Q&A with Co-op Historian Ted Case

By Paul Wesslund

Ted Case spent the past several years diving deeply into unexplored parts of electric co-op history. He described how co-ops have affected national policy since the 1930s in his first book, Power Plays: The U.S. Presidency, Electric Cooperatives, and the Transformation of Rural America. His second, just-released book title describes itself: Poles, Wires and War: The Remarkable Untold Story of Rural Electrification and the Vietnam War. (***Scroll to the bottom of this page to read more about Case’s new book.***)

Case is executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. He recently talked about what the history of electric co-ops means for co-op member-owners everywhere.

Q: How did you end up writing about electric co-ops in the Vietnam War?

A: It came out of my first book and the chapter on President Lyndon Johnson. In 1965, he received a letter from the general manager of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Clyde Ellis, saying that NRECA could help win the war by putting electric co-ops in Vietnam. I was intrigued by that bold claim. Since Johnson was such an early and strong supporter of rural electrification in Texas, he embraced Ellis’s proposal fully. Learning about that story led me on this quest to track down some of the men and women who had worked on it.

Q: Did NRECA start co-ops in Vietnam?

A: It was a really good effort. Just 20 men went over there in a five-year period. These were the most difficult co-ops to establish in the history of the electric co-op program. The Viet Cong soldiers that were fighting against the South Vietnamese tried to cut down the co-op lines and chop down their poles and blow up their dams, and they did all those things. The people trying to start the co-ops faced rampant corruption and an inability to get poles and other materials. They got three co-ops up and running and brought light to thousands of villagers. But the program ended and they had to leave, and the communists overtook the country.

Q: What lessons did you learn from researching the book?

A: The support the U.S. co-op workers got from the Vietnamese villagers was not unlike the support from the farmers who started electric co-ops in the United States in the 1930s. The Vietnamese villagers wanted a radio. They wanted an iron and lights to read. Toward the end of the war when the communists were rolling through the country in 1975, they came to a town that was one of the co-ops’ headquarters. The militia in the town rose up and fought against the communists in one of the most heroic battles of the war. They were fighting for their electricity. They were fighting for what they had built.

Q: Has researching these books changed your view of electric co-ops?

A: I have a greater appreciation. Our heritage is so much a part of who we are, and there’s not many people who remember when the lights came on anymore, so that’s different. But the core values of what co-ops do are the same as in 1936 when the Rural Electrification Act became law.

Q: What are those values?

A: I think of one particular co-op, about medium-sized and close to an urban area. It has several thousand people who come to the office to pay their bills. They don’t need to do that. It’s a lot easier to just toss the bill in the mail or pay online, but they go in because the co-op has this value beyond just electric service. It really is the center of everything in the town and an economic driver. That sums up how the co-op is not just a power company. It’s the center of their world.

Q: Does that kind of relationship really apply in this increasingly high-tech world in a high-tech industry?

A: As I travel the country, I’m blown away by the technical acumen and the vision and the strategic abilities of co-op leaders to see into the future. Electric co-ops are getting involved in providing broadband internet connections at a time when nobody else will do it. It’s the same innovation that brought electricity to rural areas.

Q: Can a co-op be successful providing technologies as different as electricity and broadband?

A: Co-ops will embrace new technologies when that’s what their members want. Members say they’re interested in solar energy and other utility innovations, like developing advanced batteries that could increase reliability and store renewable energy for times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Co-ops never strayed from that business model that listens and responds to their members, their customers, their owners.

Q: Can’t some of these new ventures be risky?

A: Definitely. And that brings out another strength of member ownership: The control is local. Providing internet and other services won’t make sense for all of the more than 900 co-ops across the country. There are very difficult decisions being made in co-op boardrooms, and history shows there is tremendous wisdom that comes out of the discussions among the local co-ops and their members.

Q: How does that member-owned business model relate to the basic mission of keeping electricity reliable and affordable?

A: Co-ops continue to be very competitive, in rates, service and reliability. And there are so many other things they do for their members. It comes back to that local connection. Members know the folks who work at the co-op. They know the directors. There’s terrific customer service getting the lights back on after an outage. Electric reliability is very important, and co-ops do that as well as anyone.

Q: One characteristic of electric co-ops is their not-for-profit nature. How does that affect the co-op members?

A: A lot. Increasingly, institutions have fallen from grace because everybody believes there’s this profit motive that’s just out to milk you and there’s such a lack of trust in a lot of the large institutions. Being not-for-profit is an attractive feature that means decisions are based on the best interest of the co-op and the consumer.

Q: So what should members know about their electric co-op?

A: That they have the ability to influence their co-op more than they ever imagined. Co-op board members that I know are really interested in hearing from folks and getting feedback. One person can really make a huge difference. When somebody shows up at a co-op annual meeting and has a point to make, the boards take it seriously. The co-op’s management takes it seriously. That’s the value. It’s pretty hard to get heard these days. But at a co-op, your voice makes a difference.

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.


Lighting Up a Warzone
The audacious story of electric co-ops in Vietnam
By Paul Wesslund

During one of the hardest chapters in American history, electric co-ops volunteered to win the war in Vietnam.

They didn’t win the war, but in his new book Poles, Wires and War, The Remarkable Untold Story of Rural Electrification and the Vietnam War, author Ted Case tells a riveting story of how they tried. He argues that the success electric co-ops had in the conflict that divided our nation just might have helped that Southeast Asian nation recover more quickly by demonstrating the value of bringing electricity to the countryside.

Case brings authority to the book as executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. He also makes good use of his masters degree in fiction writing to tell a compelling story of an audacious offer from Clyde Ellis, the head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, to President Lyndon Johnson. Give the South Vietnamese electricity, Ellis said, and you’ll win their hearts and minds in the fight against communism.

What followed was a classic battle of enormous personalities, foreign and domestic political and military maneuvering, and a determined band of people who brought electricity to the American countryside, fighting the odds to bring light to a warzone halfway around the world.

