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Dissimilarities and Similarities of Electric Cooperatives

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

“If you’ve seen one electric co-op, you’ve seen … one electric co-op.” This is a line many of us in the electric cooperative world use to emphasize the point that every electric co-op is unique. This is particularly true in Colorado where cooperatives provide electricity to 70 percent of the state’s landmass through what may be the most diverse group of electric distribution co-ops in the country.

All 22 of the state’s electric distribution co-ops are members of the Colorado Rural Electric Association where we work to meet their various and diverse needs. Among the services CREA provides is this statewide magazine, Colorado Country Life. But that, too, is customized to meet the unique needs of each cooperative that uses the magazine to communicate with its consumer-members. In your co-op’s newsletter you’ll find specific information on upcoming meetings, director elections, rate adjustments, appliance rebates and other local news provided by your specific cooperative.

Each electric co-op is operated independently and is a separate business with its own board of directors, management and staff. Each co-op elects a board of directors comprised of members of the co-op and each board sets policies and works with management to run the co-op, in a way that best benefits the community and the consumer-members who depend on that co-op for their electricity.

Eighteen of the state’s co-ops purchase their electricity from Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a power supply cooperative that also serves distribution co-ops and public power districts in Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming. Four Colorado co-ops purchase their electricity from Xcel Energy.

The diversity of Colorado’s electric co-ops can be further measured by many different factors: size of service territory, number of members, geography, economic base, power supply, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, weather, etc. All of these factors come into play in the day-to-day operations of each electric co-op.

In terms of size, the service territory of some Colorado electric coops is larger than a lot of eastern states. For instance, Southeast Colorado Power Association (headquartered in La Junta) serves about 10,000 consumers over 13,000 square miles in 11 counties; Southeast has a customer density of 1.8 members per mile of line. Meanwhile, Holy Cross Energy serves more than 59,000 members in a more compact, three-county area of western Colorado and has a customer density of more than 18 members per mile of line.

In addition to the simple size difference of the various co-op service territories, the geographic and socioeconomic diversity of Colorado electric co-ops is also significant. Colorado’s electric co-op service territories include the agriculture-oriented eastern plains, the urban and suburban Front Range, the Western Slope resort and ski areas, the desert plateaus of southwestern Colorado and all points in between. Co-ops serve the entirety of Colorado’s “persistent poverty” counties (those where 20 percent or more of the population has lived in poverty for the last 30 years) as well as some of the wealthiest ZIP codes.

Our co-ops range in size from White River Electric Association, headquartered in Meeker, which is the state’s smallest electric co-op with 3,300 meters, to Intermountain Rural Electric Association, which is the state’s largest with nearly 160,000 meters. While some Colorado coops serve areas of fast-paced population growth and economic activity, others are experiencing net population decreases and stagnant economies.

Of course, the political diversity of Colorado is also reflected in co-op boards and policies. While much of co-op service territory coincides with areas that are decidedly red with Republican voters, there are many areas in coop service territories where the predominant voter registration is Democrat or unaffiliated.

All of this is to say that one size does NOT fit all when it comes to legislation and regulation of electric cooperatives.

Requirements that raise costs to the co-ops might be more easily absorbed by a co-op with more consumers per mile of line paying the costs. Those same requirements may be an extreme burden for a co-op with only a couple of consumers per mile of line paying that same cost. One co-op may have consumers in the higher income brackets willing to pay more for electricity to ensure it comes from preferred fuel sources, while another co-op may have consumers struggling to pay the electric bill at the current rate. Some co-ops need help with infrastructure where growth is rampant. Others need help with economic development where there is no growth.

Colorado’s co-ops are diverse businesses, yet all Colorado electric co-ops agree on core co-op principles: providing safe, affordable and reliable electricity; democratic member control by locally-elected boards; concern for the communities we serve; and the continued ability to determine our own fate without the help of our legislature or Public Utilities Commission.

After all, if you’ve seen one electric cooperative. …

Colorado’s Co-ops will Electrify Villages

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

Colorado’s electric co-ops are mission-driven organizations. By that, I mean that co-ops provide more than just reliable and affordable electricity to rural Colorado. Co-ops understand that they are part of the fabric of the rural communities they serve, and they are committed to improving the lives of the folks who live in those communities.

Co-ops are also aware that in many parts of the world, the miracle of electricity has not yet arrived. Incredibly, over 1 billion people on this planet do not have access to electricity and the comfort, health and safety that come with abundant light and power. Our national trade association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, has been doing its part to address this situation by funding electrification projects in dozens of countries for decades through its international foundation. This work has improved the lives of millions of people around the world.

