more day to take action — otherwise we may miss the “brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”
Utilities with goals of producing 100 percent renewable energy in Colorado must figure out how to reliably deliver electricity when relying upon resources, primarily wind and sunshine, that aren’t always reliable.
The answer may lie in water, and some of that water may come from Colorado’s Yampa River.
Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, are talking about the potential for green hydrogen and other possible storage technologies associated with their existing coal-fired power plants, at Hayden and Craig, in the Yampa Valley. Both plants are scheduled to shut down, with Hayden slated to close by 2028 and Craig by 2030.
Duane Highley, the chief executive of Tri-State, told member cooperatives in a meeting Aug. 4 that Tri-State and the State of Colorado have partnered in a proposed Craig Energy Research Station.
Hydrogen has been described as the missing link in the transition away from fossil fuels. It can be produced in several ways. Green hydrogen, the subject of the proposal at Craig, is made from water using electrolysis. The oxygen separated from the H2O can be vented, leaving the hydrogen, a fluid that can be stored in tanks or, as is in a demonstration project in Utah, in salt caverns. The hydrogen can then be tapped later as a fuel source to produce electricity or, for that matter, put into pipelines for distribution to fueling stations.
How much water will be required to produce green hydrogen isn’t clear. But the Yampa Valley’s existing coal-fired plants have strong water portfolios that could be used to create green hydrogen or another storage technology called molten salt. The latter is the leading candidate at the Hayden plant, co-owned by Xcel Energy and its partners.
Craig Generating Station in 2021 is projected to use 7,394 acre-feet of water, according to a Tri-State filing with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. By 2029, the last year of coal generation at Craig, Tri-State projects water use will decline to 4,270 acre-feet.
Xcel Energy also has water rights associated with its somewhat smaller two-unit Hayden Generating Station.
When Tri-State first announced last year its plans to close its coal units, some hoped the utility would allow the water to continue downstream, aiding fish and habitat in the Yampa Valley. The Yampa, arguably Colorado’s least trammeled river, since 2018 has been plagued by drought. In early August, water managers placed a call on the middle section of the Yampa River for only the third time ever.
Western Resource Advocates, which works in both energy and water, has supported the green hydrogen proposal. But there’s also hope that a water dividend will still be realized in this transition, resulting in more water available for the Yampa, which is a major tributary to the Colorado River.
“If we do it right, we have the chance to equitably share the impacts and solutions to climate change all across Colorado and the West, with benefits for communities, economies and the environment,” says Bart Miller, director of the Healthy Rivers Program for Western Resource Advocates.
Green hydrogen, similar to wind and solar in the past, has a cost hurdle that research at Craig, if it happens, will seek to dismantle. The federal government’s Energy Earthshots Initiative announced in June hopes to drive the costs down 80% by the end of the decade. That is the program in which Tri-State hopes to participate.
Tri-State’s Highley suggested at the meeting last Thursday that the Craig site should swim to the top of the proposals, because it is an existing industrial site, and the Craig and Hayden units also have high-voltage transmission lines. This is crucial. Those lines dispatch electricity to the Front Range and other markets but they can also be used to import electricity from the giant wind farms being erected on Colorado’s Eastern Plains as well as solar collectors on rooftops and in backyards.
In addition, Craig and Hayden have workforces that, at least in theory, could be transitioned to work in energy storage projects.
Western Resource Advocates, in a June 30 letter to the Department of Energy, made note of that consideration. “A green, zero-carbon hydrogen project at Craig Station is an opportunity to demonstrate how the clean energy transition can also be a just transition for fossil fuel-producing communities,” said the letter signed by Erin Overturf, the Clean Energy Program director.
Several state agencies will likely play a role, said Dominique Gomez, deputy director of the Colorado Energy Office, including the Office of Just Transition that was established in 2019 and the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
At Craig, the vision is “to provide researchers access to the key resources necessary to perform their research, including water, transmission and site space,” Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said in an e-mail. “As the initial step, Tri-State and the state plan to engage a group of stakeholders to facilitate the development of the center.”
