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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!

How Community Solar Gardens Help Low-Income Members

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

At total of 380 low-income electric coop members are enjoying the benefits of solar power this winter, thanks to Colorado’s electric co-ops, a nonprofit called GRID Alternatives and the Colorado Energy Office.

These three entities collaborated on several community solar gardens that specifically benefit income-challenged co-op members. With the 2017 completion of the last of these projects under a $1.2 million CEO grant, CEO released a comprehensive report that describes the details of the projects and the successful partnerships that made it all possible. All told, the community solar gardens expect to trim the electric bills of co-op consumers by $145,160 in the first year of the program and by more than $3 million over the life of the projects.

The community solar model in Colorado was initiated back in 2009 when United Power in Brighton introduced its Sol Power program. The first-of-its-kind program allows United’s customers to lease individual solar panels from large solar photovoltaic arrays and receive credit for the power generated from those panels. This arrangement allows utility customers who either cannot afford a large residential system or who live in condos or townhomes to take advantage of renewable energy without having to make a large capital investment or having to maintain the system. The larger arrays are also more cost effective in general when compared to smaller arrays installed on homes.

Community solar in Colorado got another boost in 2010 when a company called Clean Energy Collective partnered with Holy Cross Energy (Glenwood Springs) in the Roaring Fork Valley to establish its first community solar project near El Jebel. That 340-panel project was quickly fully subscribed, and Holy Cross and Clean Energy Collective added another 1-megawatt project at the Garfield County Airport a few years later. Clean Energy Collective has now built dozens of community solar projects across the United States.

In 2015, Grand Valley Power (Grand Junction) continued the community solar movement, but with a new approach. Grand Valley worked with GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit focused on providing solar power to low-income utility consumers to help ease the burden of their energy bills. Grand Valley was the first co-op in the country to identify customers who needed a hand paying their utility bills and to allow those customers to offset their energy usage with power generated from centrally-located solar arrays. This community solar model provides a short-term “hand up” to those who need it, and it allows more co-op member-owners to benefit from the solar installation.

After the successful Grand Valley Power program, GRID Alternatives received a grant of $1.2 million from CEO to launch the “Demonstration Project.” The project included additional community solar gardens at six more electric co-ops: Delta-Montrose Electric Association in Montrose, Empire Electric Association in Cortez, Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs, Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association in Fort Collins, San Miguel Power Association in Ridgway and Yampa Valley Electric Association in Steamboat Springs. Over the last two years, these co-ops worked with GRID Alternatives and CEO to install nearly 1.5 MW of solar capacity in 19 different counties in Colorado. These projects have allowed low-income co-op consumers to get a break on their utility bills, and they have helped integrate more renewable energy into rural areas.

But while the benefit for co-op customers is clear, why would electric co-ops voluntarily sign up for a program that results in fewer sales of the one product they sell? Yes, it’s true that the community solar gardens helped the co-ops comply with their renewable energy requirements under state law and their individual co-op targets. It’s also true that the projects enabled the co-ops to get more hands-on experience with solar power and they helped co-ops diversify their power supply.

But the main reason co-ops got involved in this project is the fact that co-ops are nonprofit, member-owned electric utilities. They don’t have an incentive to make money for shareholders such as insurance companies or hedge funds. Co-ops are in this business to provide members with the most affordable, reliable and environmentally-sustainable power possible, but we’re also in it to serve our communities. In some cases that means trying to find creative ways to support those who are having a hard time paying their power bills. The CEO-GRID Alternatives program increased the accessibility of solar to more than just the co-op members in middle to upper income households.

Diane Johnson, CEO of Yampa Valley Electric Association, summed up the program: “YVEA is proud to help develop a renewable project that touches so many people. We expect that many ‘right’ answers exist for the future of energy, and we expect to embrace varied and innovative fuel choices.”

These new community solar gardens that focus on a specific set of members are just one of those choices.

Colorado Co-op Brands are in Every Part of Life

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

There’s a great tradition in the electric co-op program where co-op member-owners have a chance to attend the annual meeting to get an update on the latest news from the co-op. While most co-op members attend the annual meeting to listen carefully to the important reports from the co-op’s accounting, engineering and legal departments regarding the activities of the co-op, in a few cases I suspect that folks attend for the free meal and the door prizes.