Last fall, the board of directors of the Colorado Rural Electric Association decided that Colorado’s electric co-ops should be more directly involved in supporting the NRECA International program. The board authorized its own project in 2018. CREA will work with Oklahoma electric co-ops to provide electricity to two villages in Guatemala this fall.

In April, CREA Director of Safety and Loss Control Dale Kishbaugh and Director of Member Services and Education Liz Fiddes traveled to Guatemala for the initial project planning. CREA folks joined their counterparts from Oklahoma to meet with local officials in Guatemala and develop the logistics for a three-week project that will be completed in September. The project will extend power lines into the villages of Pie del Cerro and Tierra Blanca Salinas, providing power to 200 families, as well as five churches, two schools and two health centers.

In July, our group of Colorado electric co-op linemen traveled to Oklahoma City to meet with their fellow Oklahoma linemen and prepare for the Guatemala trip. The linemen met and got to know each other as the beginnings of a true team were established. The crews reviewed techniques that will be used in these remote villages where there is no access to bucket trucks and other tools typically used by co-op linemen. Instead, the crews will build electric distribution facilities the old-fashioned way, using picks, shovels, ropes and pulleys; it will be backbreaking work in the heat and humidity of Central America.

During the team-building trip, the guys also got a chance to eat together and talk shop. While co-op linemen have similar skills and training, it takes time for line crews to develop the type of camaraderie that makes for a successful working relationship. The participation of the Colorado linemen is possible not only due to the support of CREA, but also due to the willingness of local electric co-ops to send their employees to Central America for three weeks. The linemen themselves are making a sacrifice, since they will be away from their families and give up luxuries like hot water and internet service. They are committed to the cause, and all of them are participating out of a desire to help those in need.

You might ask why should CREA spend funds to support programs outside of Colorado, indeed, outside the United States? One of the core values of electric co-ops is “concern for community.” There’s no doubt that this principle normally refers to the coop service territory, but CREA also believes that those living without electricity around the world are part of the community that co-ops understand all too well. Co-ops believe that access to electricity is a basic human necessity, and that when we have the resources to reach beyond our borders to help others, we should act.

I’ve been involved with CREA for 22 years in one capacity or another, and in my view this is the best project the statewide association has ever sponsored. We believe it will not only change the lives of those villagers who are currently without power, but it will also forever change the lives of those co-op linemen who participate. Our tremendous co-op employees will once again be fulfilling the co-op mission this fall in Guatemala.

4th of July Reflections on Patriotism, Freedoms

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday. As a kid growing up in Topeka, Kansas, I looked forward to the annual celebration of America’s birth because it usually included all the elements of a perfect day: a baseball game in the morning, an afternoon picnic (featuring my mom’s homemade peach ice cream), and an evening band concert in the park followed by fireworks.

I remember one Fourth of July in particular, the bicentennial year of 1976. The country was still recovering from the Watergate scandal that resulted in President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford had been sworn in as president and he was the one who presided over many of the national events that celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of our country.

Like every day, July 4, 1976, was a great day to be an American; we had a heckuva party in Topeka. I played trumpet in the Santa Fe Band (the railroad sponsored the band) and we concluded the July 4 concert with a rousing rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” That march is, of course, synonymous with the Fourth of July, and I still get chills when I hear the trombones roar into the last stanza and the trumpets stand up and bring it home.

If you were around for the bicentennial (and if you have read this far you probably were), you know that it was a special day in American history, a day when unabashed patriotism and love of country were on full display. American flags flew from most homes, kids marched in neighborhood parades and families took the time to count their blessings for the freedoms and privileges that come with being an American.

I think many people of my generation worry that the Norman Rockwell version of patriotism that we experienced in our youth has gone away, never to return. It seems that the whole notion of patriotism is a little old-fashioned in this self-obsessed age of Twitter and Snapchat.

Or maybe patriotism is alive and well after all. That’s the message I took home from one of the speakers at the CFC Forum, a conference I recently attended in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Forum is sponsored by a cooperative known as CFC (short for National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation), a lender to many electric co-ops. The Forum is an annual conference where speakers from around the country speak on topics ranging from new developments in the electric industry to the economy and global politics.

One of the highlights of the 2018 CFC Forum was the presentation made by Gen. John Allen, formerly the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and currently the president of the Brookings Institution. Gen. Allen spoke about the “four plus one construct” that refers to the four countries (China, Iran, North Korea, Russia) and the extremist jihadi network that are destabilizing influences around the world. Allen explained in great detail how these states and organizations threaten the security of the United States and other countries.