The Department of Energy has not indicated when it expects to announce the finalists or grant funding.
At Hayden, where the coal units are scheduled to close in 2028, Xcel Energy says it is in the early stages of studying potential for molten salt, the leading energy storage technology at this time, but also green hydrogen.
Water use will depend upon the size of the projects, said Xcel representative Michelle Aguayo in a statement. “It’s important to remember the amount of water used in power generation in Colorado is relatively small, representing 0.3% of water diversion in the state.”
Xcel already participates in a hydrogen pilot project in Minnesota, its home state for operations, and has proposed natural gas plants in North Dakota and Minnesota that are to be designed to use hydrogen technology when it becomes viable and cost-effective.
“As we’ve said before, we’re focused on identifying and exploring technologies that will allow us to bring our customers carbon-free energy by 2050, technologies that are not available or cost effective today,” she said.
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers the energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
Colorado has some of the United States’ most ambitious climate goals, targeting 50% remissions reductions in 2030 and 90% emissions reductions by 2050. These goals are bolstered by sector-specific policies enacted in 2019 including legislation requiring the state’s dominant utility Xcel to cut emissions 80% by 2030, along with tax credits and partnerships to build charging stations and accelerate the zero-emission vehicle transition.
But new research shows the state’s existing policies, excluding those that are planned but not enacted as part of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap, will only reduce emissions 18% by 2050 – falling far short of Colorado’s climate ambition.
As debate intensifies around Colorado’s next steps on climate policy, new modeling from Energy Innovation and RMI shows implementing stronger policies, many of which are included as part of the state’s GHG Roadmap, can be a climate and economic boon. Ambitious decarbonization of the state’s electricity, transportation, industry, building, and land-use sectors can help limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius while adding more than 20,000 new jobs and $3.5 billion in economic activity per year by 2030 – and up to 36,000 jobs and $7.5 billion annually by 2050.
Cheap clean energy empowers decarbonization – but policy still needed
Colorado embodies the clean energy transition accelerating across the U.S. – a state where fossil fuels once underpinned energy supply and economic activity, but where fast-falling clean energy prices have made decarbonization the cheapest option.
Those favorable economics have made Colorado’s climate ambition possible, but the state is now embarking on the tougher task of determining how to achieve its emissions reductions goals..
Colorado could reap billions in economic growth from its climate ambition
So how can Colorado meet its climate action goals and build a clean energy economy? New modeling using the Colorado Energy Policy Simulator (EPS) developed by Energy Innovation and Colorado-based RMI outlines a policy package that can decarbonize the state’s economy and put it on a pathway to achieve the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommended target of limiting warming to 1.5°C – while generating sustainable economic growth. Some of these policies overlap with those outlined in the state’s GHG Roadmap.
The free, open-source, peer-reviewed Colorado EPS empowers users to estimate climate and energy policy impacts on emissions, the economy, and public health through 2050 using publicly available data. All model assumptions, key data sources, and scenario development used by the EPS are documented online for full transparency. EPS models have been developed for nearly a dozen countries and several subnational regions, including California, Minnesota, Nevada, and Virginia. The Colorado EPS is one of at least 20 planned state-level EPS models being developed by EI and RMI…
Fortunately, the Colorado EPS finds implementing stronger policies across the state’s electricity, transportation, buildings, industrial, land-use, and agricultural sectors can put it on a 1.5°C -compliant pathway that meets Colorado’s emissions reductions goals. The associated air pollution reductions would also prevent 350 deaths and more than 10,000 asthma attacks per year by 2030, and more than 1,400 deaths and nearly 44,000 asthma attacks per year by 2050 – even with a conservative estimate, these monetized health and social benefits reach $21 billion annually by 2050.
