The small and sunny town of Del Norte, and most of southwestern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, is served by one major power line. It comes in the valley through stretches of the Rio Grande National Forest, where long periods of drought and spruce beetle infestations have led to significantly higher fire danger in the last 15 years. Del Norte is the example of a community at risk, and one that needs to find creative solutions to a possible grid disaster.
“If that line was to go down, then most of the valley I think would lose electrical power,” said Del Norte Public Works Supervisor Kevin Larimore.
He was standing among a field of solar panels which help power the city’s water supply. Del Norte also has solar installed outside the town hall, the town general store, and on top of the police department. The city uses the solar panels to lower municipal electric bills. Ironically, what they can’t be used for is what may be most needed: a backup power supply when electricity is cut off.
Del Norte’s solar panels work in the same way the vast majority of solar works in this country: If the outside power supply is cut off, the panels become instantly lifeless.
This solar power conundrum came into sharp focus nearly two years ago when Hurricane Sandy thrashed the east coast, causing widespread blackouts that sometimes lasted for weeks. James Newcomb, Managing Director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, said while New Jersey has hundreds of megawatts of solar power, it was rendered useless because of perhaps antiquated connections to the larger power grid.
But that might be slowly changing. Inside Energy's series, The Solar Challenge, has the details.