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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Three Ways Fort Collins Is Working To Be Tomorrow's Utility

Dan Boyce
Inside Energy
John Phelan with Fort Collins Utilities inspects the smart meter at his home.

Our electricity system is rapidly changing around us. New sources of renewable power are meeting technologies that can crunch unprecedented amounts of data. It's all leading to a major shakeup for how utilities do business.

Fort Collins' small, city government-run utility is trying to stay ahead of that wave. Their experiments may just be a potential model for the utility of the future.

1. Smart Meters

Throughout Fort Collins basic gray boxes hold nearly 70,000 smart meters. A grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped pay for this now three-year-old $36 million effort.

With the technology, customers and the utility can see their energy use in 15-minute increments. Before this they could only see energy use once a month.

"I think of this as a paradigm-shifting investment," said Fort Collins Utilities Senior Electrical Engineer Dennis Sumner.

Yet, just north of Fort Collins, in Wyoming, that paradigm shift hasn't taken root.

"Of itself it doesn't generate energy; of itself it doesn't reduce energy use," Sumner said. of the meters

But the data these smart meters supply provides a foundation for Fort Collins needs. Local elected leaders set a goal for the city to be carbon neutral by 2050. Presently, the city-owned utility gets the vast majority of its power from coal, so that's an ambitious target.

"It's gonna take a lot of work," Sumner said.

2. Advances In Delivery And Service Choice

Fort Collins needs two more things to accomplish its climate goals: Residents need to use less energy, and the city needs to get that energy from many more sources like community solar gardens, rooftop solar, and wind power.

All of that will inevitably change the relationship people have with their utility. Under the current model, they bring us electricity and we pay for it. Sumner said in the future, the utility will be able to tailor the delivery.

"Customers can decide their own package that they want," Sumner said.

Customers will buy and sell electricity on the grid, zapping energy back and forth from their solar panels, or stored in their electric cars.

James Tong with Clean Power Finance predicted the future power grid will work like the Apple App Store.

"They [the utilities] provide the hardware that hosts the platform, but they also curate the vendors," he said.

It's not here yet, Fort Collins needs those vendors and that marketplace to develop. The only way the city will keep its energy transition affordable is if the citizens buy into renewables and, more importantly, make their homes as energy efficient as possible.

Credit Dan Boyce / Inside Energy
Inside Energy
Torger Hougan and Cara Neth of Fort Collins, Colo.

3. Upgrade Financing

Cara Neth and her husband, Torger Hougan had been shivering in their drafty mess of a house for more than a decade.

"(It was) really uncomfortable, unlivable really," Neth said.

The pair was huddling under blankets, wearing coats and hats indoors, all while faulty ducts were pumping heat out into the dirt around their home. Now, a more than $13,000 heating system upgrade hides beneath a trap door in their closet floor.

"Under other conditions we might have had that money in the bank, but we didn't at this point," Neth said, referring medical bills from her husband's treatment for Leukemia. "We couldn't have gotten it done without the city's help."

Customers can borrow from Fort Collins Utilities to pay for energy efficiency or renewable projects. They are loans at a good interest rate. Cara and Torger make payments right on their monthly utility bill. In the winter, they said they'll save money.

"Because we're not using six space heaters spread all over the house," Neth said.

Utilities have been offering these types of loan for a while now, but the energy researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute say it's a growing trend and Fort Collins is the first utility in the county to offer loans for up to 20 years.

It's all to get customers to make these upgrades without upping their monthly bills. Fort Collins Utilities Energy Services Manager John Phelan said they'll need everything at their disposal to push toward this utility of the future.

"There is no silver bullet," he said, "what we need are silver BBs."

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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