This low-carbon transition would supercharge the state’s economy, generating more than 20,000 new jobs and $3.5 billion in economic activity per year by 2030, and adding nearly 36,000 new jobs and more than $7.5 billion to the economy per year by 2050. These jobs would be created by building new solar and wind projects, retrofitting buildings, installing vehicle charging infrastructure, and more. Increased economic activity would come from new jobs paying wages 25% higher than the national media wage, as well as savings from reduced expenditures on volatile fossil fuel supplies.
A policy pathway for Colorado to achieve its climate goals
The 1.5°C policy package introduced by the Colorado EPS incorporates all existing state policy that has been enacted into law, legally enforceable power plant retirements, improvements in building and transportation energy efficiency, and electric vehicle adoption; it then goes further to address the state’s unique emissions profile.
While electricity and transportation lead emissions in most states, industry generates the largest percentage of emissions with 32 percent, primarily from oil and gas production. A mix of electrification, energy efficiency, hydrogen fuel switching, and methane leak reduction drive industrial emissions reductions under this 1.5°C Scenario. Several regulations have been proposed and legislation has been introduced in the state legislature to address these sectors, particularly methane leak reduction and beneficial electrification.
Rapid decarbonization of the state’s electricity sector is foundational to reducing emissions across all other sectors as an increasingly clean grid powers electrification of demand from buildings, industry, and transportation. The 1.5°C Scenario implements an 80% clean electricity standard by 2030 which rises to 100 percent by 2035. This would expand Xcel’s 80% emissions reduction target to cover all state utilities, accelerate the target date from 2035, and make the target legally enforceable – in line with Biden administration efforts to implement an 80% by 2030 clean energy standard. Under this scenario battery storage would increase seven-fold over existing state targets, transmission capacity would double, and additional demand response capacity would increase grid flexibility and reliability.
Colorado is already targeting a 40% reduction in transportation emissions by 2030, which would add 940,000 light-duty electric vehicles on the road. The 1.5°C Scenario would go even further, primarily by requiring all new passenger car and SUV sales be electric by 2035 and all new freight truck sales be electric by 2045. These goals align with ambitious zero-emission light-duty vehicle goals adopted by 10 states as well as the multi-state agreement targeting zero-emission medium- and heavy-vehicles signed by 15 states (including Colorado) and the District of Columbia, would add nearly 1.5 million electric vehicles by 2030, and ensure most on-road vehicles are electric by 2050.
Buildings would be transitioned away from fossil fuels through increased efficiency targets for new buildings and deep efficiency retrofits of existing buildings, along with a sales standard requiring all new building equipment sales be fully electric by 2030 to shift gas heating and cooking equipment to highly efficient electric alternatives.
A Colorado expert on climate science will lead a virtual presentation Tuesday evening to discuss the science behind, impacts of, and solutions to address climate change.
Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who has authored more than 100 papers on the subject, will deliver remarks over Zoom as the keynote speaker for a virtual event celebrating the third anniversary of the Renewable Energy Owners Coalition of America.
REOCA, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, formed in Pueblo in February 2018. Its mission is to “protect and promote distributed renewable energy resources for the economy, the environment and a sustainable future,” according to its website.
Denning’s Tuesday presentation will look at what he calls the, “Three S’s of climate change: simple, serious and solvable.”
“Simple is, ‘How does it work?’ Serious is, ‘Why is it bad?’ And solvable is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Denning said.
Although there are complex factors that contribute to an increasingly hotter climate, Denning said the phenomenon itself is simple.
“When you add heat to things, they change their temperature,” Denning said.
“This is pretty fundamental … You put a pot of water on the stove, you put heat into the bottom of the pot of water and lo and behold, it warms up. The Earth works exactly that same way. If more sun comes into the earth than heat radiation going out, then it warms up.”
Carbon dioxide (CO2) slows down outgoing heat from the earth. So the more CO2 there is on Earth, Denning said, the warmer it gets. And this poses a serious problem.