But despite these threats, Allen remained optimistic about the state of U.S. national security. Why? Because “of the magnificent young men and women who volunteer to serve in the armed forces.”

Allen pointed out that, although today’s military is comprised of young men and women of incredibly diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, there is one common denominator among the troops: their complete devotion to America and what it stands for.

So, on this Fourth of July I hope you and yours enjoy great food, fun and fireworks. Just remember that your ability to do so is a gift from those magnificent young soldiers who are stationed around the world, defending our freedoms.

Is 100% Renewable Energy a Promise for Today or a Goal for the Future?

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

It hardly seems possible, but we are gearing up for yet another political season. In Colorado, candidates are positioning themselves for the primaries this month and the general election that will follow in November. The ads have already begun to pop up on television and social media, and I’ve heard more than one candidate promise “100 percent renewable energy” if elected.

As you probably know, one of the functions of the Colorado Rural Electric Association is to protect the interests of Colorado’s electric cooperatives in the political arena. We keep a close eye on the elections since the winners in the state legislative races, as well as the governor’s race, will have an important role in determining the future of energy policy in Colorado. Those energy policy decisions, in turn, will likely impact how electric co-ops deliver electricity to rural Colorado and how much it will cost.

Electric co-ops have a straightforward mission as local, community-focused electric utilities: We strive to provide the safest, most reliable, most affordable electricity that we can to over 70 percent of the land mass of Colorado. The cooperative business model has been extremely successful in meeting these goals for over 80 years, even though our service territories are sparsely populated.

We understand that today, providing safe, reliable and affordable electricity is not enough. We also strive to generate and distribute electricity in an environmentally-responsible manner, and that objective is often included in the mission statements of co-ops around the state. To that end, co-ops have spent many millions of dollars over the last couple of decades retrofitting power plants and diversifying our power supply portfolios to reduce emissions and protect the environment.

While those investments in pollution control equipment dramatically reduced the amount of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates that are emitted from power plants, the plants that use coal and natural gas to generate electricity continue to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Some candidates believe that electric utilities, including electric co-ops, should shut down all power plants that use fossil fuels now. They argue that the power from those plants can be replaced by “100 percent renewable energy.”

Electric co-ops support adding more renewable energy to our power portfolios. We have used renewable hydropower to generate electricity for decades. As the price of electricity generated from wind and solar resources comes down, co-ops are integrating more and more of these resources into their power supply mix.

There are a multitude of co-op projects around Colorado that add renewable resources each year. These projects include community solar gardens, utility-scale solar farms, net-metered rooftop solar, micro-hydro power plants, small- and large-scale wind farms, landfill and coal mine methane recovery facilities, biomass and more. Colorado’s electric co-ops are continually developing innovative ways to generate electricity with fewer carbon emissions.

That said, our most important responsibility is to keep the lights on for co-op member-consumers 24/7/365. That’s right: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, we’re balancing a complex system of power plants and distribution systems to make sure you have electricity whenever you need it.

Can we accomplish this with nothing but wind and solar power? The simple answer is that we can’t today. As much as we support renewable energy, it’s still intermittent. Battery technology is moving ahead by leaps and bounds and may soon provide a cost-effective complement to intermittent renewables, but for now we have to continue to use power plant technology that provides electricity on a constant basis that is predictable and dispatchable. That means producing electricity not only from renewables, but also from power plants that run on fossil fuels.

I suspect most of the candidates running on a platform of “100 percent renewable energy” say that in the context of an aspirational goal. That’s fine, but the reality is that everyone needs affordable and reliable electricity 24/7/365 and we have to use the tools we have available today to make that happen.

But we’re not done. Colorado’s electric co-ops will continue to innovate and incorporate more renewable resources into our power supply mix. We’re committed to keeping the lights on in the most reliable, affordable and responsible manner possible.

Colorado Co-op Representatives Take Electric Co-op Message to Congress

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

It’s hard to imagine a better time to be in Washington, D.C., than during cherry blossom season.

This year, the annual legislative conference hosted by our national trade group, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, brought Colorado electric co-op representatives to D.C. in time for the annual pink and white spectacle. The Yoshino cherry trees around the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial and on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol were in full bloom and provided a spark of hope in the midst of the contentious political atmosphere that dominates the city.

While we were in Washington, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), announced that he would not be seeking reelection to his congressional seat this fall, therefore giving up the speakership. This is one more indication that our country’s two major political parties are further apart than ever and, even within the major parties, there are factions that make legislative compromises hard to reach.