Case creates a fast-paced narrative as the crews race the collapsing war to pass bylaws, organize the co-ops and tangle with corruption, bureaucracy, in-fighting and Viet Cong soldiers determined to destroy what they were creating. In the end, in less than four years, three electric co-ops were bringing electricity to more than 8,000 members.

It was a service the South Vietnamese villagers valued and owned. They even felt strong enough to literally fight for it, in a doomed battle against an assault from Viet Cong armored tanks.

Case creates a highly readable, deep and unique American history of overcoming the highest of hurdles to show people how they could bring power to themselves; first in America, and then to the world.

You can order the book online at TedCaseAuthor.com.

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Safe on the Bus

It was one of those wrong place at the wrong time type of deals,” Clint Shults says. On a snowy morning in April 2016, Shults loaded a school bus with FFA students from Meeker High School. The group was heading to a competition at Colorado Northwest Community College, about 65 miles away. A heavy, wet snow was accumulating.

Shults, a longtime volunteer for FFA, drove the school bus. The FFA team’s horse judging coach, Silvia Otabachian-Smith, followed the bus in her car. The caravan traveled just 7 miles when disaster struck.

Out of the corner of his eye, Shults saw a flash of snow falling off a power line and then heard the sound of a wire coiling. From behind the bus, Otabachian-Smith witnessed several bursts of fire. The bus snagged a power line just as it was falling to the ground under the weight of the snow.

“There’s an unmistakable sound, if you’ve ever heard wire unraveling from a roll,” Shults says. “The noise of us dragging the wire across the highway and just through the air … and then the strain of the wire as it became unraveled.” Rather than throwing on the brakes, Shults took his foot off the accelerator and let the bus coast to a stop.

Behind the bus, Otabachian-Smith’s first thought was to get out of her car and check that the students were unharmed. Luckily, a phone call from a student kept her safe. “They all started yelling at me on the phone,” she explains. “At that point, I knew we were in pretty big trouble.”

Amidst the chaos, Shults and his wife, who was also on the bus, kept the students calm and called 911 to notify dispatchers of the accident. Once Shults assessed the situation, his next concern was whether oncoming traffic could see them and stop in time, seeing as the bus signals shorted out.

“Everybody did everything right,” Sheriff Anthony Mazzola says.

John Purkey, line superintendent at White River Electric Association, and Sherriff Anthony Mazzola soon arrived on the scene. Sheriff Mazzola says, “John Purkey got out first. He needed to secure the scene.” He ensured that the lines were de-energized and untangled from the bus and that the scene was safe before first responders moved in.

White River Electric regularly provides training to local first responders. “We knew from this training that you don’t approach a scene because there is such a thing as step voltage, that even though the wire is on the ground as you walk into that scene, you could be stepping into different voltage variations and injure yourself,” Sheriff Mazzola explains.

The rescue took less than 20 minutes and everyone remained safe because they knew the right steps to take. “Everybody did everything right,” Sheriff Mazzola says. “The dispatcher told them not to leave the bus. Clint and his wife told everybody not to leave the bus.”

“In my opinion, a very dangerous situation was avoided because the correct steps were taken,” Otabachian-Smith says. “People were patient. People communicated. Luckily, we had cell phones and help was there almost immediately.”

Afterward, the students and adult volunteers continued according to schedule. “We were told to get back on the bus, went on to CNCC and competed,” Shults says. “Some of the kids got their names called, and it ended up being a good day in spite of what happened that morning.”

Shults and others are working with Safe Electricity to share their story so that others can learn from their experience. Safe Electricity wants you to know the steps to take to stay safe if you are in a vehicle that comes into contact with a downed line or power pole:
1. Remain calm and stay inside the vehicle.
2. Call 911.
3. Warn others to stay away from the vehicle.
4. Stay seated and do not exit the vehicle until utility personnel say it is ok to do so.
5. If you must exit the vehicle because it is on fire, jump clear of it with your feet together and without touching the vehicle and ground at the same time. Keeping your feet together, shuffle or “bunny hop” to safety.

Frank Sampson of White River Electric emphasizes the importance of treating every downed power line as if it is live.

For other chaperones who travel with students and might encounter a downed power line, Shults warns, “Do not tell any young person or any passenger to get off the bus.”

“Electricity is invisible and there is no way to determine visually if a wire is energized,” explains Frank Sampson, manager of operations at White River Electric. “Never assume that a wire has or doesn’t have electricity in it because you can’t see it. You can only see the effect of it, and it travels at the speed of light. It’s extremely destructive and exceedingly fast.”

After 26 years in law enforcement, Sheriff Mazzola knows firsthand the importance of electrical safety education. “Everybody needs to know what electricity can do, and we all need to be aware of it.”

Learn more and see the story at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O6GjPiyQ5U.

Downsizing the American Dream of Home Sweet Home

By Justin LaBerge, with additional information provided by Colorado Country Life

A house, two kids, a manicured lawn and a well-maintained fence to keep it all safe. For years, that was the dream to which many Americans aspired.

But if you scroll through your social media feed or watch one of the countless reality shows about real estate and housing, you’ll notice that many folks are eschewing that traditional American home in favor of alternative accommodations.

The reasons people prefer these nontraditional structures are as diverse as the buildings themselves. Some want to simplify and declutter their lives. Others want to save money and energy. Here’s a look at a few of the more popular non-traditional home designs that might be coming to a neighborhood near you.

Tiny houses look like real houses, with square corners, traditional siding materials and pitched roofs. They typically offer 100 to 130 square feet of living space, and must be less than 8 feet 6 inches wide and 13 feet 6 inches tall to legally drive on the road without a special permit.

TINY HOUSES
The tiny house trend got its start with a man named Jay Shafer who built his first miniature house on wheels in Iowa in 1999. Shafer is a person who liked to challenge the status quo, and after living in a variety of nontraditional spaces over the years, he started drawing plans for imaginary houses.