“Unless we stop burning coal, oil and gas, we’ll warm up the world 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the time our children today are old,” Denning said.
“And 10 degrees Fahrenheit is a lot. That’s like the difference between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park, or the difference between Pueblo and somewhere down in southern New Mexico — it’s the kind of difference that you would absolutely notice.”
Denning said in the future, temperatures at the tops of mountains might be similar to current temperatures on the Colorado plains, which has drastic implications for farmers and ranchers.
In Colorado, some of the most serious impacts will affect the state’s water supply.
“Depending on where you are in the world, there are different kinds of climate problems. Our problem here is that we don’t have water to spare,” Denning said.
“In the Mountain West, we support our entire culture here on mountain runoff — on the snowmelt that comes down out of the mountains every spring and fills our reservoirs, and that’s where our cities get water and where our farmers get water,” Denning said.
“If we swap out the climate of Albuquerque or El Paso (Texas) for the climate of Pueblo, what’s the biggest thing people in Pueblo would notice? Well, besides the fact that it would be hot, you wouldn’t have enough water.”
Denning said the problem is not so much about water supply, but rather demand.
“When it’s hot in the summer, our lawns need more water, our crops need more water, our livestock need more water, our forests need more water,” Denning said.
“And this is a permanent change. If we turn up the thermostat to El Paso levels … people will have to live differently, very differently, than they do today in Colorado.”
But the positive news, and the third topic of Denning’s discussion, is that climate change is solvable.
“The solution is to stop setting carbon on fire,” Denning said.
“That means learning to live well with less energy and learning to make energy that doesn’t involve setting stuff on fire.
“That means (more energy efficient) houses and lights and cars and all that stuff, it also means using solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, whatever other kinds of energy that don’t involve burning things.”
Denning said people in 2021 are “very lucky” because sustainable sources of energy are “actually cheaper than the old-fashioned” energy sources.
“It’s hard to switch off fossil fuels, like it was hard to switch off of land lines. It’s hard to switch to clean energy, like it was hard to build the internet,” Denning said.
“It’ll cost us money. But just like mobile phones and the internet, switching our energy system will create jobs and prosperity for the next generation.
“This is basically just what we’ve been doing as a civilization since the end of the middle ages. We swap out old ways of doing things with new ways of doing things, and that’s why we have jobs.”
“So our kids’ generation will have jobs rolling out new infrastructure for generating energy that doesn’t cook the world.”
Conceptual work has begun on a pumped-storage hydro project along the Yampa River five miles east of Craig. The project was conceived to provide electricity to assist Colorado utilities in balancing the intermittency of wind and solar generation as they advance toward 100% renewable portfolios during the coming decade.
In pumped-storage hydro, water is released from a higher reservoir to produce electricity when needed most. The water in the lower reservoir is then pumped uphill to the higher reservoir when electricity has become more readily available.
Colorado has two existing pumped-storage hydro projects. Cabin Creek Generating Station, between Georgetown and Guanella Pass, harnesses a 1,200-foot vertical drop to produce up to 324 megawatts of electricity. Completed in 1967 and operated by Xcel Energy, it serves as effectively a giant battery with a four-hour life, the same as a humongous bank of Tesla batteries.
Near Leadville, at Twin Lakes, the Mt. Elbert pumped storage hydro plant can produce up to 200 megawatts. Operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, that pumped-storage hydro was completed in 1981.
Near Craig, the project—it’s really no more than an idea—would use three turbines to produce 600 megawatts, nearly as much as Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plant. The idea submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Aug. 20 calls for two relatively small reservoirs of storage capacity of 4,800 acre-feet each connected via a tunnel and conduit, with a total drop of 1,450 vertical feet. This compares with a 1,200 drop at Cabin Creek.
