Best of the West: modernizing the grid; geothermal heating and cooling; water conservation funding; the right to repair in Colorado; and a new state park opens in Nevada

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting April 24, 2023. (Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock; and The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources).

As the country looks to electrify everything from transportation to heating and cooling needs, grid capacity has become a major concern throughout the region. In response, many Western communities have looked to develop microgrids that the federal government is helping to connect into a nationwide distributed energy system.  

At the Menifee community in California, all 219 plots are being built with solar panels and a battery. All the homes will also connect to a giant battery that stores any extra power in case of an emergency. When full, it can power the entire neighborhood for days.

Google and EDP Renewables North America are looking to expand this model throughout the country by deploying what some have called “synthetic community solar.” In order to surpass any permitting delays, they are building a 500-megawatt portfolio of solar power across 80 community-scale projects that can more easily connect to the grid and better distribute the benefits of renewable energy to low-to-moderate income communities.

Using space on top of warehouses and distribution centers, a report from Environment California and the Frontier Group shows how “synthetic community solar” could gain about 16.4 billion square feet of installation area with the potential to generate enough electricity for about 19.4 million homes – it would also preserve an estimated 376,000 acres, nearly double the size of New York City, from being sacrificed for electricity generation.

With help from the Idaho National Laboratory, the U.S. military is already starting to connect some of these independent microgrid systems. Along with its own microgrid, which allows the Idaho National Laboratory to run below net zero emissions by combining its wind, solar, and storage capabilities, INL also operates microgrids around the world with the goal of one day connecting them all.

"It’s going to get more and more critical that the higher percentage level of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal — with whatever comes on the grid — to try to get these systems developed and come together,” Kurt Myers, the distributed energy and grid systems integration group lead at the Idaho National Laboratory, said. 

To help speed up the process of implementation on a national scale, The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced a $38 million funding opportunity for National Laboratories to advance key research and development priorities needed to build a grid that can sustainably deliver resilient, reliable, and affordable electricity to all.

The DOE also awarded Sunnova Energy Corp a $3 billion conditional loan guarantee to help finance a virtual power plant program known as Project Hestia, which would span most of the country and link together new rooftop solar and battery storage on 75,000 to 115,00 homes. It’s the first-ever award for a virtual power plant project.

In the private sector, Leap, the leading platform for energy market access, announced that it joined the Virtual Power Plant Partnership (VP3), which The Rocky Mountain Institute, launched in January 2023 to advance virtual power plant solutions to help decarbonize the electricity sector.

“We’re seeing a massive adoption of smart energy technologies in homes and businesses, and with that comes an unprecedented opportunity to scale up virtual power plant solutions,” shared Andrew Hoffman, Leap’s Chief Development Officer. “Leap is excited to join the Virtual Power Plant Partnership to help unlock the full potential of DER aggregation to balance the grid, lower carbon emissions, and create real financial value for participants.”

Geothermal Heating and Cooling: U.S. Department of Energy announced that it will provide $13 million to 11 communities in 10 states, including projects in Colorado, Alaska, and Oklahoma, for the development of community geothermal heating and cooling systems.

“Supporting the design and deployment of geothermal heating and cooling will expand the uses of clean energy in decarbonizing our communities,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. “With today’s announcements, DOE is providing the possibility of wider adoption of these geothermal systems which can go a long way in decarbonizing the building and electricity sectors.” 

Learn more about geothermal heating and cooling systems, and how they can help stabilize the grid amid mass electrification efforts in the final installment of The Heat Beneath Our Feet Initiative on May 3. Register here.

Water Conservation: The Biden administration announced this week that it will invest $140 million in water conservation and efficiency projects across the West. The projects include 84 initiatives in 15 states, which are collectively expected to conserve more than 230,000 acre-feet of water once complete — or enough to meet the needs of more than 940,000 people, according to the Interior Department. The selected projects include updates to canal lining and piping to reduce seepage losses, as well as the installation of advanced metering, automated gates, and control systems. Other initiatives include urban programs to integrate residential water meters and other conservation measures.

Right to Repair: Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a bill to make the Centennial state the first state in the nation to sign a farmer's right-to-repair bill, guaranteeing access to the resources needed to repair their own agricultural equipment. Many of the farmers who testified in support of the bill said they’ve had to wait weeks and pay thousands of dollars to manufacturers to conduct repairs they said they could have done themselves. "Many farmers and ranchers face difficulty around exclusive arrangements where they have to get their repairs done by the dealer,” Governor Polis, said. “This bill will save farmers and ranchers time and money by opening up additional options to repair farm equipment." With 11 other states having introduced similar legislation this year, many believe several western states will follow in Colorado's footsteps soon. 

New State Park in Nevada: After five years of waiting, Nevadans will finally get a chance to recreate in their new state park. Set to open this fall, Ice Age Fossils State Park is located just 10 miles north of downtown Las Vegas and features a portion of the upper Las Vegas wash known for its paleontological and historical resources. During the Ice Age, the Las Vegas wash provided habitat for now-extinct mammals, including Columbian mammoths, American lions, dire wolves, and ground sloths the size of small cars. 

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