The summer of 2018’s Lake Christine wildfire not only destroyed three homes and torched thousands of acres of forest, it also came dangerously close to taking out the power lines for the upper Roaring Fork Valley.  After this close call, Holy Cross Energy partnered with Rocky Mountain Institute, or RMI, to find ways to keep the lights on if there’s another disaster. 

On a recent walk through the burn area, Holy Cross Energy vice president David Bleakley remembered watching the Lake Christine fire raging above Basalt. He stood at Holy Cross Energy’s distribution substation — a few hundred yards from where the fire ignited — and kept a close eye on the planes and helicopters dropping thick lines of fire retardant between the flames and the homes and businesses. 

“They were protecting the town, but it was also keeping the fire away from the lines, too, so that was my main concern,” Bleakley said. 

On July 4, 2018, the fire burned through one of two wooden poles holding up the power lines as they leave the substation — and Bleakley and others were concerned about the other pole.  

 “If it were to come down, it might’ve taken the entire loop out, just because both lines are on the same circuit, or same structure,” Bleakley said.  

That would have meant no lights, no refrigerators, no air conditioning in the upper Roaring Fork Valley during the busiest week of the summer. Pitkin County sent emergency alerts telling residents to prepare for up to a week of power outages.

The Lake Christine fire burns on Basalt Mountain on July 4, 2018, just above the electrical transmission lines that supply the upper Roaring Fork Valley. Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

The winds shifted, the firefighters persisted and the lights stayed on, but the fire illuminated a weakness in the valley’s electrical grid. 

Electricity runs through the Roaring Fork Valley from point to point, like a child’s game of connect-the-dots. There are two transmission lines that carry the current, which offers some backup if one is damaged for a stretch. But both lines sit on the same wooden poles, and all the lines run out of the same distribution station. 

“We realized this was the single point of vulnerability,” said Mark Dyson, who leads electricity research efforts at RMI. “We wondered if there were projects that could be done upvalley of Basalt that would provide some energy services if this line were to be disabled in the future.”

Holy Cross Energy this past summer teamed up with RMI to look at ways to make the local energy grid more resilient and to prepare for any sort of disaster that might affect the power system. They convened several working groups to explore long-term, creative solutions. 

In a disaster such as a wildfire, buildings such as schools and town halls can be critical communication hubs or evacuation centers. These places need reliable power sources. One idea: electric school buses that integrate with school buildings. 

“If the grid were to go down, you could then use these mobile batteries to discharge into the building to provide power,” said Emily Goldfield, who is with RMI. 

So, during a disaster, the lights, heat and refrigerators could run in key parts of the building — and the school’s daily transportation system goes green. 

Other groups looked into creating microgrids that still provide energy if the main power lines go down. A microgrid sits outside that point-to-point, connect-the-dots drawing; it’s still a part of the picture, but it can operate independently. 

RMI and Holy Cross think Snowmass Village and the Airport Business Center are possible spots for microgrids. In these places, solar panels that are connected to battery storage could provide power without relying on the larger system. 

“One of the things we did in this project was look at ways in which batteries or other resources could provide value every single day,” Dyson said. The goal was to look beyond diesel generators, which sit unused except in rare emergencies. 

Many of the same strategies to keep power on during a disaster could potentially help both consumers and the utility year-round. Take rooftop solar with battery storage, for example. If homeowners use these systems to generate and store electricity, they can avoid tapping into the grid when everyone needs electricity — like on cold, dark winter nights. 

“That can save Holy Cross money because it lowers peak demand in those peak hours,” Dyson said. “But it also helps those folks keep some lights on if the grid does go down, if we have another fire.”

Sunflowers bloom on Basalt Mountain in the Lake Christine Fire burn scar. Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

If there is another fire, the Holy Cross Energy system is already a bit more resilient, Bleakley said. The collaborative has painted the bottom of the poles with fire-proofing and cut back any flammable vegetation to provide a buffer around the lines. And there’s new smart technology to help the company prevent any fires from igniting on Holy Cross’ equipment. 

But there are some things that Holy Cross just can’t change. 

“Having two transmission lines in the same corridor, that’s just going to be a bottleneck,” Bleakley said. 

While fireproofing can help in the short-term, true resiliency will mean moving from connect-the-dots to a more complex, multidimensional picture of electricity. 

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with Aspen Public Radio on coverage of the environment. APR featured this story on Monday, Sept. 23.

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy is a freelance journalist based in Snowmass Village. She grew up in Aspen and has worked as an editor at Aspen Journalism, reporter at Aspen Public Radio and an English and journalism...