Over time, the designs got simpler and smaller, and he was inspired to build one for real when he learned they didn’t meet building codes. He took that as a challenge and realized that if he built the house on a prefabricated, street legal trailer, it would be considered a trailer load and not a house and, thus, not subject to building codes.

This nonconformity makes tiny houses a controversial issue in many communities, and local governments struggle to balance individual rights, local codes and public safety. Their nontraditional design also makes tiny houses more difficult to finance and insure, although options for both are available.

Despite these challenges, thousands of people purchased do-it-yourself plans as well as manufactured tiny houses from Shafer and other designers.

Unlike mobile homes or camping trailers, tiny houses look like real houses, with square corners, traditional siding materials and pitched roofs. They typically offer 100 to 130 square feet of living space and must be less than 8 feet 6 inches wide and 13 feet 6 inches tall to legally drive on the road without a special permit. The weight varies based on the length and rating of the trailer, but tiny houses are typically much heavier than camping trailers because they are made from traditional building materials.

Tiny house living continues to pick up in popularity in Colorado. Several companies offer manufacturing services to suit what buyers long for in a little home, including Colorado Springs-based Tumbleweed Tiny House Factory, Durango-based Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses and Fort Collins-based MitchCraft Tiny Homes.

Now trending throughout the United States are tiny home communities where like-minded little home lovers can enjoy the niceties of living in a neighborhood, but on a much smaller scale than traditional living. One such community located in Fairplay offers tiny house owners a community clubhouse as well as nearby access to Breckenridge Ski Resort, fly-fishing hot spots, ample hiking and many more outdoor adventure options.

A new tiny house planned development popped up in Salida as well, where the manufacturing of 200 rental units is currently under way. Located along the Arkansas River, the tiny house community will feature a community building, exercise facility, restaurant, 96 storage units and more when completed. Sprout Tiny Homes is developing this community and has plans to break ground in Walsenburg where it will build a 33-unit tiny home community to address the need for housing in the area.

CONTAINER HOMES
The shipping container became a political symbol for many people in recent years. To some, they are a symbol of the decline of American manufacturing. To others, the containers are tools that connect us to a globalized economy and lower costs of many consumer goods.

But to a group of architecture enthusiasts, the shipping containers stacked on cargo boats, carried by freight trains and pulled by trucking rigs are grown-up Lego blocks waiting to be turned into homes.

The first container buildings were built by those looking for a fast, simple and low-cost way to provide shelter. Containers are strong, easy to transport and, thanks to global trade, abundant.

A Rhino Cubed container home.

Over time, what started as a clever way to recycle old containers and quickly build inexpensive structures changed into an architectural trend. The modular, boxy aesthetic of shipping containers gives container homes a modern look that many find appealing. Today, container homes range in size and complexity from modest, inexpensive, utilitarian dwellings to large, highly customized, luxury homes.

Container homes are getting attention in Colorado as well. Rhino Cubed recycles and repurposes out-of-commission shipping containers to create compact homes that make a big impression. The Louisville-based company sells containers with minimal amenities such as windows, doors and lead-free certification; midstream amenities with all the above plus hickory floors, finished walls and insulation; or all-you-could-expect-from-a- house perks, such as a full kitchen, storage, water disposal, bunk beds, exterior paint and more.

Container home enthusiasts say the three keys to a successful project are understanding all local building codes and safety regulations before starting the project, hiring a contractor that has previous experience with this unique form of construction and purchasing the correct type of container.

Monolithic domes offer homeowners the high ceilings and large open floor plans that are so popular today. They are also highly efficient, requiring about a quarter of the energy required to heat and cool a similarly sized traditional structure. Photo credit: Kevin McGuckin

OLD HOUSE, NEW TRICKS
The options are plentiful when it comes to miniature domiciles in Colorado and beyond. From tipis to monolithic homes to yurts, home buyers can choose what suits their fancy. At Colorado Yurt Company, for example, potential buyers can build a yurt from scratch using their Yurt Price Calculator. Select the requirements for your yurt, such as door type, window options and snow and wind load packages, and watch as it calculates your costs.

Even traditional houses aren’t immune to the trend of alternative construction techniques. Advances in technology transformed the manufactured housing business as well. In addition to the classic mobile home and newer modular home designs, high-end custom homes created from prefabricated panels built in a factory can be purchased and assembled on site. This can save up to 15 percent over the cost of a traditional home.

So, whether it’s a tiny home, a yurt, a container or a prefabricated home, the American dream of home ownership now comes in many shapes and sizes.

Justin LaBerge writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

The Substation of the Future

By Paul Wesslund

Solar panels, electric cars, computer hackers, vandals and thieves might not seem to have much in common, but they’re all making big changes in your electric service. Those changes have electric utilities talking about “the substation of the future.”

Could this be the substation of the future?

If everything goes according to plan, you may never even know about those changes, says Tom Lovas, a technical liaison and consultant with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“The traditional model of generation, transmission and distribution is kind of being turned on its head,” Lovas says. “In the past, power flowed to a substation and then flowed out to the consumer. … [T]he substation has now become a point of information and interconnection, and it’s coordinated in a different way.”

Before making sense of what Lovas means by a substation becoming a point of information, it helps to understand what a substation does.

HOW SUBSTATIONS WORK
That mass of wires and equipment you see behind chain-link fences as you drive along freeways or side roads basically turns high-voltage electricity into lower voltage electricity that can be used in your home. Electricity generated at a power plant gets “stepped up” to a high voltage at a substation because that’s a more efficient way for power to make the long-distance journey through transmission lines. When the current gets close to where it will be used, another substation steps the voltage down, for distribution to you and your neighbors.

But that straight-line path for electricity is changing, says an international industry group planning for how the substation of the future will fit in with the power lines and power plants that make up the electric grid.