The lower reservoir would not be on the Yampa River, nor would it require a constant infusion of water. Rather, it operates in a closed loop. Only water lost to evaporation would have to be replaced. In an open loop hydro system, water is drawn directly from a river to be pumped uphill.
Matthew Shapiro, the applicant, says the preliminary permit awarded by FERC in November for the Craig-Hayden project is best described as a placeholder for a future license application. He hopes to begin producing electricity toward the end of this decade, just as several utilities in Colorado aim to achieve 100% renewable generation. See Nov. 24 notice in the Federal Register.
Creating pumped-storage hydro, he says, requires considerable patience but also capital. One project in Wyoming that Shapiro’s company proposes has an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.
The United States has not had a new pumped-storage project since 1993. The Craig-Hayden project is the only FERC filing for Colorado.
Meeting the checklist
Despite its jumbled geography and abundant water, the Centennial State actually is a difficult place for new pumped hydro projects, says Shapiro. The right kind of topography, with enough vertical drop over a short distance but not too much is needed, but also proximity to transmission and low environmental sensitivity.
“It’s a significant challenge. Finding the combination of factors is not easy,” Shapiro says. “But that is what a good pumped-storage developer does during the site-screening process.”
The Craig site checks all the boxes. Private land is easier to develop than public land, says Shapiro, and it has that. Transmission lines export the electricity in three directions and to several states, but especially to east of the Continental Divide in Colorado. The Hayden and Craig coal-fired stations together have 1,724 megawatts of generating capacity, the most of any area of Colorado.
Water is also needed. The two coal-burning stations together own 15,000 acre-feet from the Yampa River, far more than the 5,000 acre-feet needed for this project. The plants will close between 2025 and 2030.
This is from the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
Finally, a pumped-storage hydro project needs customers. Shapiro reports seeing a promising market within Colorado. Two utilities—Platte River Power Authority, a co-owner of the Craig plant, and Holy Cross Energy—both have adopted goals of 100% renewables by 2030. Xcel Energy, the primary owner of the Hayden units and a part owner at Craig, has a 100% emissions-free goal for 2050.
All analyses of attaining high levels of renewables in electricity supplies have focused on three crucial pillars:
One, demand needs to be recontoured to better take advantage of when renewables are abundant, such as linking warming of hot water to times of abundant electricity.
Second, energy supplies in Colorado need to be better connected with a broader geographic area, either to the west or possibly to the Great Plains and conceivably in both directions, thus allowing greater ability to take advantage of renewable energy. The sun might not be shining everywhere, but the wind is always blowing somewhere. There is actually some predictability to this, if you get large enough terrain.
And third, there needs to be storage. The Craig-Hayden idea envisions eight-hour storage, compared to the four-hour value of lithium-ion batteries. So-called green hydrogen, which uses renewable electricity to create hydrogen from water, can deliver 50 to 100 hours of storage, but the technology and economics lag. “I think there is going to be a mix, particularly over the next 20 to 30 years before I think green hydrogen really matures,” says Shapiro. “We will see a mix of storage types. I don’t think we are going to do 100% renewable energy without additional advanced energy storage technology.”
Utilities have been closely watching developments. Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, operator of the three units at Craig, said on an October webinar that his utility sees no need to make decisions about energy storage until 2024 and does not actually need it until 2029-2030. The three units at Craig will be shut down between 2025 and 2030. The two Hayden units operated by Xcel are to be shut down in 2027 and 2028.
The value of storage
A 2019 report by Synapse Energy Economics that was commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office spoke to the need for advanced energy storage as Colorado decarbonizes its electricity.
“Although pumped hydro is currently the most prevalent type of energy storage in the United States, traditional battery storage technologies (primarily lithium-ion) have experienced rapid market growth within the last few years. As costs continue to decline in the coming decade, flow batteries are also expected to become common in large-scale storage applications.”
Pumped-storage hydro does not figure prominently in the analysis by Synapse. However, the consultant did find need for public policy that serves to encourage the market for storage in Colorado.
