Following the flooding in 2013, many Colorado cities are still rebuilding. KGNU’s Julia Caulfield reports that after losing a primary hydroelectric facility during the flood, the City of Loveland is using FEMA recovery money to build something new.
Nestled up against the foothills in Loveland, 19 acres of solar panels trace the sun through the sky. The recently completed Foothills Solar and Substation project now provides 3 megawatts of power to local residents. That’s enough to power 300 homes.
In September 2013, Loveland’s Idywilde hydroelectric facility was damaged by the flooding of the Big Thompson River. It was the second time the facility was damaged in 40 years. So, rather than trying to rebuild the facility, the City of Loveland decided to use money through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA’s, Alternative Project. The funding allowed the city to use money granted by FEMA to construct a new project rather than rebuilding an old one.
The solar field sits just on the edge of Loveland. Surrounded by neighborhoods, and a local park, it’s a quick drive from town.
“We’re really excited about this project because it’s the first of its kind in the entire country, to do an alternate project, or even just a FEMA project on an electric infrastructure, and especially with renewable infrastructure, so we’re very excited to be setting the path.”
Briena Reed-Harmel is a Senior Electrical Engineer and Co-Project Manager of the FEMA project. She says the city considered other projects before deciding on this one, including inline hydro turbines at the water treatment plant, and other sites for solar energy. In the end, the Foothills site was chosen because it was the most cost effective.
Funding was granted in 2015 and construction began last spring.
Gretchen Stanford, Acting Director Loveland Water and Power, and Co-Project Manager, says the solar field is only half of the project. Right beside the field, the city is also building a substation. The substation is will help to distribute the energy collected at the solar field onto the main electrical grid. She says the development of both the elements required additional infrastructure.
“So that road we just came down too, that is part of our project as well. So we had to build this road in conjunction with this, the solar field, and then that you’re seeing right here, is the construction for the substation.”
After walking through a chain-link fence, the space opens up onto rows upon rows of glistening blue solar panels.
Christene Schraeder, the Electrical Engineer Project Manager, says the technology for the solar panels is quite simple. While this project is on a bigger scale, she says the panels themselves are not so different from those you might have on your house.
“So these are the panels, we have 10,332 of them, they are all on single axis trackers so they track the sun through the course of the day…”
Because of their location, the panels are programmed to withstand the wind that gusts off the foothills. In high winds the panels will release from their track and adjust to where the wind places them. The next morning they reset back to where they can get the most sun. This helps keep the panels safe so they can continue to collect solar energy.
“…on the end of each row here, there’s what’s called a combiner box, and that essentially takes all the power that is collected from these panels and combines it and sends it into the inverters.”
According to Stanford, the energy collected at the Foothills site is enough to power around 300 homes, however, FEMA requires that the project benefit the entire community, as such, the energy is distributed equally among Loveland residents.
Schraeder says the panels are currently producing about 10-15% more energy than expected for this time of year. She says that given their yield and lifespan the panels make economic sense.
“We’re hoping for a 20-30 year lifespan on the panels, the payoff on these will mathematically, is excellent, we’ll have the whole field paid off in a very short period of time, and so everything beyond that is just icing for us, as far as output is concerned. So this turns out to be a very efficient, a very cost wise expenditure of both City of Loveland money as well as FEMA investment.”
Later this spring, native wild grasses and trees will be planted at the solar field to help make it feel as natural as possible. The construction of the substation is due to be finished this fall.