Powering Through the Storm: Silverton’s Quest for Energy Resilience

Silverton, Colorado, is a small and out-of-the-way place surrounded by the San Juan Mountains. People living there are used to beautiful views and a peaceful mountain lifestyle. But when winter storms hit, this peace is broken by regular power cuts. These cuts don’t just cause trouble for the locals; they also threaten vital services and everyone’s safety.

The Winter Challenges in Silverton

The Snowpocalypse of Last Winter

Silverton, a town with an elevation of 9,318 feet and a population of around 650, is no stranger to severe winter conditions. The town experienced a particularly harsh winter last year, with a series of blizzards causing multiple power outages. The most notable of these was an event locals dubbed the “Snowpocalypse.” This severe storm resulted in complete whiteouts, with snow blowing sideways and two mountain passes on U.S. 550 being closed, effectively isolating the town.

During the Snowpocalypse, the power went down at 8:30 a.m. on February 22, crippling essential services. Gas pumps at service stations and electronic cash registers at grocery stores ceased to function. Homes with gas furnaces went cold, and even the operation of heavy garage doors at Silverton Medical Rescue became a struggle.

The Response: Building Resilience

Developing a Comprehensive Resiliency Plan

Recognizing the gravity of their situation, Silverton officials took decisive action. They formulated a comprehensive resiliency plan, with a microgrid system as its centerpiece. This system, a blend of solar panels and a large battery aims to provide backup power for the entire town.

  • Partnership with San Miguel Power Association (SMPA): Silverton has collaborated with SMPA on this project. The association views community-size solar grids as a practical solution for small mountain towns like Silverton, ensuring that they keep their lights on during storms.
  • Funding and Support: The project has garnered attention and financial support from various sources. The U.S. Department of Energy announced a funding opportunity of almost $15 billion to bring microgrids to underserved and Indigenous communities, with Colorado receiving a significant portion of this funding. Additionally, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and the Colorado Energy Office received $17 million from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill for grid resilience.

Microgrids: A Beacon of Hope

The concept of microgrids is not just a local initiative but is gaining traction across the country, especially in rural areas. These microgrids serve as power backups, ensuring energy independence and self-reliance.

  • Local and National Implications: The work in Silverton and other mountain towns is seen as a potential model for communities nationwide. The federal law on solar tax credits has also been broadened, allowing non-profit organizations like SMPA to receive credits as direct payments, further incentivizing the adoption of microgrids.

Challenges and Solutions

Grid Redundancy and Infrastructure Challenges

One of the fundamental challenges for SMPA is ensuring that the cost of these projects and the electricity they produce remains lower than the price of wholesale electricity purchased from Tri-State. Moreover, towns like Silverton, Rico, and Ophir have only single lines of electricity, meaning that if the line goes down, the town faces a blackout. The microgrid system aims to address this issue by providing a local source of electricity that can feed local wires with power for several hours, more if the solar panels can replenish the battery.

Conclusion

The initiative in Silverton reflects a broader movement towards energy resilience and independence in rural communities. The adoption of microgrids, bolstered by state and federal support, not only addresses immediate power outage issues but also sets a precedent for sustainable and self-reliant energy solutions in similar communities across the nation.

For more information on the resiliency plan and the role of microgrids in community energy solutions, visit the U.S. Department of Energy website.

Image Source: Hogs555CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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