Deep in the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina, the French Broad River winds its way through the town of Hot Springs. The rural mountain community is an anomaly of sorts: While 550 year-round residents create a tight-knit feel, its location near the Appalachian Trail draws thousands of hikers and tourists.
The dichotomy is one of the qualities Tim and Amanda Arnett say convinced them to move to Hot Springs and open the Spring Creek Tavern in 2014.
“It’s its own unique spot,” Amanda Arnett said, “and because we are surrounded by protected land, what you see is all Hot Springs will ever be.”
It’s also part of the town’s only downside: frequent, extended power outages. Flickering lights almost always led to total darkness, with no estimate on restoration time. Many times, the couple said they were left no choice but to shut the restaurant, meaning money lost for them and their staff, and no food for patrons.
She contacted Duke Energy and said the company responded in a way she never would have imagined.
New answer for an old problem
To find the root of Hot Springs’ recurrent, long outages, Junior Hatcher said to look no further than the hills.
“The power lines to town run over more than 10 miles of rough terrain and leave limited rerouting options,” said Hatcher, Duke Energy renewable engineering manager. “It can take techs extended time frames to locate and isolate an outage.”
Hatcher said his team saw Hot Springs’ issue as an opportunity to design, test, commission and construct new technology – a microgrid – to improve reliability for customers.
So they did.
Hot Springs is now home to one of the nation’s most advanced microgrids. The 2-megawatt (AC) solar facility – paired with a 4.4-megawatt lithium-based battery storage facility – provides a safe, cost-effective and reliable solution that Hatcher said will be able to power the entire town during an outage.
“We’re providing backup power, reducing outage duration, and improving our customers’ experience,” Hatcher said.
During testing, he said the microgrid proved its worth. Not only did it pick up the town’s entire electric load, it did it from a complete shutdown, using only the solar and battery to restore power. When there’s a complete power outage, the microgrid can bring customers back online in about 10 minutes.
While the project’s success is important from a professional perspective, Hatcher said, it also means a lot to him personally. During construction, his team stayed and spent a lot of time in town.
“We really got to know the residents, our customers, and understand just how important this is to them,” Hatcher said. “Providing them this solution was a really gratifying experience.”
The proof is in the power
Change is never easy, especially in a small town. The Arnetts say residents were split down the middle on the idea of relying on advanced technology they weren’t familiar with.
“Duke Energy did a really good job sending employees up here to quell concerns and explain processes,” Tim Arnett said. “People didn’t feel like they were being kept in the dark. That little bit of effort went a really long way.”
They say the microgrid’s first test went a long way, too. The Arnetts were so nervous, they sent their staff home and closed the tavern. Then, they waited.
“The power went out and (about 10 minutes) later it came back on,” Amanda Arnett said. “We couldn’t believe it! Now, as weird as it sounds, I’m excited for the power to really go off for the first time because I want to see it happen again. The town being able to function is going to be huge for the entire community.
“It would have been so easy for Duke Energy to come in, trim a couple branches and disappear,” she said. “This is proof that you won’t know unless you ask, and to know this major corporation was actually looking out for the best interest of the community, that’s what made me really proud. So, we want to thank them for putting that much effort into a project for little old Hot Springs and giving us the power to stay up and running. We’re excited to be the first, and we hope this helps other communities, too.”