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US Energy Department deploys a high tech renewable energy "sandbox" to help local communities de-risk and accelerate their decarbonization plans (image courtesy of NREL).

Clean Power

Coal-Killing “Extension Cord” Brings Renewable Energy To Local Communities

US Energy Department deploys a high tech renewable energy “sandbox” to help local communities de-risk and accelerate their decarbonization plans.

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Climate Week NYC is here, and that means another round of big promises, big pledges, and big dollars to grab the media spotlight. That’s all well and good, but community-level action is where the rubber meets the road, as demonstrated by a modest little federal program that is bringing more renewable energy to villages, towns, and cities across the US.

More Renewable Energy For More Communities

The US Department of Energy spends considerable time and energy on high-flying, foundational research, public-private technology partnerships, and high risk – high reward projects, along with a loan program aimed at getting new renewable energy technology into mass production, while shepherding the nation’s fleet of nuclear reactors and weaponry, to boot.

The Energy Department also runs community-level programs, but they tend to fly under the media radar. One good example is the ongoing community solar program, which aims to make local solar more accessible and affordable for low- and middle-income households.

Other examples include a solar collaboration with Black farmers and churches in Florida last summer, and a collaboration with the town of Cohoes, New York, on a floating solar project that leverages the community’s water supply infrastructure.

A 700-Mile Extension Cord

Local renewable energy resources aren’t always available, and that brings us to the 700-mile extension cord and the Energy Department’s new C2C program.

Short for Clean Energy to Communities, the C2C program formally launched last January. A team from the agency’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has already been piloting the program with the Alaska member-owned electric cooperative, Golden Valley Electric Association.

The goal of the pilot project is to help Fairbanks and other communities in the interior region cut their ties to coal power, modernize and strengthen their aging grid, and get a handle on crippling price spikes.

The stakes are high. “GVEA’s 6,000-mi2 service area includes hospitals, mines, and four critical military bases. When you’re 350 mi from the nearest city, in a climate where cars won’t start without being plugged in, having access to reliable power is critical,” NREL notes.

“Managing a small electric grid in such a rugged environment is challenging and expensive, and GVEA members have some of the highest — and most volatile — energy costs in the nation,” they add.

GVEA currently relies on fossil energy for 91% of its power, but not for long. The centerpiece of the new plan, developed through the C2C program, is to send a 50-megawatt coal power plant into the dustbin of history.

If all goes according to plan, GVEA will get clean kilowatts from a new wind farm and energy storage facility. Renewable energy imported from the Bradley Lake hydropower project in the Southcentral region will make up the difference, pending an upgrade of existing transmission lines.

“It is literally a 700-mile extension cord,” explains John Burns, CEO of GVEA. said. “Upgrading the transmission system will allow additional integration of renewables, it will allow diversification, it will allow redundancy and resiliency.”

Coal Stabbed In The Back, Part Infinity

The GVEA project sounds a lot easier than it is. De-risking and accelerating the transition to renewable energy at the community level is a complicated endeavor. C2C deploys the collective firepower of the US taxpaying public to help local communities create their own tailor-made energy transition strategies without have to spend the time and expense of re-inventing the wheel.

NREL has been deploying its latest generation of modeling and assessment tools to help plan for the GVEA upgrade. In the meantime, the Energy Department has not been letting the grass grow under its feet. Last week, the agency launched a new full-scale round of funding for the program.

Compared to other Energy Department technology funding programs, C2C is on the low end of the scale. Just $8 million will be split among the award recipients. However, another $17 million worth of technical assistance will help make a little go a long way.

“Local governments, electric utilities, and community-based groups working closely with experts from DOE’s national laboratories will utilize $8 million in award funding and up to $17 million in technical assistance to research, model, and deploy clean energy systems that are reliable, affordable, equitable, and reflective of local priorities,” the Energy Department explained.

So Many Communities, So Much Renewable Energy

The Energy Department highlights a suite of C2C projects including a net zero transportation goal for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning in Illinois, a virtual power plant system for Colorado Springs in Illinois, a Regional Clean Energy Activation Hub serving 200 communities at the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border region, a 100% renewable energy plan for Moloka‘i in Hawaii, a “Smart Electric Energy Districts” infrastructure initiative for Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, and a green ammonia project in Sitka, Alaska.

In addition to long term projects like these, the C2C program has matched more than 50 communities, spread among 25 states and Puerto Rico, with experts that provide technical assistance for addressing short-term solutions.

Peer learning is another pillar of the C2C initiative. The peer program pulls together cohorts of 10-15 communities for a six-month collaboration on clean energy strategies.

The next round of peer learning will focus on decarbonizing municipal buildings, creating community engagement systems to support transportation electrification, and providing for enhanced resiliency and security at municipal facilities with solar power, energy storage, and microgrids.

If you want in, watch for applications to open this Monday, September 18.

Whatever Happened To ESG?

While all this is going on, Republican officials in two dozen states have been applying their legislative and legal authority to obstruct investors from applying ESG (environmental, social, governance) business goals to renewable energy projects.

The anti-ESG investing movement works at cross-purposes with local communities that are struggling to manage a 20th century energy profile are dealing with the 21st century impacts of climate change, but here we are. For that matter, many of these same Republican officials hold court in states that are front and center in the energy transition, including Texas among others.

Evidence supporting the bottom line benefits of an ESG strategy have been piling up, whether or not “ESG” is attached to it. However, that does not seem to have changed hearts and minds over at the Republican side of the aisle in Congress. Even though the anti-ESG agenda is polling badly, Republican-led House committees are pushing four new bills aimed at obstructing ESG investing.

Don’t they have anything better to do?

Follow me tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post, LinkedIn, and Spoutible.

Image: “C2C utilizes the power of the Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) to understand the impact and answer community-specific questions to derisk and accelerate a community’s clean energy transition” courtesy of NREL.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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