The long and often contentious relationship between Pueblo ratepayers and Black Hills Energy over the high cost of power in recent years has gotten the attention of a fast-emerging new field in energy production: battery and power storage.
JLM Energy is a California-based energy storage company whose vice president of marketing, Ellen Murray Howe, lives in Conifer, Colo. When Howe was doing research this past year on communities with high power costs, Pueblo popped right up.
“It was easy to see that Black Hills’ rate structure was quite high, so I called (the Pueblo Economic Development Corp.) and got a tour of the community,” she said. “Pueblo has high power costs, and that’s where my company can help, so it was a near-perfect scenario.”
What’s important here isn’t that JLM has been talking to local businesses in the past year, but that the company and its competitors are offering a new way to use electric power: getting it as cheaply as possible — whether on or off the grid — and storing it for later use. JLM is especially interested in commercial customers and light manufacturing.
“I’ve talked to commercial users in Pueblo that are spending $150,000 or more a year on electricity,” said Howe. “Those are businesses that would benefit from being able to buy and store cheaper power.”
For example, Black Hills business customers pay a rate, called a demand charge, that is based on peak use. If the customer could spread out that use so it bought power at a lower demand price, it could use that stored electricity at peak times but without the higher cost.
Similarly, utilities sometimes offer “time-of-use” rates, meaning cheaper power at times of low demand, like at night. With a storage system, customers can buy that power at night, store it and then use it during the day.
It’s a simple idea but stayed on the drawing board in past decades because battery technology was so cumbersome. Not any more. Storage batteries are now in cars, attached to solar arrays, even replacing full-blown power plants.
Utilities are investing in the storage systems to cut the costs of power they buy off the grid during peak hours.
“The level of knowledge is growing so fast we’re seeing it on both sides of the meter,” Howe said.
And, right now, customers who purchase solar-power and storage systems can still get a 30 percent federal tax credit.
As Pueblo looks at creating its own municipal-owned utility, power storage will likely be a larger part of the conversation because it is changing how businesses and even households operate and use power.
“I think we see Puerto Rico moving into power storage in a big way as it rebuilds its power system,” Howe said. “We seem to have hit a tipping point.”