Part of my job at the Colorado Rural Electric Association involves attending as many of these annual co-op meetings as possible. When I do, I’m usually treated like a member and I leave the meeting not only with a lot of good information but also with the same parting gift that goes to co-op members. This means that over the years I accumulated a vast collection of useful co-op branded items that enabled me to (with apologies to Ricky Martin) live “La Vida Co-op.”

How so? Well, every morning I’m awakened by the jingle of my Southeast Colorado Power Association alarm clock and weather station. This thing not only has an alarm clock, it also tells me the temperature and barometric pressure outside so I know whether I’ll need a jacket to walk Ella (our border collie).

When I get out of bed, I leave the lights off so as not to disturb my sleeping bride, but I’m able to avoid stumbling on my way to the kitchen because our hallway and bathrooms are lit with nightlights from Intermountain Rural Electric Association. After a quick drink of water from my K.C. Electric Association cup, I’m ready to slip on my San Isabel Electric Association jean jacket and San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative baseball cap and head out for my morning walk.

After the walk (in winter months I use my Delta-Montrose Electric Association flashlight to see where we’re going), I turn on our United Power LED kitchen lights. I then pull out a knife from my Highline Electric Association cutlery set and slice some bananas to put on my oatmeal. Sometimes I use my Holy Cross Energy ice cream scoop to add a little extra nutrition to my morning kale smoothie. (Just kidding, I would never ruin a smoothie with kale.)

I often make a to-do list for the day using my Empire Electric Association pen on my Yampa Valley Electric Association notepad. After reading the morning newspaper, I may use my Y-W Electric Association scissors to clip relevant articles to take to work. I pack up the articles and to-do list in my La Plata Electric Association portfolio and head to work.

On weekends, the “Livin’ La Vida Co-op” lifestyle really gets amped up. For winter Broncos games, we fill up our Mountain View Electric Association thermos with hot chocolate and sit on our San Isabel Electric Association stadium seats with our San Miguel Power Association and Grand Valley Power blankets pulled around us for warmth. On really cold Sundays, I put on my Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association parka over my CREA fleece pullover (as far as I know, no co-op has yet put its logo on long johns).

In the summer, we take our Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association insulated picnic basket to concerts in the park after filling it with cheese sliced on my White River Electric Association cutting board and vegetables peeled with my Highline Electric Association vegetable peeler. Sometimes I tee up at the golf course with my Mountain Parks Electric golf balls. After the round, I come home and put on my Morgan County Rural Electric Association chef’s apron (complete with bottle opener and beverage holder) and pull out my Southeast Colorado Power Association grilling tools to turn the steaks. Dinner on the back porch is illuminated with my Gunnison County Electric Association solar-powered camp light.

Of course, “Livin’ La Vida Co-op” is about much more than the free gifts provided at co-op annual meetings. It’s really about the great service and value provided by Colorado’s electric co-ops that work tirelessly to keep your lights on and make your communities a better place to work and live. To that, I hope you will agree: “Viva Colorado’s Electric Co-ops!”

Getting to Know Our Political Candidates

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

There is an old political maxim that goes something like this: If you are not at the table, you may end up on the menu. This means, when it comes to politics and lawmaking, only those who bother to show up and make their case will have any chance of influencing the outcome of any legislative process.

That is one of our key functions at the Colorado Rural Electric Association. We make sure Colorado’s electric cooperatives are at the table in Denver and Washington, D.C., when it comes to energy policy and other issues that impact the business operations and success of our co-op members. To do this effectively, we enlist the help of our board of directors, our members’ boards, our co-op managers and employees and many others.

We also work with legislators from the time they are candidates, sometimes offering financial support to state legislative candidates through the co-ops’ political action committee, Colorado Advocates for Rural Electrification. CARE, a bipartisan entity, operates independently from CREA with a separate governing board made up of electric co-op directors and employees elected from across the state. (Funding for CARE comes from voluntary donations.)

Every two years, when Colorado has its state House and Senate elections, the CARE board interviews candidates running for the state legislature. With term limits in place in Colorado, there is significant turnover in both the Colorado House of Representatives and the Colorado Senate every election cycle. This year, the CARE committee met with 22 candidates (equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats) to learn a little about them and their reasons for running for office. It was also an opportunity to share who the co-ops are and what their concerns are.

We were extremely impressed with the candidates running for the Colorado General Assembly this year. Without exception, the candidates were smart, articulate and well-versed in the issues they will deal with at the state Capitol. That said, it was also clear that we have work to do to make sure they understand the co-op business model and how state legislative decisions can impact our co-op communities across the state.