“Rather than continually getting bigger, the grid is now increasing in intelligence,” according to a 2016 strategic plan of the Centre for Energy Advancement through Technological Innovation (CEATI International). “Customers are increasingly looking for ways to manage their own energy, customizing how they use it and serving as suppliers of energy.”

One example of customers serving as suppliers of energy is the fast-growing number of homeowners installing rooftop solar panels. Now, electricity doesn’t just flow from a power plant through a substation to a house. Instead, electricity also flows in the opposite direction, from the house, then back onto the grid as homeowners sell excess solar power back to their utility.

When power flows in both directions, running a utility gets a lot more complicated. First, there’s safety. Lineworkers need to be sure they know which wires are energized and which are not. Electricity traveling in a different direction could put new stresses on old equipment, and utilities need new ways to monitor electric current so they can keep track of new patterns of electricity use and generation.

Lovas cites an increase in electric cars as another new addition that could change electricity use as people charge their vehicles at a variety of times and places.

PREDICTING POWER OUTAGES
Electric utilities are analyzing information about where the electricity is coming from and where it’s going. This information can be used to improve operations in the utility network and can make the substation of the future an important part of “the smart grid”

Information collected at a substation could keep track of how transformers are performing so they could be replaced before they fail or even recognize power use patterns that could predict an outage.

“We collect zillions of data points of information. What we’re trying to do is make sense of what that information is telling us,” Lovas says. Figuring out how to analyze and use all that data, he says, could improve safety, reduce outages, reduce outage duration and reduce maintenance costs.

These days, we know that information can also be stolen or misused by cyber criminals, so the substation of the future needs stronger security. And not just cyber security. Lovas says that substation planning needs protection against more old-fashioned attackers like vandals and copper wire thieves. CEATI International wrote in its strategic plan on the substation of the future, “In the new environment, station facilities have to be protected from physical tampering, sabotage or theft and also from malicious threats to data and/or control systems connected to cyber networks.”

Lovas also expects the substation of the future will respond to concerns about what substations look like, with utilities looking for more remote locations or planting trees around them. Underground substations could offer better security, as well as avoid complaints about the appearance of the collection of wires and equipment.

When will we see the substation of the future? Maybe never, if it’s hidden behind a grove of trees. Or, since improvements and advancements are already being installed, maybe it’s already here. “I don’t think there’s any defined date when the substation of the future takes over,” Lovas says. “It’s just a natural progression of things.”

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Take Control of Your Smart Devices and Make Them Work for You

By Paul Wesslund

If you ever want to see one of the biggest changes going on in the world today, look around your home. Your smartphone, video gaming system, security camera, fitness bracelet, thermostat and even your television could be part of a vast, interconnected group of devices that goes by the clunky name of the “internet of things.”

The term refers to anything connected to the internet, which covers a lot of gadgets and will soon cover even more. Today, you can purchase lightbulbs that dim with the sound of your voice or from the press of a button on your smartphone. A 2014 report by the investment firm Goldman Sachs predicted the number of internet-connected devices could grow 10 times by 2020, to as many as 28 billion “things.”

While this growth may seem like the latest trend, it was recognized more than 30 years ago. Credit for naming it goes to Peter T. Lewis, co-founder of Cellular One. In a 1985 speech he said, “The internet of things, or IoT, is the integration of people, processes and technology with connectable devices and sensors to enable remote monitoring status, manipulation and evaluation of trends of such devices.”

Low prices versus security
In other words, the rapid rise in the number of internet-connected devices has been building for decades, says Tim Heidel, deputy chief scientist with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “The ‘internet of things’ is the latest buzzword that reflects a long-term trend,” Heidel says. “Ten years ago, you may have had six or eight or 10 devices on the wireless router in your home. Now, that number can go as high as 25 or 30 devices.”

Heidel credits lower costs for ramping up this high-tech revolution, which can make life more convenient and fun, and even increase energy efficiency with new ways to control heating, cooling, lighting and other electricity users.

“The cost of including communications in the devices has come down dramatically. Twenty years ago, you could only afford an ethernet port or Wi-Fi in a computer,” Heidel says. “Now, we’re getting to the point where it costs literally only pennies to include that capability in any device imaginable.

“So what’s changing here is the number of devices. Once you have a critical mass of all the places that are capable of communicating, they can then start communicating with each other.

All of this promises convenience and services, but in the pursuit of extremely low costs, sometimes there’s the opportunity to cut corners on security,” Heidel adds.

A stunning example of security problems with the “internet of things” happened last October when hackers crashed dozens of websites in the United States for most of a day, including well-known names like Netflix and Twitter. Incredible as it seems, that attack may have been aided by a device in your own home.

Here’s what happened Friday, October 21: Hackers already scanned the world for devices vulnerable to infection by malicious software that allowed them to take control of hundreds of thousands of home routers, baby monitors, printers and network-enabled cameras. Using that “botnet,” the hackers flooded websites with so many messages the sites shut down for several hours in what is called a “denial of service” attack.

Cyber safety tips
There are ways you can reduce your risk from hackers hijacking your internet-connected devices, says Cynthia Hsu, cyber security program manager with NRECA.

“Understand what you’re buying,” Hsu says. “If you have a choice between two vendors who are producing a product and one takes security seriously and the other doesn’t, use your money to buy a product that takes security seriously. If consumers are not willing to pay for security, the manufacturers have no incentive to build it.

“The criminal element is rapidly escalating the innovation of new ways of attack.” If you have a router for wireless internet in your home, Hsu says, “make sure you patch your router’s software whenever security updates are available so it’s protected as new vulnerabilities are discovered.”

Other security steps Hsu recommends:
• Install firewalls in your home network.
• Change the default passwords regularly in devices you purchase.
• Disconnect gadgets when they’re not being used. “Not everything needs to be plugged into the internet all the time,” she says.

Keep in mind that the electronics in your home can not be accessed from outside without you allowing it. For example, your electric utility cannot access your refrigerator’s energy usage unless it is a smart refrigerator that you allow access to and it is connected to one or more online applications.

