Focus group ponders how to power Brown Ranch

Each option hinges on how big the community will be

The Brown Ranch is a 536-acre property to the west of Steamboat Springs purchased by the Yampa Valley Housing Authority with a $24 million anonymous donation. Focus groups are currently working on the planning process.
Yampa Valley Housing Authority/Screenshot

Without any upgrades at the undeveloped Brown Ranch property, Yampa Valley Electric Association estimates it could serve about 15 homes — but even that is more of a guess.

“We can serve thousands with infrastructure upgrades … just like any other utility,” said Virginia Harman, vice president of operations for YVEA, during the Brown Ranch project’s infrastructure focus group meeting on Thursday, March 3.

“There is no limit for us being able to build new houses in the county because of YVEA,” Harman continued.

The Brown Ranch’s infrastructure group is one of five focus groups working in tandem to spearhead planning on the project.

Rather than making decisions, these groups are helping guide consultants and the steering committee toward a plan for the development, which is still years away from adding new homes.

When it comes to powering the future Brown Ranch community, there are a variety of options and factors to consider.

Paul Bony, energy and transportation director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and a consultant on the project, said at a high level, there are three options — being on the grid, some sort of micro-grid system, or a hybrid of the two.

But one crucial variable hasn’t been decided yet.

“How much power are we going to use?” asked Bony.

Knowing the demand for power will help consultants like Harman design a potential system and estimate the costs.

“That means (Harman) needs to know how many units we’re building and how big they’re going to be,” said Jason Peasley, executive director of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority. “Other teams are working on that.”

How those units are built, how densely they will be spaced out and what other land uses, like schools or grocery stores, the grid will need to support also need to be considered, Peasley said.

Maybe, the simplest scenario would be to extend the existing grid to include the Brown Ranch, which Bony said would require an upgrade to a substation near Steamboat Springs Airport.

Depending on power needs, other upgrades may be necessary further back in the system, he said.

However, Hartman said that depending on the type of housing, just the addition at the airport could accommodate about 2,500 to 3,000 houses.

Another option that has been talked about is a micro-grid where power would be produced and used on sight.

The issue here, Bony said, is that the system needs to be designed to handle peak power capacity, which generally comes at low points in power production.

“The heating loads of this project are going to be the single biggest driver of the total energy footprint,” Bony said. “In Steamboat, the heating loads tend to occur when we have the shortest daylight.”

If this grid were to use solar power, it would need to be designed with other features, such as battery storage and backup power sources, to ensure power during multi-day snowstorms, Bony said.

One obvious benefit to a micro-grid is that it’s renewable energy, but Xcel Energy’s own climate goals should have power it provides carbon free by 2050. This means reducing carbon likely won’t be a large factor in the decision, Bony said.

The third option Bony discussed was a sort of hybrid of the first two, which would have some aspect of power generation but would also be attached to the larger grid.

A potential hiccup with the hybrid option is that it may still need to be built out like a full-grid connection to handle peak hours, likely increasing initial costs.

“Really, it’s all or nothing or a hybrid, and each one of those paths have their own costs,” Bony said, adding that some will cost more up front, while other systems may cost more over time.

Peasley said they were laying the framework to explore a couple of different options, both on the short-term of getting them up and running but also factoring in long-term costs for the Brown Ranch community.

“We have to work towards getting some specificity to this, so that we can answer all of these questions,” Peasley said, adding that many of the same answers are needed for water planning. “We’re going to be getting to a point where we have these, probably three, build out scenarios that we can start putting numbers to.”

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