Although electric co-ops serve primarily rural parts of the state, the CARE board interviewed many candidates from the Denver metro area to give them some sense of why rural electric co-ops were created and the challenges we face today from burdensome regulations and government overreach. While those future members of the legislature may not have rural interests at the top of their agendas, we hope the information we gave them will provide them with some basic background once the election is over and the lawmaking begins in January.

Several of the candidates we met with expressed common themes from the campaign trail. People are telling them they are tired of the political gridlock in Washington. They are also telling them that they are concerned about the stagnant economy and the price of housing. We made the case for a couple of basic principles that our organization advocated for many years that connect with these themes: local control and affordable electricity.

I believe these new legislators have great potential to be co-op supporters and to understand the concerns we have on a variety of energy issues. We’re hopeful that they will be able to express their individual judgment on bills and not be bound to their caucus’ position for every vote. Many candidates told us they would be independent-minded once elected to the General Assembly, and we hope they follow through on that promise.

There is no doubt that the presidential election this year will reach new lows when it comes to personal attacks and character assassination on both sides. The airwaves will be full of ads alleging that each candidate is a liar and scoundrel. So, it would be easy to conclude that the democratic process doesn’t work and that we are wasting our time by voting and getting involved in the political process.

That cynical outlook is not justified, in my opinion. There are many smart, articulate, caring people running for the Colorado General Assembly who are genuinely committed to addressing a variety of issues that we face in Colorado. We may not always agree with them on an issue, but we appreciate their willingness to get in the ring and fight for their beliefs. We at CREA intend to do the same.

LEADERSHIP AT GETTYSBURG

Communication pivotal for reaching goals in a changing environment

by Kent Singer, Colorado Rural Electric Association executive director

I’ll admit it right up front: I’m a Civil War geek. I have an endless fascination with that period of U.S. history — the politics, the battles, the incredible turmoil that was likely unavoidable given the flaws in our original Constitution.

So to be able to spend a few days recently in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, studying the famous battle in depth at the elbow of some of the preeminent historians on this subject, well, I was in hog heaven.

My full immersion in the Battle of Gettysburg occurred during a three-day leadership program sponsored by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and CoBank, one of the co-op banking partners and an associate member of the Colorado Rural Electric Association. The purpose was to provide leadership training for electric co-op employees and directors against the backdrop of the most significant battle on U.S. soil.

The events of July 1 through July 3, 1863, in southern Pennsylvania shaped not only the geographic boundaries of the United States but also our moral and legal foundations. You may recall from your history classes that in the months leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee, racked up a string of victories over the Union Army of the Potomac. Although in many cases outmanned and outgunned, Lee and his subordinate generals, including Stonewall Jackson, found a way to outmaneuver the Union army in a series of bloody battles.

But Lee and the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, believed that the Confederacy needed to strike a blow in the North that would lead to a negotiated peace agreement. Lee moved the 50,000 or so men of the Army of Northern Virginia up through Maryland and into Pennsylvania to threaten Harrisburg and ultimately Philadelphia, Baltimore and even Washington, D.C. The Union army responded by moving 80,000 soldiers north to provide a shield for Washington and Baltimore. The two armies collided at Gettysburg, and the battles they fought over a three-day period were some of the most brutal and significant of the war.

It is impossible in a short space to recap all of the individual battles and acts of heroism that took place at Gettysburg. If you watched the movie 
“Gettysburg” or saw the Ken Burns documentary some years ago, you are familiar with some of the iconic geographic landmarks on the battlefield, such as Cemetery Hill, Seminary Ridge, the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den. You may also be familiar with the heroics of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Little Round Top or the crushing defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia at Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the battle.

But you may not realize that the outcome at Gettysburg may have been different if a direction given by General Lee to one of his commanders on the first day of the battle were more precise. With the Union army in retreat and falling back to Cemetery Hill in the late afternoon on July 1, Lee directed Richard Ewell to press on and take the Hill “if practicable.” Ewell interpreted this to mean that he should only move forward if he was certain of success. He was not and did not attack. The Union army was able to dig in and fortify its position on Cemetery Hill. As one of our battlefield guides explained, had Stonewall Jackson received the same order from Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia may very well have prevailed at Gettysburg.