The folks at your local electric co-op can offer expertise in managing the promise and the problems of what is called the “internet of things,” and they can answer questions about efficient energy usage. NRECA, your co-op’s national association, is researching some of the newest devices to understand how they can be used for energy efficiency.

“NRECA does a lot of research to help guide, deploy and test these devices,” says Venkat Banunarayanan, NRECA’s senior product development manager. “These projects are looking at how to use these devices in the ‘internet of things’ to bring value to the co-op and its members.”

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Innovative Technologies Change the Costs of Electric Power

By Justin LaBerge

Advances in technology are bringing major changes to the energy industry. We are generating a growing portion of our electricity with renewable resources, and advances in automation and communications technology are making our power grid smarter and more reliable than ever.

These advances are exciting news for American energy consumers, but they’re also changing the cost structure of the industry. Since electric cooperatives use costs to determine their rates, changing costs require corresponding changes to rates.

Not-for-profit electric cooperatives work hard to ensure their rates are fair to all members. To accomplish this mission, cooperatives design their rates so that the bill each member receives matches the cost of serving that member as closely as possible.

But just because your local electric cooperative’s rates are designed to be fair doesn’t mean they’re always easy to understand. In fact, rate structures that do the best job of fairly assigning costs are often the hardest to understand.

Here is a quick look at three of the approaches electric cooperatives are trying.

Time-of-use rates
With time-of-use rates, when you use electricity is just as important as how much you use. Rather than charging the same price for electricity at all times, time-of-use rates charge different prices based on the time of day when the energy is used. The goal of this system is to encourage consumers to reduce their energy use at the times when demand for energy is highest.

For most electric cooperatives, demand for electricity spikes in the afternoon and early evening hours as heating units and air conditioners battle outdoor temperatures and families return home from school and work and began evening routines.

When demand for energy spikes, electric cooperatives must purchase extra electricity to meet the demand. That extra power typically comes from more expensive power plants.

A time-of-use rate ensures there’s always power available when consumers need it but provides price incentives to shift certain activities — such as running the dryer or dishwasher — to times when demand for electricity is lower.

When co-op members embrace this model, they can lower their monthly bills and help the cooperative reduce its costs — which can save members even more money in the long run.

Demand charges
Perhaps the most confusing concept in energy billing is the demand charge.

Historically, most residential consumers have not paid demand charges. But as our power grid becomes smarter and our network of generation resources gets more complex, it’s likely that more electric cooperatives will incorporate demand changes into their residential rate structures.

Demand measures the highest amount of electricity you demand from the system at one moment in time. The higher the demand, the more it costs to build, operate and maintain the equipment delivering that energy to you.

To understand demand charges, imagine you’re at a party chatting with two guests and you ask them how they got to the party. Betsy tells you she drove 150 miles per hour to get to the party. David says he drove 150 miles to attend the party.

There’s a big difference between a car capable of traveling 150 miles and a car capable of traveling 150 miles per hour. Any car can take you 150 miles. But if you want to go 150 miles per hour, you’ll need an expensive car with extra horsepower.

The same thing is true with electricity. If you demand large quantities of electricity be delivered to you all at once, the electric cooperative has to build larger, more expensive equipment to accommodate that demand.

Even if you only demand that much energy every once in a while, the cooperative still has to ensure its system is capable of handling that request when it comes.

If Betsy and David use electricity the same way they use their cars, Betsy is going to be paying a lot more than David each month, even if their total energy use is the same.

As the energy sector continues to move through this unprecedented period of innovation and change, cooperatives across the U.S. are experimenting with new rate structures to figure out the best way to recover costs and pay for the electric grid in a manner that is fiscally responsible and fair to all members.

Fixed monthly charges
Most electric cooperatives charge a fixed monthly fee to be connected to the co-op’s lines. Common terms for that fee include customer charge, service availability charge or access charge.

No matter what it’s called, the goal is to recover the cost of the poles, wires, bucket trucks, computers, switches and employees that bring electricity to your home or business. Those costs are the same every month whether you use a lot of electricity or turn off everything in your house and go on a month-long vacation.

Most utilities, including electric cooperatives, have never charged the full monthly cost of service as a flat fee. Often, the fixed portion of a member’s bill is only a fraction of the actual cost to build and maintain the power lines to his or her home or business. The rest of that cost is made up with a separate delivery charge that varies based on how much energy you consume.

To understand the difference between these structures, imagine a new vehicle with a sticker price that would require a monthly car payment of $500. Now, imagine if instead of charging $500 per month, the car company structured your payment so it was $250 per month, plus an additional 25 cents for every mile driven. If you drove 1,000 miles per month, you’d end up paying the same amount. If you drove more than that, your payment would be higher, and if you drove less than 1,000 miles, your payment would be lower.

That’s how cooperatives traditionally charged for the delivery of electricity to your home. But as renewable technologies become more popular and consumers make better energy choices, the old model doesn’t fully cover the cost of maintaining the grid.

Electric cooperatives are generating a growing portion of our nation’s electricity with renewable resources, and advances in automation and communications technology are making the power grid smarter and more reliable than ever.

As not-for-profit, member-owned organizations, electric cooperatives want to help their members find the best energy solutions to meet their needs. If members want to install solar, cooperatives want to help. If members want to reduce their energy use through home improvements and efficient appliances, cooperatives are eager to give advice. But even if we all consume less energy, we still need the power grid, and it costs a lot of money to operate and maintain that grid.

By lowering the variable delivery charge and increasing the fixed charge, electric cooperatives can keep the grid running safely and reliably while allowing members to make the energy choices that work best for their lives.

This system does a better job of fairly charging each member for the actual cost of their service. The total amount of money raised by the cooperative remains unchanged, but some members end up paying a bit more, and some a bit less.