But, despite the divisive political atmosphere, there are issues that receive bipartisan support. One area of agreement for a majority of those elected to Congress, including the entire Colorado delegation, is the value of the electric cooperative program and the need to support that program in various legislative proposals. When we visited Washington, we discussed a number of these issues as we met with Colorado’s senators and representatives.

Our first request involved funding for the electric co-op loan program. The recent budget agreement provides adequate funding for electric co-ops and our “ask” during the legislative rally was for Congress to continue that funding through 2019. Building and maintaining the facilities needed to provide power in rural America is expensive. Since co-ops don’t have access to a tax base and can’t sell bonds like other utilities, it helps to have access to loans from the government. And electric co-op loans are beneficial to the government, since the co-ops repay these loans with interest. This is one program that adds to the government coffers.

We also asked our congressional delegation to support several ongoing co-op programs as a part of a comprehensive farm bill being negotiated. The Rural Energy for America Program, the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program and the Rural Energy Savings Program are all programs that enable co-ops to assist their members and rural communities. We asked our delegation to support these programs.

A second issue that we brought up with our delegation involved funding for rural broadband to assist those co-ops that want to provide broadband in their communities. We were successful in the state legislature this year in making funds available for rural broadband. Additional federal support of rural broadband could help some of these projects.

Finally, we asked our delegation to oppose any plans to sell the transmission assets of the power marketing administrations, or PMAs, that currently sell their electricity to co-ops and other public power utilities.

Co-ops and other “preference power” customers paid the costs of operating the federal dams and power generating stations for decades and should continue to receive the benefits of those resources. We asked that the PMAs continue to sell their power to existing customers at cost-based rates, which will help maintain stable rates for all of Colorado’s co-op members.

It was good to find issues that can be solved as we all work together, no matter what our political leanings are. When I’m in Washington, I like to take a morning run around the Capitol building, past the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, down the National Mall past the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial and on down to the Lincoln Memorial. I always make it a point to run up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and read the Gettysburg Address on the south wall of the memorial and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on the north wall.

In the Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln could see that the Civil War was finally coming to an end, and he knew there would be a postwar need for reconciliation between the north and the south. While our challenges today pale in comparison to the challenges of 1865, Lincoln’s suggestion that we act “with malice toward none and with charity for all” remains good advice for contemporary politicians.

We can find ways to come together, even if it is only to agree that the cherry blossoms are spectacular.

Co-ops Test New Technologies for Renewable Resources

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

It’s been said that if Alexander Graham Bell were to pick up one of the devices that we all use today to make phone calls, he would not know how to use it. On the other hand, if Thomas Edison examined a typical 21st century central station power plant, he would be completely familiar with its operation. That’s because, while the 21st century brought a revolution in telephones, the remaking of the power industry is taking more time.

The tried-and-true power plant model — a large central station power generator produces electricity, the electrons are transmitted over high-voltage lines to local communities and the power is then distributed to homes and businesses — has worked extremely well for decades. We are so used to having on-demand electricity that it’s easy to forget that our electric grid is an amazingly complicated machine. Back in 2008, the National Academy of Engineering concluded that the electricity grid was the most significant engineering achievement of the 20th century.

The grid consists of many individual elements synchronized by a lot of people, such as the staff at your electric co-op, who work around the clock to provide electricity at the precise moment you need it. Since electricity, for the most part, cannot be stored, the grid has to provide a perfect balance of supply and demand every hour of the day.

But in the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “The only thing that is constant is change.” Just as technology is transforming traditional modes of communication, transportation, computing and other essential elements of our modern world, it is also changing how electricity is generated, distributed and, yes, stored.

The notion of storing electricity has been the Holy Grail of the electric utility industry for a long time. Many different methods were tried including compressed air, pumped hydropower (pumping water uphill at off-peak times and releasing it through a turbine to create energy during peak periods), flywheels and batteries. While none of these technologies is perfect, recent developments in battery chemistry and production scale resulted in the emergence of the lithium-ion battery as the current favorite for both automotive and utility applications.

Electric co-ops are at the forefront of exploring how batteries can be deployed to provide benefits for co-op member-owners. United Power, a member of the Colorado Rural Electric Association headquartered in Brighton, will soon be testing a utility-scale battery system. The co-op is partnering with SoCore Energy and Tesla to install a 4-megawatt, 4-hour lithium-ion battery as part of its electric distribution system. This means that once the battery is fully charged, it can be discharged to provide electricity at a time chosen by United Power, and it can produce up to 16 megawatt-hours of energy with one charge.