One of the key lessons from Gettysburg is that the clarity of communication is extremely important, not only for commanders of armies but also for electric co-op leaders and supervisors. There is no doubt that the communication tools available today are superior to the written notes from couriers on horseback that were used at Gettysburg. Nonetheless, successful communication still depends on precise language and a common understanding of an organization’s goals and objectives.

CREA recognizes this and is working with Colorado’s electric co-ops to help them provide communication and other skills co-op employees will need as they face a projected turnover in the industry’s leadership and supervisory ranks. Among the resources is a new leadership training course initiated by CREA to help employees develop leadership skills.

Co-op employees also have access to the Gettysburg Leadership Experience through our national trade association. It is yet another opportunity for co-op leaders to work with their peers from around the country to help them prepare for the challenges of an evolving industry.

But back to brutal challenges faced by both sides at Gettysburg. My recent visit to that hallowed ground also reminded me of the sacrifices made by thousands of soldiers to establish “a new birth of freedom” for all Americans — sacrifices we are still thankful for today.

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Inventing Our Way into the Future

by Kent Singer, Colorado Rural Electric Association executive director
“Technology Trumps Policy” was the title of a column that appeared in POWER magazine a couple of years ago. The column, authored by Dr. Robert Peltier, made the case that the pace of technological breakthroughs often trumps the best-intentioned policies in the ever-changing energy world. In other words, at the same time that legislators, regulators and other policy-makers are crafting complex and expensive energy policies, inventors and entrepreneurs are developing new technologies that make those policies irrelevant or obsolete.

A prime example of this theory is the continuing evolution of battery storage technologies that will complement electricity generation from renewable resources. While renewable resources are becoming more cost effective with each passing year, they are still intermittent and must be backed up with “dispatchable,” nonrenewable power resources that will provide electricity at all hours of the day or night. This limitation for renewable resources would be negated by an affordable, reliable source of battery storage. Knowing that an effective battery solution is the “holy grail” for higher levels of renewable integration, many scientists, engineers and venture capitalists are hard at work searching for the most viable solution.

Sadoway ILP

Donald R. Sadoway

One of the pioneers of battery storage research is materials science professor Donald Sadoway of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Sadoway and his team at a startup company called Ambri developed a liquid metal battery that could enable broader integration of renewable power sources. The objective of the Ambri technology is to store large amounts of electricity in a relatively small space for dispatch when renewable power sources aren’t available.

Ambri was created in 2007 when Sadoway and co-founder David Bradwell received a $7 million federal grant to develop their technology.

In 2010, after taking one of Dr. Sadoway’s courses online anonymously, a Washington state resident was so impressed with Sadoway and the battery technology that he decided to invest in the startup. It turns out that the student from Washington was a reasonably successful businessman named Bill Gates.

Fast-forward to 2015. This year Ambri intends to test several prototype batteries in places where electricity is more expensive, such as Hawaii, New York and Alaska. The company plans to sell its commercial-grade Ambri “cores” (rated at 200 kilowatt-hours, roughly enough power to run 10-15 homes per day) in 2016 and eventually market its product to large industrial and commercial users of electricity. The big advantage of the Ambri technology is that there is little degradation of the battery shells; and the company says the batteries have a life span of a decade or more. Ambri has ambitious plans to open factories near clients around the world, each employing as many as 150 people.

Battery storage technology is just one example of our changing energy world, and at the Colorado Rural Electric Association we do all that we can to further our collective understanding of this changing world. At CREA’s sixth annual Energy Innovations Summit on October 26 in downtown Denver, we are honored to welcome Dr. Sadoway as our featured luncheon speaker to talk about the latest developments at Ambri. He will also participate on a stellar battery storage panel later in the day that will also include a discussion of the Tesla Power wall and other battery storage products.

The summit will once again include top-notch speakers from across the country discussing a wide variety of energy-related issues. Beyond battery storage, they will share information on the status of wind generation, new utility regulatory models and natural gas markets. Colorado’s leading utility executives will look into the future of Colorado’s electric industry.

It’s a challenging time for all electric utilities, including electric co-ops. From efforts such as the Clean Power Plan, which will restrict fossil-fuel based generation, to the evolving state of technology, the future of electricity production is uncertain.

What is certain, however, is that this country’s vast intellectual firepower and dynamic markets will likely solve our energy challenges in new ways that regulations and policymakers can’t presently predict.

Come to the CREA Energy Innovations Summit and get a glimpse into that exciting future.