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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.

Grand Valley Power Flips Switch on Pioneering Solar Project

Teams of volunteers donned hard hats and safety vests this past Saturday to help install solar panels at the latest addition to the Grand Valley Power community solar array near Grand Junction. At the end of the day, GVP General Manager Tom Walch flipped the switch to energize the substation that will deliver carbon-free kilowatt-hours from the solar panels to member-owners of the electric co-op that provides service in Mesa, Delta and Garfield counties.

Working together with the nonprofit Grid Alternatives, Grand Valley Power sponsored the first community solar garden in Colorado that is specifically targeted at assisting low-income electric co-op member-owners. A total of eight families that receive electric service from GVP will benefit from the power generated from the solar panels. These families will continue to pay a monthly facilities charge, but they will see a significant reduction in their monthly electric bills since their energy usage will be offset by the electricity produced by the solar panels. After a four-year subscription period for the initial signees, a new set of co-op consumers will get their chance to save with solar.

Volunteers came from as far away as Texas and California to be a part of this groundbreaking project that enables co-op member-owners from all economic circumstances to benefit from solar power.  As part of “Team Shirley”, I had a chance to work with volunteers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and others to install the solar panels that will be producing energy at this site for the next couple of decades.

The Grand Valley Power community solar project exemplifies the electric co-op Commitment to Community and the GVP co-op board and staff deserve kudos for their imagination and ingenuity in responding to the wishes of their co-op member-owners.

For a video of the project, check out this link:

http://www.nbc11news.com/home/headlines/Community-solar-garden-celebrates-the-launch-of-the-pilot-program–305590791.html

 

The 2015 Legislative Session: CREA Forges Bipartisan Solutions

There has been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on with respect to the just-completed 2015 session of the Colorado general assembly. Many commentators have employed phrases like “partisan stalemate” and “legislative logjam” to describe the current environment in which Republicans have a majority in the state senate and Democrats are in control of the state house of representatives. The implication is that the 2015 legislature was a “do-nothing” body that was rendered impotent by partisan wrangling.

That was not CREA’s experience in 2015. While it’s certainly true that many bills passed through one chamber only to meet their maker in the other chamber, CREA was able to find a path through both houses on several bills that we supported in 2015. Not only were we able to move our own bill, SB 15-046, through the process, but we were also instrumental in the passage HB 15-1377 and HB 15-1364. These bills made common sense amendments to the Colorado renewable energy standard and the laws governing small hydropower facilities to give electric co-ops more flexibility in complying with our obligations under the renewable energy mandates.

These outcomes did not occur by happenstance, but were the result of the hard work of our dedicated lobbying team.  Geoff, Jeani and Heather worked countless hours with legislators and stakeholders to explain our issues and find solutions that could be supported by both Democrats and Republicans. We are very grateful to the many legislators that helped us this session, particularly Senators Grantham (R-Canon City) and Donovan (D-Vail) and Representative Moreno (D-Commerce City) who were the prime sponsors of SB 15-046.

On a bittersweet note, we are saying goodbye to our friend and colleague Jeani Frickey, our contract lobbyist who will be heading to greener pastures as the Executive Director of Stand for Children. Jeani has been a tireless supporter of Colorado’s electric co-ops and a tremendous asset to our government relations team for many years. We wish Jeani the best in her new endeavor; her knowledge of our program and her boundless enthusiasm will be missed!

We want to thank the CREA board for its direction of our efforts in 2015, and we’ll try to keep the (properly inflated) ball rolling in 2016 as well…