Looking toward the future
The coming years will bring many changes to the way we generate, deliver and use electricity, and advances in energy technology promise to greatly improve our quality of life. America’s electric cooperatives are working hard to ensure that whatever the future may bring, you’ll be connected to that future through a modern energy grid that is safe, reliable and fairly priced for all.

Justin LaBerge writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Batteries are Changing How You Receive Electricity

By Paul Wesslund

Batteries will soon be part of a huge change in how you will receive electricity from your electric cooperative.

Utilities are currently running into electricity supply challenges, and batteries are stepping up with solutions. Here’s what electric utilities are currently facing:

• High-tech equipment can fail during a power interruption of even a few milliseconds.

• Interest in renewable energy is increasing, but solar power won’t work when the sun doesn’t shine and wind turbines won’t spin when the wind doesn’t blow.

• Consumers want electric service to be restored more effectively after outages. Even if a storm leaves a large number of homes and businesses without power for several days, consumers want plans in place to quickly restore power to essential services, like gas stations and pharmacies.

A solution for these dilemmas lies in the emerging technology of battery storage, which could provide additional power when the demand for electricity is high. Currently, these large batteries are extremely expensive.

But the demand for better smartphones, laptop computers and electric cars fueled a frantic race for batteries that are lighter, smaller, longer lasting and less expensive. These demands are being met through research into technical improvements and by the economics of mass production.

The lithium-ion battery breakthrough
What’s behind all these developments is the 40-year-old lithium-ion battery technology, named for the lightweight metal lithium it’s made of, and ions, which are pieces of atoms that move back and forth inside the battery to produce and store electricity.

“One of the breakthroughs has been the adoption of the lithium-ion battery for vehicles as well as consumer products,” says Andrew Cotter, a program manager for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s business and technology strategies group. “A lot more lithium-ion batteries are being produced so there are a lot of companies able to package them much more cheaply. And that has spurred more companies to start investigating and investing in research.”

According to a 2016 report titled “Welcome to the Lithium Age” from Germany-based international financing giant Deutsche Bank, “Lithium-ion battery costs are falling rapidly as global battery producers expand manufacturing facilities, unlocking economies of scale.”

The next step for the battery industry, says Tom Lovas, a technical liaison and consultant with NRECA, is scaling up for applications in the electric utility industry.

Working through the hype curve
Right now only a handful of utilities are making significant use of batteries, but one industry research group predicts that number will grow eight times by 2020, for a market value of $2.5 billion. That kind of potential leads to some bold claims as battery companies compete for their share.

“There’s a lot of hype out there,” Lovas says, as marketers tout batteries as the linchpin of putting together the smart grid to modernize the flow of electricity.

“The technology is available, people are interested but no one knows the flaws yet,” Cotter says. “As utilities gain experience using batteries in routine operations, they will learn the imperfections and start figuring out what are the most conventional uses. Vendors, in turn, will start developing batteries for those specific applications.”

For example, one of the most likely of those applications will be to resolve the problem of intermittent power flows created by renewable energy. Since solar and wind power can be generated during times when people don’t need it, batteries could store the excess energy for future use. While beneficial in theory, in practice it is not clear whether there is a broad economic case for this. Each utility will have unique factors that will play into this decision.

Another use of batteries could be to smooth out power fluctuations from renewable energy. Solar and wind energy can come from a variety sources: independent vendors and even homeowners selling power back to the utility from their relatively small sets of solar panels or wind turbines in ways that are hard for the utility to predict. The result can affect the quality of power and even damage equipment as transmission and distribution lines are used in ways they weren’t designed for. But again, the economics of such an application are unique to each utility.

In time, utilities will become familiar with the best uses of the technology. Storage applications will become commonplace, and vendors will sell optimized products for them. Until then, NRECA’s business technology and strategies group is using cases that provide methodologies for a storage assessment.

Like all things in the energy industry, it is not all economics. Some state governments are getting into the act, passing laws requiring utilities to use batteries in their operations to encourage renewable energy and provide immediate power to essential businesses after storm outages.

This new utility world holds great promise and could start taking shape in as soon as one to three years, Cotter says. But first, he says, the utility battery industry needs to mature and show the effectiveness of the products.

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Free Energy Resources for Colorado’s Rural Schools

Outdated lighting, heating and cooling can cost rural schools, on average, 30 percent more on their energy bills, according to a recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. To combat this problem, the Colorado Energy Office’s Energy Savings for Schools program is under way and able to support up to 12 more schools this year.

“The ESS program builds off many years of the CEO’s programmatic work in the K-12 area,” Michael Turner, CEO’s energy efficiency programs manager, explains. Schools across Colorado saved energy and money through a variety of offerings, and now they are part of this program to bring all available resources to bear on those schools with the greatest needs.” It’s a great opportunity for schools looking to improve their learning environment through more efficient operations.”

Through the program, schools receive:
• On-site energy and water audits from an energy engineer
• Evaluation of renewable energy opportunities
• Technical support and energy coaching
• Implementation support and help identifying existing funding and financing options for completing projects
• Recognition for a school’s efforts and opportunities to engage students
• Connections with peer schools and a platform for sharing ideas and knowledge

When a new school joins the program, the ESS team works with the school to collect and review building utility data (electricity, natural gas and water) before the site visit. “Reviewing utility data before a site visit gives us insight into how a building is performing and highlights potential areas of concern,” ESS energy efficiency engineer John Butler says. “Concerns expressed by school staff are used along with insights gained from the historic utility data to help focus the site visit and assessment on problem areas and to customize our approach for each unique facility.”

After the site visit, the energy engineer prepares a customized report with recommendations for the school. “We understand how limited resources — especially staff and financial resources — can be for these rural schools, so we prepare our reports with the aim to help each school prioritize strategies and next steps,” Butler says. “And the report is only the first step. We work closely with school staff to identify what projects make the most sense and help navigate the process of getting projects done. Many times, this means helping schools identify funding or soliciting and reviewing bids from contractors.”

