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Floating solar array could improve water quality, lower the power bill for Fort Lupton — if a federal grant comes through

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When it came to its water treatment plant Fort Lupton had two concerns: controlling algae in the reservoir next to the plant and the aging diesel generator that backed-up the facility when the electric grid was down.

In collaboration with its power supplier Brighton-based United Power and the co-op’s contractor Schneider Electric the city found a solution for both – and then some.

That plan — a microgrid with a battery fed by 850 kilowatts of solar panels floating on the reservoir — is in line for a $6.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, part of $366 million awarded to 17 projects in rural areas and tribal nations from Alaska to Florida.

While the Fort Lupton project will link a microgrid to the water treatment plant, another project will add a microgrid to a health center in Tunica, Mississippi.

The funding comes from the $1 billion Energy Improvements in Rural and Remote Areas program, known as ERA, which is part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021.

United and Schnieder identified the electrical need and approached the city, which was also looking at problems at the water treatment plant.

“It was a cool opportunity to work together,” Troy Whitmore, a United Power vice president, said. “The funding was a unique opportunity.”

The city had been looking for ways to protect against algal blooms in the 300 acre-foot basin that feeds the treatment plant, and it was also concerned about the backup generator, which was more than two decades old, said Christopher Cross, the city manager.

“We are always looking forward to find ways to ensure power, because of the vital nature of water supplies,” Cross said. “We are always trying to stay ahead of the game.”

In awarding the funding the DOE said, “the aging generator has become unreliable which halts operations at the water treatment plant and negatively impacts communities in this region of Colorado.”

“Households in rural Colorado have faced historic challenges securing a reliable clean water supply, particularly in areas where groundwater is contaminated,” the agency said.

The project will consist of a floating solar array covering 5.9 acres and a 500-kilowatt battery storage system on-site. The diesel generator will also be replaced.

The batteries have about a four-hour life which should be enough in most cases, Whitmore said, but he added that the plant is in a rural location between Fort Lupton and Hudson.

The floating solar panels will also reduce the light and heat reaching the reservoir. “It might help with evaporation and diminish the need for algal treatments,” Whitmore said. In addition, it is expected to reduce the city’s monthly power bill by 9%.

Project is only cost effective with the federal grant

United Power will cover the $7.6 million cost of the microgrid, including the cooperative’s $1.5 million cost share. The co-op will own the installation while, under a 20-year agreement with Fort Lupton, the city will pay for microgrid upgrades.

“The project has a payback period of 16 years,” Whitmore said, “… without the federal funding it wouldn’t make sense.”

Cross said that final details of the cooperative-city agreement still must be worked out and the DOE greenlight only gives United and the city the right to begin negotiations with the department. “These negotiations could take several months,” Whitmore said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has its own New ERA funding program and 62 Colorado rural co-op projects have been proposed in that program totaling $2 billion.

Fort Collins-based Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association, for example, submitted two requests, a $65 million proposal for a large-scale renewable energy project and a second for $7.2 million for a virtual power plant – a combination of battery storage and customer demand management.

“These initiatives, if funded, will be beneficial to the members of Poudre Valley REA and the broader community,as well as play a significant role in advancing the clean energy transition,” Amy Rosier, the co-op’s vice president for member and government relations, said in an email.

“We are eagerly anticipating the announcement and the meaningful outcomes these projects could bring,” Rosier said.

Of course, not everything will get funded. “The overwhelming response from rural electric cooperatives totaled more than two times the $9.7 billion available budget authority for the program,” the USDA said.

Still the DOE and USDA programs along with others funded by the infrastructure and inflation reduction acts are directing billions of dollars to rural electric networks.

These federal programs are creating the largest single investment in rural America since the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, said Eric Frankowski, executive director of the nonprofit Western Clean Energy Campaign.

“It is a real game changer,” he said. “It has the ability to transform rural America in terms of energy.”

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