Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Bryan Hannegan, at right, shortly before leaving the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to become CEO of Holy Cross Energy.

Q&A: A Colorado scientist puts theory into practice as utility leader

Last year, Bryan Hannegan moved from the lab to the real world.

At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, he had been founding associate director of a new facility focused on integrating new technologies into the electric grid.

In July, Hannegan was named the new president and CEO of Holy Cross Energy, a cooperative that provides electricity, energy products and services to 55,000 members in western Colorado. Members include seven ski areas, including Aspen and Vail, but also farms and ranches, a large low-income population, and an area of extensive natural gas development.

“It was the opportunity to put the academic theory into practice in an environment that is large enough and complex enough to resemble some larger utility systems around the country,” he says.

Hannegan is a climate scientist and meteorologist who has spent most of his career working in energy and environmental policy, first in Washington D.C. as a science advisor on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and more recently as a leader of technology research programs for the electric power industry.

Hannegan recently spoke with Southwest Energy News about how he will put that experience to work in a “real world” context.

Southwest Energy News: What were you doing at NREL, and what did you find appealing about managing Holy Cross?

Hannegan: At NREL I spent four years starting  a laboratory facility focused on the challenge of grid modernization. In a single building, we created an entire electric utility grid where people could come experiment with new technologies. We would run experiments with batteries, solar PV systems, smart houses, electric vehicles, all in a unique “plug-and-play” environment unlike any other in the United States. It drew in partners from across the world and has been an amazing success.

I was originally talking with Holy Cross about becoming a partner with us at NREL and using our facility. But when their CEO announced his retirement, it turned into the perfect opportunity for me to take all of my technology, policy and industry experience and try to translate it into the real world.

What are the near-term decisions and challenges at Holy Cross? The longer-term challenges?

Like most utilities, Holy Cross is seeing tremendous growth in distributed energy resources like rooftop solar systems, batteries, electric vehicles, etc. We need to learn how to operate our system with all of these new devices connected in ways we can’t now control or predict. We need to develop new business models that don’t involve trying to sell ever-increasing amounts of electric power, so we can have the resources we need to keep our service reliable, affordable and safe.

Longer term, Holy Cross serves an area of Colorado that is very interested in sustainability and clean power. We have a number of communities and larger customers like the Aspen and Vail ski resorts who have made commitments to 100 percent renewable energy. We need to meet those customer demands, but that means we will have to operate our grid very differently than we do now.

What do customers want?

They want different things. Some customers just want to be sure the light switch goes on. Others want their costs as low as possible. Some will say they don’t care how much it costs, they want 100 percent green power. I think the challenge for us is how we meet all those desires simultaneously. I think we also have to be open to changing wants and needs of customers. That requires us to be constantly asking them questions and getting feedback.

In meeting with community groups, are you surprised by how knowledgeable people are about this energy transition? Do your members have blind spots?

I’m not surprised by the level of knowledge in this community. It’s actually something that serves Holy Cross very well and enables us to consider future goals and objectives that few other utilities can.

That being said, this energy transition will be an immense challenge. It’s a complicated business. We have to balance the supply and demand for electricity in all places at all times, or else the lights go out. I don’t think people appreciate just how complex that is.

We’ve had lots of technology changes in the last five years in how we produce and consume electricity. What has been important but so far overlooked?

The key to this energy transition is to develop a more flexible electric grid, and that means knowing more about what’s going on at all times and places so we can respond to changes in wind and solar supply, or consumer demands, immediately. That means data, lots of it, like the vital signs a doctor uses to determine your health. We need to do the same thing with our electric grid, and that’s not traditionally been something we’ve focused on.

Amory Lovins, whose Rocky Mountain Institute is a member/customer of Holy Cross Energy, has been pushing energy efficiency for more than 40 years. How can co-ops and other utilities embrace energy efficiency and maintain a viable business model?

In the conventional utility model, energy efficiency leads to a reduction in sales, which leads to a reduction in revenues. After a while it becomes very hard to run a viable business that way. It’s a lot easier if you think of yourself as a provider of services, whether it’s the health and well being of your family or mobility from point A to point B. If you ask what is the most efficient way to provide these services to customers, you can be really creative and improve energy efficiency in ways that get the revenue you need to stay in business.

Holy Cross owns 60 megawatts of output from Comanche III, a coal-fired power plant operated by Xcel Energy in Pueblo, Colo., which began generation in 2010. How does an electrical co-operative that wants to dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas footprint look at that generating capacity? Does it restrict your options? Is it fair to call this new coal plant a stranded asset?

I don’t think it’s fair to call it a stranded asset. It is the newest, most efficient coal plant in the country, with the best air pollution controls and a very affordable cost. It is probably one of the last coal plants you would close.

But if our long-term plan is to have a sustainable power supply, then that asset will need to be replaced. The question for us at Holy Cross is when and how we should do that without causing higher costs to our members or negative impacts to our overall power supply.

Holy Cross has participated in discussions about expansion of the Southwest Power Pool? Why? What’s at stake?

We draw a lot of our power supply from Xcel Energy, and Xcel is one of the organizers of the Mountain West Transmission Group that’s looking to join the SPP. In theory, the larger power market would allow us to get more renewable energy from a larger geographic area at lower cost, but many details remain to be worked out.

If you were to start a utility from scratch, what would this new utility look like? How would it operate?

I see utilities moving toward a concept of “networked microgrids” where each home, building, town center, etc. has the ability to produce and consume electricity made locally when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. These local “microgrids” are then connected to one another by our distribution grid, sort of a backbone network that allows them to exchange power with one another when it’s to their advantage to do so.

Our role in this as the utility owning the backbone network will be the same as it always has been—to ensure reliable, affordable and safe service to our members and customers. We’re just going to be doing it in a different way than before, and that’s very exciting.

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