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After ‘Snowpocalypse’ killed power, Silverton turns to microgrid

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald Greene Street in Silverton is bustling with tourists on July 5, 2022.
Community-size solar grids keep the lights on, and they headed to Southwest Colorado

Folks in the San Juan Mountain community of Silverton, who know a thing or two about snow, called a day last February “Snowpocalypse” and it was bad. Very bad.

Total white out, snow blowing sideways, two mountain passes on U.S. 550 closed, cutting off the high-elevation town. San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad issued a stay-in-place order to residents and then the lights went out.

The power went down at 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 22 and took with it the gas pumps at the service station and the electronic cash register at the grocery. Town Hall was shut. At Silverton Medical Rescue, it was a struggle to open the heavy garage doors, which relied on electric motors.

Homes with gas furnaces went cold, though many in town have wood stoves and some still heat with coal. Water or sewer service went down.

Sheriff Conrad managed to set up a portable generator outside the grocery store and run an extension cord to the register.

“This way anybody who needed food, water could get it,” said DeAnne Gallegos, a spokeswoman for the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management. “Part of it is psychology, you want to know there are some resources when the passes are closed and we are snowed in.”

It took almost eight hours for the town’s electric cooperative, the San Miguel Power Association, to get the lights back on.

While Snowpocalypse was extreme, it was just one of a string of blizzards, avalanches and power outages last winter suffered by this one-time mining town – elevation 9,318 feet, population 650 give or take.

The mountains near Silverton, in San Juan County, are part of the Alpine Loop – a recreational network of 14,000-foot peaks and trails between Silverton and Lake City in Hinsdale County. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Two weeks earlier the substation in town went down during another snowstorm. The facility is operated by the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association but the association couldn’t get a crew over Molas Pass from Durango.

In advance of the blizzard, San Miguel Power sent an extra lineman to Silverton – reinforcements for the town’s one resident lineman – and with some coaching from Tri-State, the two fixed the problem.

About two weeks after the Snowpocalypse there was another storm and another outage, but the lineman and the town’s one ambulance were both in Durango and needed a state snowplow to convoy them back to town.

In all, Silverton weathered half a dozen blizzards in a row and six outages. “It was a major wake-up call,” Gallegos said. “We knew we had to do something.”

Small-scale solar system for light in the storm

That “something” is to create a comprehensive resiliency plan for the town. The centerpiece is a microgrid – a combination of solar panels and a large battery – to provide backup power for the entire community.

San Miguel Power Association, or SMPA, is promoting the use of microgrids in Silverton, Ophir, Rico and Ridgway to cope with the outages that chronically plague these remote communities. Since June of 2020, Rico – elevation 8,825 feet, population 350 or so – has had 21 outages.

The aim is to put a microgrid in each town, creating a local source of electricity to feed the local wires with at least six to eight hours of power, more if the solar panels can replenish the battery.

“The community-scale microgrids we’re working on are really unprecedented,” said Terry Schuyler, the SMPA account executive overseeing the program. “We can do that because our communities are somewhat small.”

“It could become a national model,” Schuyler said, “a solution that could be replicated in other communities.”

Steve Dailey works on a store front on Greene Street in Silverton as the town gets ready for the season’s first Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train trip in 2018. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
Tourists in Silverton, lured by the vast outdoors and public lands. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
The Ute Mountain Ute Farm & Ranch Enterprises near Towaoc on Nov. 10, 2021. The tribe has won a $100,000 Energizing Rural Communities prize from DOE to promote microgrids and clean energy projects. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
Ute Mountain Ute tribe receives funds

Smaller-scale microgrids are also being installed in the region to guard against blackouts. The San Miguel Sheriff’s Office already has its own microgrids at its headquarters and jail, with solar panels and batteries. Telluride High School plans to install one, and SMPA is putting one in at its headquarters.

The growing interest among rural communities in the use of microgrids as power backups is being buoyed by significant federal and state dollars to finance them.