To help fund recommended projects, ESS staff identify other applicable CEO programs, local utility rebates and other state and local programs for schools to leverage. “There are no direct monetary costs for a school to participate in the ESS program. The only costs are associated with staff time to interact with the ESS team and any costs to implement after all external funding sources have been exhausted,” Turner says. “The ESS program supports, and, in turn, is supported by a number of CEO and other related programs, including the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency for Schools loan program, Supplemental Environmental Projects, High Performing School Program, Energy Performance Contracting and the Renew Our Schools Program.”

To date, 23 schools received their energy reports and began implementing projects. The graphic to the left outlines the collective potential savings identified for these schools.

Legacy Academy, a tuition free, K-8 charter school in Elizabeth, is one of these schools. “As an administrator who is not an expert in energy savings projects, it was incredibly valuable to have the support from this team when receiving project bids,” explains Legacy Academy’s principal Kurt Naber. “The comprehensive energy audit, combined with guidance and input from the ESS team, helped me to feel confident and well-informed when presenting options to Legacy’s board of directors.”

Legacy Academy is poised to save $13,420 annually as a result of lighting upgrades, ceiling fans and water fixture upgrades installed this year.

“We have been pleased and impressed with the knowledge and assistance that the ESS program has brought to our school,” Naber says. “The representatives from ESS have been a great resource for us as we have evaluated bids and moved forward with several energy-saving projects. Their input gave us assurance that we are making well-informed decisions.”

In addition, with support from the ESS program, Legacy Academy applied for and was awarded Energy Star building certification in November as a result of its efforts to improve efficiency. Energy Star certified buildings outperform 75 percent of similar facilities across the country.

Don’t let your local school miss out on ESS resources to optimize energy performance and save money. CEO is actively recruiting schools from Colorado’s rural and low-income areas to participate in the program’s second year.

If you know a school that might benefit from the program, share this information with a school representative or contact the program manager, Susan Blythe, at SBlythe@BrendleGroup.com or 970-207-0058 ext. 310. More information is available at bit.ly/CEOenergysavings.

Leadership in a Purple State

By Kent Singer, CREA executive director

If you are in a certain age group and attempted to learn the guitar as a teenager, I bet you mastered as least one riff: the opening notes to the 1972 Deep Purple hit “Smoke on the Water.” (You know it: bump, bump, bum…bump, bump, da-dum…bump, bump, bum…bump-bum.) And while the English bandmates who formed Deep Purple probably didn’t have Colorado in mind (despite the name of their biggest hit), the band’s name aptly describes the current balance of political power in Colorado.

At both the state and federal level, we have an equal mix of Republicans and Democrats in control of our legislative and executive branches. In fact, voter registration in Colorado is split fairly evenly among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. So where some states are reliably blue (Democrat) or red (Republican), when it comes to political majorities, Colorado is reliably purple.

Purple state
Colorado has one Republican U.S. senator and one Democrat U.S. senator. In the 2016 election, Democrat incumbent Michael Bennet defeated Republican Darryl Glenn in a race that turned out much closer than the polls predicted. Even though Bennet raised and spent much more money than Glenn, his margin of victory was only 3 percentage points.

Republican incumbent Cory Gardner was elected in 2014 when he defeated the favored Democrat incumbent Mark Udall. The results of that race seemed to put on hold on what appeared to be a trend toward a Democrat-leaning electorate in Colorado.

The same purple theme applies to our congressional delegation. Of Colorado’s seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives, four are Republicans and three are Democrats. The three Democrats (Reps. Diana DeGette, Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter) represent primarily Denver and the suburbs near Denver, while the four Republicans (Reps. Ken Buck, Mike Coffman, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton) represent the rural areas of the state, as well as urban counties farther from Denver.

At the state legislative level, the purple theme continues. The state senate has a narrow (18-17) Republican majority, while the Democrat majority in the House of Representatives expanded to 37-28 after the 2016 general election. This balance of power means that only legislation that has bipartisan support will pass during the next two sessions of the Colorado General Assembly.

Since the political activities of the Colorado Rural Electric Association are focused at the state level, the composition of the General Assembly and CREA’s relationship with its members is critical to the success of CREA initiatives. CREA’s legislative team is devoted to informing and educating state legislators about the cooperative difference and how legislation can impact the consumer at the end of the line. The CREA team also works hard to share with legislators and other stakeholders the extraordinary work being done by Colorado electric co-ops to respond to the changing demands of electric consumers.

Balanced leadership
With Colorado’s term limits, the leadership in both houses of the General Assembly changes frequently. Since the individuals in leadership positions set the agenda for their respective houses, we president of the Senate.

Rep. Crisanta Duran (D-Dist. 5)

For the two years of the 71st General Assembly (the 2017 and 2018 sessions), the speaker of the House will be Rep. Crisanta Duran. Rep. Duran will serve her fourth term in the legislature representing House District 5 in central Denver. Rep. Duran served as the chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee in 2014, and she served as the majority leader in the 2015 and 2016 sessions. She sponsored a variety of legislative initiatives, including efforts to spur economic development, extend unemployment benefits for Coloradans learning new workforce skills and increase the renewable energy requirements applicable to Colorado’s electric co-ops.

Speaker-designate Duran has a particular interest in rural economic development: “One of my priorities has been to make sure that small businesses thrive and folks have good jobs in rural Colorado. That’s why I passed a bill to provide tax benefits to new businesses through creating ‘jump-start zones’ in rural areas of the state. I’m going to continue to make sure we don’t take anyone in Colorado for granted and leave no one behind.”

Although Rep. Duran does not have any electric co-op service territory in her legislative district, she is familiar with Colorado’s electric co-ops. She joined in support of recent legislation revising the co-op requirements under Colorado’s renewable portfolio law, as well as adjustments to the co-op election law.