“Though lithium-ion battery costs are projected to decline in the coming years, there is debate about whether they are expected to become cost-competitive with traditional generators prior to the late 2020s without supportive policy mechanisms.”
In removing two coal-burning units at the Comanche station near Pueblo, Xcel Energy is adding 275 megawatts of battery energy storage. On a vastly different scale, United Power began using a 4-megawatt battery storage in late 2018.
In viewing the Craig project, Shapiro hopes to time completion to the closure of the coal plants. These projects require patience.
Shapiro already has already demonstrated great patience. In a life with many twists and turns since his upbringing in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Shapiro by 1991 was on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. In a paper titled E Pluribus Unum, Shapiro describes himself as a “creator, an entrepreneur, a public philosopher, a conscious citizen, a writer, and a father.”
In that paper, he says he was motivated to help the Blackfeet and, in that outlook, he began to wonder whether the steady winds of the Montana reservation could be harnessed to benefit the tribe. He quickly grasped the limits of renewable generation.
“Upon my return to New York, I immersed myself in the study of energy storage as a means of helping wind energy compete with conventional energy resources,” he explained. There were then 40 pumped-storage hydro projects in the United States among well more than 100 around the world.
Since then, in 1993, just one additional project pumped-storage hydro has been built in the United States. Many gas-fired plants were built, however, to address the need for peaking power.
Growing interest from utilities
About 2009, though, Shapiro noticed a shift.
“Renewable energy was surging, the interest in storage was starting to pick up, and more and more utilities were mentioning pump-storage in their resource plans,” he explained in a telephone interview. “So partners and I formed GridFlex to identify the best new sites in the country.”
His partners now include David Gillespie, who served a stint with Duke Energy as vice president of business development, and John Spilman, the general counsel, who has provided services to Vestas Americas, among others. Shapiro is the chief executive.
Utilities have shown much greater interest in the last two years after solar prices tumbled and, in response to consumers, many embraced 100% carbon-free goals. But the time was not lost. “We spent a lot of those years honing our knowledge about how to make the business case,” he said in a recent phone interview. “And we built relationships with equipment vendors and environmental consulting firms and others needed to move ideas into projects.”
Shapiro’s company, Gridflex, now in partnership with another company called rPlus Energies, a developer of utility-scale wind and solar, has filed with the FERC for seven sites: two in Nevada and one each in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.
Most, like the Craig site, are placeholders in the FERC process. Two, in Wyoming and Nevada, have moved to a second step with FERC, the pre-application stage.
In Wyoming, Shapiro last summer outlined a plan to use Seminoe Reservoir in conjunction with a new reservoir on federal Bureau of Land Management property for a capacity of 700 megawatts, somewhat larger than the Craig-Hayden proposal. The Rawlins Times reported that officials in Carbon County declined to endorse the project but were OK with the application with FERC proceeding. Cost of that project has been estimated at $1.8 billion
In Nevada, progress came earlier with the White Pine project getting press attention in Ely in 2014. But it has moved little further along than the Colorado project.
In Arizona, other developers have several proposals for even larger pumped-storage hydro projects. One using water from Lake Powell proposes to use the transmission built for the Navajo Power plant now being demolished. It has a price tag of $3.6 billion.
About the Craig-Hayden site, Shapiro declined to identify whether his company has agreements with landowners and other specific elements of what will be needed. He said he has begun outreach to utilities.
Holy Cross Energy might be one such utility. Its service territory includes Vail and Aspen but also Rifle, which is within 100 miles of the pumped-storage hydro, connected by a major transmission line. In its resource plan posted in 2020, Holy Cross specifically mentioned pumped-storage hydro as one option for being able to attain its goal of 100% renewable generation by 2030.
Jonah Levine, who wrote a master’s thesis about pumped-storage hydro in 2007, now works in the realm of biomass for Louisville, Colo.-based Lignetics.