In July, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $14.7 billion funding opportunity to bring microgrids to underserved and Indigenous communities and some of that money is already making its way to Colorado.

Five communities – Parachute, Basalt, Granby, the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and Silverton – each won a $100,000 Energizing Rural Communities prize from DOE to promote microgrids and clean energy projects. Silverton is using it to fund its resiliency program and microgrid planning.

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs and the Colorado Energy Office received $17 million from the federal 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill funding for grid resilience.

Towaoc, the capital of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, has been awarded a $100,000 Energizing Rural Communities prize from DOE to promote microgrids and clean energy projects. Journal file photo

The state energy office is using $7 million to develop a rural microgrid road map for the state, as well as programs to fortify rural grids. “The question we are trying to answer is what are the policies and financing that need to be updated to promote deployment of microgrids,” said John Parks, a Colorado Energy Office policy consultant.

DOLA is using the other $10 million for grants in its Microgrids for Community Resiliency Program, which was created in 2022 by state legislation with $3.5 million appropriation.

Eight grants for microgrid planning have been awarded – Ophir, Ridgway and Rico each got about $30,000. Further down the road there will be up to $1 million for each construction project. Other grants went to projects in Larimer, Delta, Pueblo, Huerfano and Jefferson counties.

“We are seeing a lot of demand,” said Julia Masters, the DOLA microgrid program manager. “They are thinking of microgrids as a path to resiliency, energy independence and self-reliance.”

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper toured Rico with local officials during a visit Aug. 17, 2022/ (Courtesy Hickenlooper staff)

The federal law on solar tax credits was also broadened to enable a nonprofit, like SMPA, which does not pay taxes, to get credits as direct payments.

“What really stimulated our interest in microgrids was the unprecedented availability of grant funding, without which we wouldn’t have the capital to go after these projects,” Schuyler said.

The key, Schuyler said, is that the cost of the projects and the electricity they produce must be lower than the price of the wholesale electricity the cooperative purchases from Tri-State. If not, the rest of SMPA’s customers would be subsidizing the four mountain towns.

The microgrid could also be key to solving a fundamental grid problem for the co-op. Utilities look to provide redundancy with a “looped feed,” so if there is a downed line, say, on the east side they can send electricity around on the west.

But Silverton, Rico and Ophir have only single lines into town. Electricity dead ends. If the line goes down, the town is out of luck.

Ridgway’s story is different. It is on a circuit, though it depends upon a line precariously snaking over Red Mountain Pass, parts of which were installed in the 1920s.

The largest of the towns, with a population of 1,200, Ridgway needs backup since it is home to a medical clinic, the Ridgway Fire Department, Ouray County Emergency Services and the Colorado Department of Transportation road shop for Ouray County.

Since June 2020, Rico – elevation 8,825 feet, population 350 or so – has had 21 outages. San Miguel Power Association is promoting the use of microgrids in Silverton, Ophir, Rico and Ridgway to cope with the outages. Jim Mimiaga/The Journal
Backup generation plan stopped cold in Ophir

Despite the flood of state and federal dollars and enthusiasm for microgrids, the experiences of the mountain communities show that to a lesser or greater degree, installing the systems may be tricky. Consider Ophir’s story.

Ophir, another old mining town in a valley 55 miles north of Dolores, is hemmed in by two thirteeners: Lookout Peak and Yellow Mountain. The town sits at almost 9,700 feet, with the power line running over the pass of another thirteener, Lizard Head.

“Coming into Ophir you cross six different avalanche paths,” said Jon Wontrobski, the town manager. “So, folks in Ophir are used to being cut off and to outages. The longest was three days.”

Avalanches also cut off the town’s children from school down in Telluride, but when it’s safe the kids, led by adults, have walked over the avalanche path to rendezvous with a school bus.

Given all this one would think Ophir would welcome the $30,000 state grant and the idea of a microgrid in town. But one would have to think again.

