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.