Fort Collins Utilities partners with CSU, She’s In Power to model city’s solar energy

Wendell Stainsby and Ishita Kekare, graduate students at CSU's Energy Institute
Wendell Stainsby and Ishita Kekare, graduate students at CSU’s Energy Institute

When it comes to solar energy, there are a number of factors that go into modeling a city’s solar infrastructure to estimate potential energy generation for customers.

Fort Collins Utilities partnered over the summer with Colorado State University’s Energy Institute and students as well as She’s in Power — an initiative designed to empower female clean energy leaders — to better understand residential photovoltaic (PV) solar generation and model solar systems in the city.

To do this, a flexible PV model — known as CSU-PVSTEM — was developed to provide energy generation patterns using weather data from the CSU main campus station as well as specific orientation and configuration information about each individual array.

The team that created the flexible PV model included John Bleem, an energy professional and research associate, Jerry Duggan, manager of the CSU Smart Village Microgrid lab at the Energy Institute, and Wendell Stainsby, a graduate student in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering and Energy Institute ambassador.

Using this model, the team can estimate current energy generation patterns and ideally, enhance planning of solar incentives, rate design and resource expansion. The model also can help to evaluate the current 120% rule, which limits the solar generation to no more than 120% of typical annual energy consumption prior to solar equipment installation.

She’s in Power Program

She’s in Power — an initiative of Colorado Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) — develops and facilitates clean energy projects that pair a mentor with a student to make measurable impacts on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Fort Collins.

Bleem, who has done solar work for decades, said his main goal as a mentor is to share solar energy opportunities with students.

“My interest is helping students get involved in solar,” he said. “We had a strong solar presence in the 1970s and ’80s at CSU, but the focus has changed a bit. This is a great opportunity for a young woman like my mentee Ishita [Kekare] to learn about solar energy, gain skills in Python coding and connect with other women in engineering.”

Bleem added his daughter is an engineer and stressed the importance of getting more women into the field of engineering.

Kekare, a second-year master’s student in Systems Engineering at Colorado State, said she has learned a lot working with Bleem on the project.

When signing up for the She’s in Power program, her preference was PV modeling and analysis. “I’m interested in energy systems and eventually want to go into energy data analysis.”

Kekare, who is interested in energy systems and eventually wants to go into energy data analysis, came to CSU from India because she wanted to pursue a master’s degree program that would provide practical learning.

“The educational support I’m receiving through my mentors and the continuous sharing of ideas with the team is helping me grow more confident in my field,” she said. “My mentor, John, has been helpful in connecting me to other students. A major aim of She’s in Power is to provide networking support and has helped connect me with others in the field. I’m happy with the program.”

Other key skills she said she will take away from the project include learning to code in Python, project management, and time management skills as well as technical learning in power systems.

The first phase of the project is complete, in which Kekare and the PVSTEM team gained acceptance from the city to use their model at a larger scale with more data.

Other model applications 

The model also be used for other applications and that’s where graduate students like Wendell Stainsby shine.

Stainsby recently completed graduate research using the PVStem model and is now working with Fort Collins Utilities to consider how time-of-day pricing affects behavior changes. He is doing this by integrating weather and electricity consumption data and refining the currently model for use in this application.

“We collect data 75,000 buildings every 15 minutes, which has created over 10 billion data points,” he said. “We are exploring patterns to see if energy usage has gone down because of the new rates. The overall goal of these new rates to shift consumption habits from on-peak usage to off-peak and spread out energy usage over time.”

Stainsby said he hopes the project can help provide the city with tools to help plan for future solar generation. He added the research group has a great relationship with the city. “With better modeling, Fort Collins will be able to make better-informed decisions about the energy distribution grid. As PV penetration continues to grow, this information will be key for managing the future distribution network,” he said.

Kerkare agrees: “Big impacts that this extended research could contribute include increased use of solar energy, increasing energy efficiency and ultimately reducing our carbon footprint.”

John Phelan, energy services senior manager at Fort Collins Utilities, said they are garnering tangible benefits from the partnership with the Powerhouse Institute and She’s in Power.

“We expect to use the results to better understand the installed performance of solar systems, which will help us to tailor our programs to meet both customer and utility needs,” he said. “We’re also proud to support the goals of improving gender balance in our industry and provide real-world experience to talented graduate students.”