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Forum focuses on changing energy sector

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Photo by Tamie Meck Rebekah Hren, a contract instructor and curriculum developer with Solar Energy International, gives a tour of the facility as part of the E2 Engage Delta County energy conference. The conference brought energy experts and innovators fr

When the Rural Electrification Act of the 1930s was enacted, the country would never have imagined that its ways of producing, distributing and using energy would become outdated in less than 100 years.

Speaking Friday at the first E2 Engage Energy Conference in Paonia, Holy Cross Energy CEO Dr. Bryan Hannegan said that the current grid system has been "massively important" in the nation's economic development and global leadership. Hannegan has been active in the Department of Energy's Grid Modernization Initiative and recently testified at a hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy how innovations in technology are empowering consumers.

The conference was geared toward industry, policy makers, economic developers and innovators. It brought some 100 participants from Colorado, Texas and New Mexico together, among them senior multi-disciplinary energy experts and innovators from the fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors, to discuss the current energy landscape and the opportunities it offers.

Technology is changing very fast, said Hannegan, and the current grid system "was totally built to suit the task at the time. It moved large amounts of power one way to the population centers, and helped to grow the industrial economy that exists today."

The government and private sectors didn't predict the changes that are occurring today, he said, resulting in a system not well-suited for the future. New and advancing technologies are resulting in "a whole new vista in ways that the energy system has to now start to serve" the public and business sectors.

Changes are leading to shifts in consumer demands and expectations as electric vehicles, energy storage, micro-grids, smart meters, homes and businesses, and energy management systems dictate the way energy is consumed.

Hannegan talked about key trends emerging throughout the country and the world and said that people are asking for cutting edge projects in their own communities. But the question is, with so many new innovations happening all at once, "How do we, in a responsible way, keep the lights on and keep costs affordable in our communities?"

Cooperatives such as Holy Cross and DMEA are responding "by leveraging new technologies, offering new services, and continuing to provide affordable, reliable power for the communities they serve."

Grid modernization, said Hannegan, should result in a more sustainable product and a much more flexible infrastructure "that can manage all of those technologies and deal with all the uncertainties."

The ENGAGE (ENergy, Growth, AGriculture, and Entrepreneurship) initiative is a partnership of the Technical College of the Rockies (formerly Delta-Montrose Technical College), Delta County Economic Development (DCED), the Delta County School District, and the Small Business Resource Center. The technical college's new ENGAGE Innovation Center in Delta is dedicated to the ENGAGE goal of driving economic development across the area and capitalizing on the skills the current workforce has, said DCED and Delta-Montrose Electric Association board representative John Gavan.

Technical College of the Rockies director Michael Klouser said the center aims to provide students in the region the skills needed to meet changes in the energy sector as well as improve skills in agriculture and increase production of local businesses. The goal is to integrate industry partners with education to come up with innovative ideas and get the community engaged in energy and technology ideology. "We need to look organically to develop a workforce that can take care of the needs out here," said Klouser.

There are several reasons that it's fitting that a regional energy conference happens in Paonia, said Gavan. Colorado's Western Slope region has been a lead driver of energy innovation for over a century. The first hydroelectric plant in the world to deliver alternating current (AC) power, the Ames Hydroelectric plant in Ophir, was opened by Westinghouse in 1890 to power a mine. That plant "played a key role in the grid that now supports the whole world."

In 1909 the Gunnison Tunnel began delivering water from the Black Canyon to the Uncompahgre Valley's agricultural community. Without it, there might not be a Delta County today, said Gavan. DMEA is now capitalizing on that project by building in-stream hydroelectric facilities, which is yet another innovative first step taking place in the region.

A first of its kind, the Aspen Skiing Company partnered with Oxbow mining to build a power plant at Somerset powered by captured methane from the West Elk Mine to power ski area operations. Paonia also has Solar Energy International, which since 1991 has trained more than 50,000 individuals from throughout the world in the design, installation and implementation of solar systems. "You can't go anywhere in the solar industry in the U.S. without stumbling across an SEI alumni," said Gavan.

DMEA is also in the process of bringing gigabit broadband to Delta and Montrose counties, added Gavan. Paonia is the "first gigabit city under this project," making it one of fewer than 70 cities in the country that has access to gigabit service.

What will be next? asked Gavin. Perhaps that will be answered at next year's conference.

Photo by Mary Hockenbery Evan Vessels leads a tour of the Vessels Coal Gas coal mine methane generation station near Somerset as part of the E2 Engage Delta County energy conference.
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