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Renewable Energy Series Part 3: Could Microgrids Power the San Luis Valley?

Interview with: Leslie Glustrum, Founding Member of Clean Energy Action Article by: Isabel Lisle, SLVEC Communications Manager Date: May 15, 2023


Sandhill cranes fly over 14ers Kit Carson and Challenger

Imagine the San Luis Valley (SLV) generating all of its own electricity. Entirely self-sufficient and resilient in the face of storms and nationwide power outages. Currently, there is only one transmission line coming into the Valley (on Poncha Pass) that provides electricity to the entire Valley population. As more severe weather patterns threaten our nation, we should be careful about relying on only one main power source. A large fire, blizzard, or windstorm on Poncha Pass that takes out multiple power lines could cut power for residents and cause major delays. Microgrids could be a solution to a nationwide failing power system and provide the San Luis Valley with the agency to cheaply, efficiently, and effectively power our own communities.


Only SLV 230kv transmission line over Poncha Pass. Photo by Jan Wondra.

What is wrong with the current electrical grid?

Our current central electrical grid is brittle. It’s a system of interconnected wires, poles, and power plants that deliver electricity to homes across the country. It is completely interdependent (dependent on a minimal amount of generation sources). If a transmission line in one community fails, other communities can suffer as well. With the current central electric grid, significant power is lost when it has to travel miles and miles across transmission lines. We have a path to clean energy and independence that microgrids enable (Empower Hour, 2022).


Microgrids have the capacity to generate electricity to power an entire community.

What is a microgrid?

A microgrid serves a small geographic area, like a farm, or a neighborhood, or a city using locally sourced renewable energy. It can be either completely independent, or work in sync with the current central electric grid. The U.S. Department of Energy defines a microgrid as a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that act as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid. They are very efficient because energy is created very close to where it is used, which also means savings to consumers. Because they are deployed on the local level, they provide high paying good quality jobs in the communities that need them. Microgrids use multiple forms of generation (usually solar storages), and when there is a power outage, they can sense a disturbance, (known as smart grid technology) and provide power onsite to the community (Microgrid Knowledge, 2023). This concept, called Islanding, allows microgrids to run independently in the event of a disruption or storm. Eventually, a statewide and nationwide series of microgrids can replace our central, unreliable and inefficient grid system.


Where do microgrids exist today?

Microgrids already exist in places across the United States where power failure could spell catastrophe. The military was an early and strong champion of microgrids, as well as Pittsburgh International Airport, Richmond Medical Center, Port of San Diego, Port of Long Beach, NYC’s JFK airport and Humboldt County Regional Airport and Coast Guard Station (Airport Authority, 2021). Today, there are more than 4,000 microgrids in the United States, and they are continuing to gain popularity in towns and cities that want: Reliability, Cost Management, Sustainability, and Grid Stability (Empower Hour, 2022). The highest concentration of microgrids are currently located in Texas, California, and in the North East.


Who supports microgrids?

Nearly 8/10 Americans support the use of microgrids once they learn what they are (Empower Hour, 2022). Both Democrat and Republican leaders support microgrids and are ready to make change happen. The National Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2021, allows a 30% tax incentive for microgrid controllers, extends or adds new tax credits for other components of microgrids (e.g. solar storage), and is expected to cut microgrid costs by 10-15%. Microgrids also have the capacity and ability to enhance our nation’s transition to renewable energy without the need for more wires. “Right now, over 1,000 gigawatts worth of potential clean energy projects are waiting for approval – about the size of the entire current U.S grid —and the primary reason for the bottleneck is the lack of transmission”, Bill Gates. Many of these renewable energy projects call for more transmission lines, but, according to Eliza Wood, the Editor in Chief for Microgrid Knowledge, “we can’t possibly build the amount we need to get to zero carbon.” Thus, microgrids offer the unique opportunity to increase the amount of renewable energy generation across multiple sectors.



A solar Microgrid serving a Montgomery County, Maryland Facility. Courtesy of Schneider Electric.

Interview with Leslie Glustrom

(Founding member of Clean Energy Action based in Boulder, Colorado)

Leslie Glustrom, spoke to SLVEC last week about the importance of developing microgrid technology for Colorado and the San Luis Valley. She has spoken throughout Colorado and the Country on the role of citizens in addressing climate change and decarbonizing our economy. A biochemist by training, Leslie resigned in 2004 to work on clean energy initiatives that would have a profound impact for generations to come. Leslie’s views on clean energy technologies have changed over the past 20 years. She used to be a proponent of standard high voltage DC transmission as the mode for transporting renewable energy, but as the impacts of climate change emerge, she warns “it doesn’t make sense to have power lines that could be blown down by more intense hurricanes, wildfires, etc.. We should be building a 21st century island electrical system that allows us to be resilient and withstand the effects of changing weather patterns.” Leslie envisions a future for the San Luis Valley that utilizes community centers as microgrid hubs, a safe space where people can charge their phones, shower, or stay warm if the large-scale transmission line over Poncha Pass fails.


Leslie Glustrom, founder of Clean Energy Action

History of Electricity in the San Luis Valley

Electricity, as we know it today, only recently came to the San Luis Valley in the early 1950s. Before that, people used oil lamps and candles. Now, there is a 230 kv energy transmission line that comes into the Valley over Poncha Pass and connects with 31 different transmission substations (15 are owned by the Rural Electric Cooperative and 16 are owned by Excel). At every town along the main drag is a power station with booster stations around the Valley. The electricity was brought in primarily to run the sophisticated center pivot irrigation systems around the Valley. The current landscape around energy is changing. As solar energy projects gain popularity in the SLV for economic and clean energy reasons, there are several organizations who want to build more transmission lines to export solar power out of the San Luis Valley.


SLVECs role in microgrid technologies

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council does not support large scale transmission. SLVEC supports the development of small scale transmission coupled with microgrid infrastructure options. Currently, the Colorado Solar Storage Association (COSSA) has proposed to build two 345kv transmission lines that would export a massive amount of solar energy to communities, cities, and towns outside of the San Luis Valley. The development of these lines would have significant environmental impact along the corridors and roads and infrastructure needed to maintain and build them. SLVEC also urges COSSA to think about addressing community needs. Microgrids provide the Valley with the opportunity for independence, self reliance, and grid stabilization. The Rural Electric Co-Op recently submitted an application with the Colorado Energy Office to do a microgrids study. The Co-Op could potentially be a key stakeholder in the implementation and success of a microgrid project that would allow the energy we produce to stay within our own community.


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Questions/Comments/Concerns? Contact Chris Canaly at info@slvec.org.



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