The battery will enable United Power to reduce its demand from its power supplier for short periods of time, potentially avoiding system peaks and saving money for its members. However, this “peak shaving” is only one of many potential benefits of a battery system. In other situations, co-ops and other electric utilities may use batteries for voltage support in parts of their distribution systems that need reliability improvements. Batteries may also be paired with renewable generation sources, such as wind generators or solar arrays, to firm up the intermittent renewable energy.

As Colorado’s electric co-ops continue to innovate in the fast-changing world of electricity production, the United Power battery project is just one example of co-op ingenuity. The project will provide an interesting case study and co-ops across the state will have access to the data collected from United Power’s pioneering effort.

This is one more way co-ops look toward the future, exploring the possibilities of new, cost-efficient technologies. But remember, while planning for the future and changes to come, electric co-ops must also provide affordable power to you today. Some may want us to move faster, but we take our duty to distribute reliable, affordable electricity seriously, just as seriously as we take our responsibility to be innovative and to utilize the latest technologies that work for our members.

While we keep the lights on today, we are also working toward the day when we can “bring on the batteries.”

2018 CREA Annual Meeting Highlights

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

Representatives from each of Colorado’s 22 electric distribution co-ops and their power supply co-op, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, meet in Denver every year for the Colorado Rural Electric Association Annual Meeting. We hold this meeting during the legislative session so that our members can meet with their representatives in the Colorado General Assembly, and we surround those legislative meetings with lots of educational opportunities, speakers and updates on the activities of our trade association.

This year’s February 10-13 annual meeting was a high-energy event featuring discussions about Colorado’s energy landscape and how electric co-ops fit into that picture. In fact, the theme of this year’s Annual Meeting was “Powering Colorado’s Future,” because there is no doubt that electric co-ops will be key players in providing reliable and affordable power across Colorado for many years to come.

Of course, the electricity industry is evolving and we brought in a variety of speakers to talk about some of those changes. Experts from the Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory provided an update on battery storage technology, and we also heard from the CEOs of the state’s two largest utilities, Tri-State and Xcel Energy, with respect to their plans for future power supply.

At this year’s meeting, I was amazed to hear about the variety of renewable energy, energy efficiency and other projects that are under way in co-op service territories. Projects included largescale solar arrays, battery storage, small hydropower, automated metering and more. Colorado’s electric co-ops are fully engaged and aware of the new developments in the electric industry, and they are deploying these new technologies and programs at a pace that makes sense for their specific co-op.

Our meetings with state legislators also went well. Almost a quarter of all the legislators in the General Assembly attended our legislative reception, and our Co-op Day at the Capitol speakers included Sen. Don Coram (R), House Majority Leader K.C. Becker (D), Rep. Jeni Arndt (D), and Rep. Jim Wilson (R). We have been working hard on a bill to help provide broadband service to unserved parts of rural Colorado, and we appreciate the efforts of all the legislators who have supported that goal.

One of our main messages to the legislators was that every co-op in Colorado is unique, and one-size-fits-all policies usually don’t work well for co-ops. Each year bills are introduced in the legislature that mandate our power supply choices, and we generally don’t support those bills because we believe our locally-elected boards understand our facilities and individual circumstances much better than the legislature.

In addition to legislative discussions, we also heard a safety update from Phil Irwin, the CEO of Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange, along with our own Director of Safety and Loss Control Dale Kishbaugh. Although Dale has been on the job for less than a year, he has brought a new focus and energy to CREA’s safety programs that is much appreciated by our members. Dale and Phil talked about the encouraging trend of fewer accidents in the co-op family, but expressed concern that too many serious accidents are still occurring around the country. We’ll continue to do everything we can to help your co-op line crews and office staff avoid on-the-job injuries.

Being a director on the board of an electric co-op requires an understanding of a lot of complex issues, from power supply to accounting to legal matters. CREA provides training courses at the annual meeting that enable Colorado co-op directors to achieve various certification levels established by the national trade association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. For the first time, 80 percent of Colorado’s electric co-op directors are now accredited as Credentialed Cooperative Directors, and many have also received their Director Leadership or Director Gold certification. By providing these courses in Colorado, CREA saves members a great deal of money on registration fees and travel expenses that they would incur if they had to travel out of state to take the training.

While our annual meeting is mostly business, we also had a little fun. At our awards banquet, we were entertained by a musician and comedian by the name of Joe Stoddard. Joe is a tremendous guitar player and singer who, among other talents, does a unique impression of Bob Dylan (you’ll have to see his show to see what I mean). For me, the highlight of Joe’s show was when the co-op folks joined in on the chorus of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Turns out I’m not the only “singer” in the group!