“The evolving story is not of wind vs. biomass or even traditional resources vs. renewables,” he says. “The real question is how do we deploy these things together in the most efficient and effective ways? I don’t see that story enough. What is the best utilization of the resources to our society?
This story has been updated to reflect that the pumped-storage hydro plan envisions eight-hour storage, not six.
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at email@example.com or 303.463.8630.
Colorado State University’s Energy Institute has acquired Colorado’s first public hydrogen fuel station to eventually enable the deployment of Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) and support a wide variety of research projects focused on hydrogen.
The CSU station will be one of the few electrolyzer stations in the U.S. that will generate hydrogen on-site by splitting water molecules using electricity.
The acquisition of the station marks a significant milestone for Colorado as the transportation industry shifts away from fossil fuels to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Hydrogen can be used in both fuel cells and engines to power vehicles of any size including cars and heavy-duty trucks, as well as large stationary power systems.
The station will be operated and maintained by the CSU Energy Institute at the Powerhouse Energy Campus on North College Avenue in Fort Collins. It will be used to teach and train students in hydrogen technology and will allow researchers to gather cost and operational data that can inform future station deployment in Colorado by commercial operators and by the non-profit Colorado Hydrogen Network.
Hydrogen also can be used to provide load leveling on electric grids with a high penetration of renewable energy, storing energy when renewable electricity is available and then generating electricity to put back on the grid when electric demand is high. The CSU Energy Institute is in discussions with Fort Collins Light & Power and Platte River Power Authority to maximize the use of renewable energy by timing hydrogen production to respond to the intermittency of renewable electricity.
“The Powerhouse hydrogen station represents a major advancement in our goal to promote the environmental and economic benefits of hydrogen and fuel cell technology for both transportation and large-scale power systems,” said Bryan Willson, executive director of the Energy Institute and co-founder of the Colorado Hydrogen Network.
“We will be able to use the station to conduct research on hydrogen fuel cell technology and hydrogen combustion, provide hands-on learning opportunities for students, and serve as a resource for the state of Colorado and the general public in research, testing and deployment of hydrogen-fueled vehicle and hydrogen energy systems,” he said.
Unlike more common battery EVs on the market, Fuel Cell Electrical Vehicles provide fast fueling, long cold-weather range and high cargo capacity. The declining costs of renewable electricity from wind and solar has only recently allowed FCEVs to compete with traditional petroleum vehicles.
The station that CSU acquired was operating in Washington, D.C., and scheduled to be decommissioned. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, was responsible for directing the decommissioning and alerted the Colorado Hydrogen Network of the station’s availability. CHN prepared a proposal to Nel Hydrogen, the current owner, requesting that the station be donated to the CSU Energy Institute.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, there are currently 44 hydrogen fueling stations in the country. Only a few of those stations are currently generating hydrogen with on-site electricity, which includes a non-public, research-focused station at NREL. CSU’s hydrogen station will initially operate in a semi-public mode with limited hours or by appointment.
There are great hopes that hydrogen will become a main energy source as common as gasoline. Hydrogen is plentiful and when it is burned it releases no pollutants. But one of the problems is to produce it in a cheap and sustainable manner. In the past, hydrogen has been captured by using expensive metals like platinum to cause a chemical splitting of the element from oxygen in water molecules.
Now scientists from the University of New South Wales, say that they can produce hydrogen by using low-cost and abundant metals like iron and nickel in a process that uses much less energy. Despite the growing market for electric vehicles, refueling a hydrogen car could be done in minutes as opposed to the hours it takes to recharge a lithium battery in an electric car.
Forbes reports that the first zero emission hydrogen rail project in the U.S. is being planned for San Bernardino County in Southern California. The local transportation authority will operate a commuter train on a 9-mile stretch that will run on fuel cells. There’s already a commuter rail line running on hydrogen fuel in Germany with more planned in France. China saw the first fuel cell tram go into operation in 2015.