What's watt: Sell electricity back to the grid

So, you’re not quite ready to go all the way off the grid yet, but you’d like to turn some of Northern Colorado’s abundant sunshine – and maybe some of the wind that comes whipping along the foothills in the spring – into electricity for household use.

Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association can help you out with that. The local member-owned co-op is happy to buy any extra wattage generated by your residential solar or wind energy system.

In fact, 117 PVREA members already have net-metering systems that keep track of how much energy they use and how much home-generated power they send up the grid. PVREA pays the going energy rate – 8.734 cents per kilowatt-hour as of Jan. 1 – for the difference as a reduction of the participants’ monthly energy bill.

The average 3kW to 5kW residential solar system does not usually produce enough energy to power a typical home 24/7, and some months are better than others for solar production.

“If in one month, a member uses 1,000 kilowatts and sends 500 back to us, we deduct the cost of the 500 from their bill,” explained Myles Jensen, external affairs manager for PVREA. “If the next month they use 500 and send us 1,000, the cost of the 500 goes into the bank.”

The credits roll over from month to month to offset future usage. The only time PVREA pays residential customers cash for power generated is when they leave the system. “Then we true up the account,” Jensen said.

To participate in the net-metering system, a homeowner must have an emergency disconnect switch installed on the power system by certified electrician and approved by a state electrical inspector, to protect both the homeowner and the rest of the grid. Then the two-way meter is installed.

Even if net-metered homeowners aren’t 100 percent energy independent, they can be more reliant on themselves, Jensen said.

“It also lets them hedge against any future rate increases,” he added. PVREA adjusts its rates once a year, effective Jan. 1.

PVREA can use and redistribute homegrown electricity because it receives its energy from Tri-State Generation. Tri-State, based in Westminster, allows its member co-ops to send up to 5 percent of purchased power back onto its grid.

Don’t forget hydropower
In fact, Tri-State was a driving force behind the hydropower project Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District is completing on Carter Lake. PVREA will buy the 7 million to 10 million kilowatt hours generated each year from water dropping a half-mile in elevation as it flows past the foothills.

“That’s enough to power about 1,000 homes,” explained Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner. “There’s no impact to the resource – there are already five power plants fed by the Colorado-Big Thompson project, and the water remains available to grow crops. We’re just making the outlet water work for us.”

Hydropower will also help PVREA and Tri-State meet the state mandate of generating 10 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. (Xcel Energy must meet a higher standard of 30 percent of commercially available power from renewables.)

The $6 million hydro facility should be online this spring, with an official dedication on May 31, Werner said.

Not all local utilities can enter into such co-generation partnerships as easily. Platte River Power Authority, which supplies electricity to Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park, gets the majority of its power from the coal-fired Rawhide power plant north of Wellington. Wholesale contracts with Rawhide keep consumer rates low, but limit the utility’s co-generation capacity.

That can become an issue for large industrial users whose operations generate excess power. Jensen said PVREA officials have been in talks with Van Dyne SuperTurbo, a Fort Collins company that produces equipment to increase the efficiency of automotive engines. The company estimates that its engine testing produces about 3 megawatts of power per year that could go back onto the grid.

“But we haven’t heard anything from them in several months,” Jensen said.

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