San Miguel County Road crews opened up Ophir Pass through a wall of snow in 2019. Courtesy Dolores River Campground

Ophir is one of only two municipalities in Colorado with a general assembly form of government, casually called a GA. The other is the Boulder County community of Ward. There is no town council, planning or zoning boards. Whoever shows up at the monthly meeting – and is a registered voter with an Ophir address and has lived in the town for 22 days – gets to vote on town business.

And so, when there was a motion to give SMPA the go-ahead to do a microgrid feasibility study, it provoked a long debate and some considerable pushback during November’s general assembly.

“The spirit of Ophir is protecting Ophir and its environment,” one speaker, on a recording of the meeting, opined. Among the ideas floated at the meeting were whether the town should reach out to Tesla or consider green hydrogen.

There were 28 votes to move forward, 26 votes against and two abstentions. Abstentions count as no votes under Ophir rules and the tie vote defeated the motion.

The co-op and town officials are now looking for an alternative approach, such as a stand-alone battery or more emphasis on rooftop solar.

Until then Ophir is at the risk of more blackouts. “When it does go down, a lot of people actually enjoy that time,” said Ophir Mayor Andy Ward. “You know, you go to candles or lanterns or whatever you use, and it’s something that people actually look forward to at least for short periods.”

Folks in town also see avalanches as a form of entertainment. “It’s almost like a celebration,” Ward said. “You get to watch, you know, as the avalanche comes down and crosses the road. It’s pretty exciting.” YouTube is replete with Ophir avalanche videos.

The Rico Fourth of July parade always brings out a crowd of old-timers and younger types in 2018.
Mind your western exposure

The problem SMPA has run into in Rico, which is 42 miles north of Dolores, hasn’t been local opposition but geography.

“The valley runs north to south, so all the east-west sites are on slopes,” said Chauncey McCarthy, the town manager. A nice flat acre or two with good western exposure is what a solar array needs.

SMPA has combed the Dolores County valley for an acceptable location. “We are running out of sites,” Schuyler told the Rico Board of Trustees in December.

The Rico project may also have to be rethought. “We are learning as we go,” Schuyler said.

Since June 2020, Rico has had 21 outages. San Miguel Power Association is promoting the use of microgrids in Silverton, Ophir, Rico and Ridgway to cope with the outages. (Courtesy photo)

Rico has a gas station and a café, but no grocery store, so when the power is out, or the town gets cut off, there aren’t many resources.

“What’s really challenging for us as well is that we have one cell tower in our town fire station, and it has a battery backup,” McCarthy said. “The battery backup probably … has anywhere from one to two hours of communication. But once the battery backup goes out on the cell tower, we lose all connectivity in terms of any phone calls and we also lose all emergency response capabilities.”

A tree came down during a snowstorm Jan. 18, 2023, knocking out power in Rico (the same storm led to an outage in Ophir from, you guessed it, an avalanche). It took SMPA four hours to get the power back on.

While the Ophir and Rico plans are facing hurdles, and the Ridgway plan is in its earliest stages, Silverton is out in front in planning and funding after getting the DOE prize, in collaboration with SMPA, EcoAction and the county.

“We are trying to figure out how to be more sustainable and resilient,” Silverton town administrator Gloria Kaasch-Buerger said.

“The outages primarily happen in the winter, which is a very scary time, and it’s usually during a blizzard or really low temperatures with high winds, which puts our vulnerable population at risk,” she said.

Backup generators have been sprouting up around town. The fire department has one. The school has one. The senior center is about to get one. A generator for the water treatment plant has been on order for a year. Some homeowners have them.

Adding to the imperative is the fact that Silverton is seeing rapid growth as a tourism and recreation destination – with the summer population swelling to as many as 1,000 people – and the year-round population slowly rising.

“Our school is a great kind of litmus test on our population,” Kaasch-Buerger said. “In 2021, I know it was somewhere around 80 and now we’re up to 90 kids.”

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