A look at infrastructure investments now in progress shows an industry striving to boost renewable resources and reliability.
Snohomish PUD Merges Solar, Community Awareness and Aid
A 375-kilowatt solar array Snohomish Public Utility District is building will support PUD customers in need and help meet electricity needs during hot summer days in an economically disadvantaged corner of Everett, Washington, where the utility is headquartered. The project is expected to produce enough power to serve the needs of approximately 40 homes.
“We are locating the solar array in this neighborhood for a couple reasons,” said PUD spokesman Aaron Swaney. “Along with bringing solar to a community densely populated with multifamily housing, much of it income-qualified, there are constraints on the grid in this neighborhood during the summer. So our goal is to help alleviate some of the congestion while raising awareness about clean, local renewable energy.”
The solar project will help support the PUD’s income-qualified energy assistance program, Project PRIDE, which assists about 500 customers each year. Revenue earned from energy produced at the solar array — expected to exceed $27,000 annually — will be donated to the energy assistance program.
In addition, the solar array will be in a busy, popular area. “It’s near a place where a lot of youth sports teams play. It’s near a golf course. It’s going to be very visible to customers,” Swaney said. “We’ll be incorporating clean energy messaging there, explaining the clean energy future, talking about how much energy the solar panels produce and letting people know that money raised by that solar array will go back into the community.”
“A lot of people don’t understand how clean our PUD’s power is,” Swaney said. Snohomish PUD’s energy mix, dominated by hydro power, is more than 95% green, and this solar array will tell that story, he said. “Our signage will help people understand that these solar panels are powering homes, supporting the grid, and helping people in the community pay power bills when they’re struggling.”
The facility is being built on city land, but Everett is leasing that land to the utility. The state’s clean energy fund awarded a grant of $862,814 to cover part of the solar array’s $1.5 million construction cost.
SRP Navigates Supply Issues
In August 2021, Meta – formerly known as Facebook – announced plans to expand its Mesa, Arizona, data center campus to encompass five buildings totaling some 2.5 million square feet. Salt River Project, the utility that serves Meta’s facilities, already has some big customers, including an Intel fabrication plant. “When they reach maximum load, Meta will definitely be one of our larger customers,” said SRP Project Manager Kevin Woolfolk.
To serve that load, SRP proposes to build a new half-mile, double-circuit 230-kV transmission line and new 230-kV equipment within the in-construction 69-kV substation dedicated to Meta’s campus. The project is still in engineering phases, but procurement could start quickly due to supply chain issues, Woolfolk said. “Sometimes the design might not be completely finished, but we have an idea of what we need, so as soon as we enter into an agreement with the customer, we will get up-front funds and start procuring some of the equipment we know we’ll need.”
Woolfolk said he is already seeing supply chain delays for transformers, control cables that run out to breakers, power panels and more. Some devices have jumped from an eight-week lead time to 30 weeks. “Concrete seems to be one of the main drivers of delay for my projects,” he said. “You order concrete one day and get an order cancellation the next.”
Meta’s Mesa data center will also tap the 500 megawatts of renewable energy to be produced by three new solar plants now under construction. Meta’s data center will use 450 megawatts to support the company’s 100% renewable energy commitments.
Like many utilities trying to build solar capacity, SRP is seeing its project delivery dates threatened by the U.S. Department of Energy’s investigation into whether panel providers from four southeast Asian nations are serving as fronts for Chinese manufacturers trying to circumvent tariffs.
“SRP has six solar projects totaling approximately 1,350 megawatts under contract and scheduled to come on line in the next two years,” said spokeswoman Erica Roelfs. “Several developers have initially indicated that projects could be delayed or canceled, and prices will need to be increased.”
Blue Earth Invests in Reliability
Blue Earth, Minnesota, is a town of 3,200. To make sure local homes and businesses enjoy non-stop service, Blue Earth Light and Water is investing in reliability.
The utility is installing a new 14-MVA transformer, reconductoring lines and completing a looping project on one of its two interconnections. “We’re planning to maintain our reliability while planning for the future,” said Tim Stoner, general manager of the utility. Along with high reliability, the new substation design will deliver flexibility for maintenance because any of the circuit breakers can be opened and isolated without service interruptions.
“Our goal is to make sure we’re not overloading current feeders while providing additional room for capacity to support the growth we’re seeing,” Stoner said. “Whether it’s electrification or new customers, we need to make room.”
The work will not be done quickly; it is hindered by supply chain delays. Delivery of the 14-MVA transformer would have taken about 36 weeks before COVID hit, Stoner said. “That lead time is now 104 weeks,” he said. “We’ve almost doubled our inventory of transformers over the last two years in anticipation of the supply chain issues we’ve been seeing recently.” He is also instructing his lineworkers to plan for two years in advance on some equipment, three years in advance on conductors and transformers.
The utility is doing this work ahead of anticipated needs. Stoner and his team have been evaluating feeders to see how to handle expected load growth. The utility went from having zero electric cars in its service territory last year to half a dozen this year and high gas prices could accelerate adoption. “EVs take a toll through heavier residential load,” Stoner said. EVs, potential load growth and system hardening due to increased storms are among the reasons the utility is working to boost reliability.
Blue Earth Light and Water has earned diamond-level status in APPA’s Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) program. That’s the highest RP3 rating conferred. It rewards utilities for completing a rigorous application and earning scores of 98 to 100 for their practices related to reliability, safety, workforce development and system improvement.
Fayetteville Fuel Cell Will Use Biogas
North Carolina’s 4,700 poultry farms churn out 5 million tons of poultry waste annually and the state’s 2,100 swine operations could fill 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools with waste, according to a February 2019 report published by the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization in Washington, D.C. That’s one reason the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard requires utilities to produce a percentage of their power with poultry and swine waste gases. Fayetteville Public Works Commission plans to meet that requirement with a 1.5-megawatt fuel cell that will be powered by multiple biogas streams. The fuel cell technology generates electricity through a chemical reaction between the oxygen in ambient air and the methane-rich biogas.
“One of the waste streams we’ll be running through the fuel cell is biogas from one of our water treatment facilities,” said Elaina Ball, CEO and general manager of Fayetteville PWC. Currently, the city flares its wastewater gases rather than releasing the methane into the atmosphere. Methane is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Along with re-using the methane produced at its water treatment facility, Fayetteville will capture methane from a nearby landfill and poultry and swine farms. “This is one of the nation’s first projects to take multiple waste gas streams and run them through a fuel cell to generate clean electricity,” Ball said.
The fuel cell installation is part of a planned renewable energy demonstration park that will have two more renewable generation resources and remediate an old manufacturing site.
“This project helps us efficiently meet our renewable energy requirement for poultry waste with self-generation,” Ball said. “It also sits adjacent to one of our water treatment facilities and some industrial pollution that we’ve had a goal of remediating for community health and protection of our watershed.”
The fuel cell will also serve as a back-up power source for the water plant and help the utility keep lights on in the event of outages. “We’re getting a combination of environmental, operational and regulatory benefits with this one little 1.5 MW generator,” Ball said.