During the 2013 legislative session, Rep. Duran was the prime house sponsor of S.B. 13-252, the bill that increased the renewable energy requirements for the co-ops. Since the passage of that bill, the work done by Colorado’s electric co-ops to integrate additional renewable energy into their power supply portfolios has not gone unnoticed by Rep. Duran: “I applaud efforts by local co-ops to generate more electricity from renewable sources. It’s really inspiring to see folks in Colorado taking the lead to make sure we can tap our wind, water and sun to create the energy we need and keep it in our communities.”

Sen Kevin Grantham (R-Dist. 2)

The Senate president for the 71st General Assembly will be Sen. Kevin Grantham, a two-term state senator from Cañon City. Sen. Grantham represents Senate District 2, a district that includes Fremont, Teller, Park, Clear Creek and parts of El Paso counties. Sen. Grantham was raised in a farming community in Crowley County and currently works as a real estate appraiser at Grantham Appraisal Service in Cañon City. He is also a member of the Joint Budget Committee, a position he will relinquish when he assumes his role as Senate president on January 11.

Sen. Grantham has long been a supporter of Colorado’s electric co-ops, and he was the prime Senate sponsor of several bills recently initiated by CREA. During the 2015 legislative session, Sen. Grantham sponsored a bill that allowed co-ops to use purchases from community solar gardens to comply with the requirements of Colorado’s renewable energy law. S.B. 15-046 also authorized electric co-ops to subtract their sales of electricity to industrial loads for purposes of calculating their “retail” distributed generation obligation. These changes made compliance with the renewable portfolio law more economic for co-op consumers.

In the 2016 session, Sen. Grantham sponsored CREA’s bill to make sure that all ballots are counted in co-op board elections and to reduce the costs of those elections. He also co-sponsored a bill that clarifies that sales of electricity for residential purposes are not subject to the state sales tax.

Sen. Grantham believes strongly in the idea that electric co-ops are successful because they are owned and governed by their members, and maintaining this independence is important: “Colorado’s electric co-ops have done a great job providing safe, reliable and affordable electricity to rural Colorado for over 75 years. The co-op business model and local control works, and we’ll oppose any proposed interference with that local control.”

Sen. Grantham’s take on renewable energy is somewhat different than Speaker-designate Duran’s view. “Our caucus tends to believe that market forces should determine which energy sources are used by Colorado’s citizens,” he says. “Although we support all forms of energy, including renewable energy, we don’t support mandates that increase costs to rural consumers.”

Working together
So, will a Senate president- designate from rural Colorado and a House speaker-designate from Denver be able to work together to solve Colorado’s problems and move the state forward? The answer from both is a resounding “yes.” Says Rep. Duran: “I look forward to working with Sen. Grantham, and across the aisle, to move Colorado forward in areas where I know we have common ground, including education, transportation and infrastructure. We have more in common than divides us, and I know we can work together to have a productive legislative session.”

Sen. Grantham concurs: “We won’t always agree with bills passed by the House and they won’t always agree with bills passed by the Senate. But I think we can still work together to balance the budget and find ways to spur economic development in rural Colorado.”

The band Deep Purple continues to tour, with different members, decades after its founding. And it looks like Colorado’s purple politics will also share the stage for the foreseeable future… bump, bump, bum…bump, bump, da-dum…bump, bump, bum…bump-bum.

How an Electric Utility’s Transformers Work

By Tom Tate
300x250-industryIf you were asked to describe your electric cooperative’s system, you might say, “Poles, wires and those round gray things.” Round gray things? That is often the description given for transformers, the pieces of equipment crucial in converting electricity to a voltage that is safe for use in homes and businesses. So, how do they work?

First, transformers are nothing like those creations of the silver screen. They don’t transform from vehicles to incredible combat robots. Instead, they transform the voltage of the electricity that passes through them.

Here’s how they work: Electricity loses voltage as it is transmitted due to the resistance in wires and other components. As a result, higher voltages are used to offset these “line losses,” as electric utilities call them. It all starts at the power plant. There, generators produce electricity at high voltages and use transformers to step up this voltage. For example, in Colorado, Tri-State Generation and Transmission — the power supplier for 43 not-for-profit electric cooperatives and public power districts in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming — sometimes steps electricity it generates up to 345,000 volts. Since the power plants are far away, these voltages are necessary to survive the trip over the system to where it is needed.

Transmission lines connect to substations full of transformers and other control gear. Here is where the transformers step down the voltage to safer, more manageable levels. Depending upon the distance involved to the farthest member and the amount of load served, distribution voltages can range from 7,200 to 24,900 volts. A couple more step-downs and the electricity arrives at your home at 120/240 volts. This is quite different from the original voltage.

Regardless of the shape and size of the transformer, they all work in the same manner. Transformers have two sides, a high-voltage side and a low-voltage side. In normal operation, electricity flows into the transformer on the high-voltage side where it goes into a coil of wire, usually wound around an iron core. As the electricity flows through this coil, it creates a magnetic field that “induces” a voltage in the other coil. Here is where the magic (aka physics) of transformation takes place. Each coil has a different number of turns. The greater the number of turns, the higher the voltage. The coil on the high side will have more turns than the one on the low side. As a result, the voltage induced on the low side is less. Then transformation occurs.

Transformers aren’t just limited to utility use. They can be found everywhere in our daily lives, even if not so obvious as those on your electric cooperative’s system. The best example is the charger that all cell phones and many other electrical devices come with. These small cousins of utility transformers basically perform the same function. Charging your cell phone with 120 volts will fry it instantly. So, the charger converts the voltage to a more tolerable direct current. Take a moment to look around your home and see just how many of these miniature transformers you have. You might be surprised.

It is important to note that transformers work in both directions. Electricity flowing in on the low side is stepped up to the voltage of the high side. This is why electric co-ops educate members on proper connection of home generators. A generator feeding 240 volts into a residential transformer will produce whatever voltage the transformer is rated for on the other side, creating a deadly risk for line crews and your neighbors, which is why your co-op asks you to connect your generators according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. It’s always best to be safe.

Tom Tate writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.