DOE Study of Modern Electricity

By Paul Wesslund

Today’s energy landscape is dynamic. October is Co-op Month and this year’s theme is “Cooperatives See the Future.” Colorado’s electric co-ops are a diverse group, but our overall focus boils down to our biggest concern: achieving our member-consumer’s energy needs, now and in the years to come.

Coal-fired power plants are closing. Homeowners with rooftop solar panels are selling unused electricity back to their utility. Wind farms are springing up across Colorado’s eastern plains. Fracking and other drilling techniques have cut the cost of natural gas by more than half since 2002, and doubled the amount of electricity generated by natural gas.

What does all this mean for the nation’s network of wires and power plants, otherwise known as the electric grid? The answer lies within a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy, says Pam Silberstein, senior director of power supply for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“It’s incredibly well-written, well-researched, very thorough, very comprehensive,” Silberstein says. “It’s a well-put-together compilation of the state of the grid.”

DOE’s August 2017 Staff Report to the Secretary on Electric Markets and Reliability describes the complex state of the electric grid and goes into great detail on how utility trends might affect the price and availability of electricity. It highlights the importance of retraining coal and nuclear power workers, and the effects that renewable energy has on the stability and reliability of the existing electric utility system.

Better reliability
Another way to describe the report: If someone decided that every high school student should understand how the nation’s system of electric wires and power plants works, this study would make a good textbook.

Silberstein sees the grid study as a report that puts in one place all the changes affecting utilities and what those changes might mean. She says, “We’re asking our utility systems to meet a lot of demands they haven’t been asked to do before.”

The study was a quick-turnaround response to an earlier memo from DOE Secretary Rick Perry to DOE’s chief of staff to “explore critical issues central to protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid.”

Many things changed for electric utilities over the past 20 years, and this DOE study describes that new landscape with enough detail to satisfy the most hard-core energy nerd:

• About 15 percent of the nation’s power plants have been retired since 2002, mainly coal and nuclear plants. That trend is expected to continue due to low natural gas prices, slower growth in demand for electricity, environmental regulations and more solar and wind power. While new generating capacity from sources including natural gas and renewable energy, has amounted to about three times the plant retirements, that radical change in the energy mix requires new ways of managing the flow of electricity from the power plants where it is made to the homes and businesses where it is used.

• People are demanding better reliability in their electricity, enough that utilities have supplemented their goals of reliability with a newer term, “resilience.” Basically this means getting the lights back on faster after a natural disaster. That has utilities experimenting with things like utility-scale storage batteries and more precise targeting of which customers should get power restored first.

• A lot of states are passing renewable portfolio standards that mandate levels of green energy, creating a patchwork of requirements in the national grid.

• New and growing additions to the electric grid are changing the way it needs to be managed. Those new power sources include rooftop solar panels that sell electricity back to the utility; natural gas plants that require new pipelines; solar and wind farms in remote areas that need to be connected with new transmission lines; and “demand response programs” in which utilities can turn off home water heaters and air conditioners for short periods during times of peak demand.

Recommendations from the study include:
• Updating the pricing arrangements that govern the buying and selling of electricity.
• Improving disaster preparedness.
• Reviewing regulations that limit the growth of power generation, especially for coal, nuclear and hydroelectricity.
• Focusing on workforce development as energy workers face a changing energy marketplace.
• Modernizing the software that manages electricity transmission.
• Coordinating with Canada and Mexico to enhance electric reliability across all of North America.

The study also notes the importance of cybersecurity to the electric grid, but reported that would be addressed in an upcoming joint report from the DOE and the Department of Homeland Security.

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

La Plata Electric Announces Grant Program

In Durango, nonprofit organizations will have the chance to receive a grant to install and benefit from renewable generation.

Local electric co-op, La Plata Electric Association, has money in its Local Renewable Generation Fund to give back to the communities it serves to help non-profit organizations reduce their electric bills. It is LPEA’s hope that these savings will then help direct money into local organizations’ efforts to serve the community. For 2018, LPEA anticipates granting a total of $40,000 in full and partial grants.

Non-profits that are current consumer-members in good standing in LPEA’s service territory are encouraged to apply by November 1, 2018. More information can be found at

CREA’s Energy Innovations Summit Next Month

October 29 will mark the 9th annual Energy Innovations Summit, hosted by the Colorado Rural Electric Association and held at the Denver Downtown Westin hotel.

Attendees will have the opportunity to hear more than two dozen experts discuss today’s energy industry. Breakout sessions will explore topics such as blockchains and the power industry; EV fast charging technology; co-op battery storage projects; energy efficiency and demand response; forecasting renewable energy; and alternatives to lithium ion storage technology.

The lunch session will feature Steve Collier with Milsoft Utility Solutions.

Online registration and a detailed event schedule can be found at

Colorado Co-op Approves Solar Project

Colorado electric cooperative Highline Electric Association is based in Holyoke and serves consumer-members in northeastern Colorado. Its board of directors recently approved a 1.5-megawatt solar project, to be developed by Denver-based Microgrid Energy.

Construction of the Riverview solar project is expected to begin later this year and go online in mid to late 2019. It will generate approximately 3.8 million kilowatt-hours per year under a 20-year purchased power agreement with Microgrid. The power purchased from the project will enter Highline’s electric distribution system to serve consumers in its service territory.

Highline expects to benefit from guaranteed savings over this 20-year agreement. The co-op is currently evaluating how the Riverview solar project could provide an option for community solar for its members.

The community solar model works well for several other Colorado electric co-ops and provides an opportunity for members to “buy into” and benefit from renewable solar energy with little to no personal financial investment.

Gunnison Co-op to Advance EV Charging

In its ongoing and innovative approach to advance the use of electric vehicles in Colorado, Gunnison County Electric Association will add three new level II (240-volt) electric vehicle charging stations and upgrade an existing station. The Gunnison-based electric cooperative was awarded a Charge Ahead Colorado grant to help with the costs of installation and upgrades in and around the Gunnison and Crested Butte areas it serves. The $36,000 grant covers 80 percent of the costs including hardware, labor and materials to install the stations.

GCEA received Charge Ahead Colorado grants in previous years to assist in building the Crested Butte and Lake City charging stations. These stations are useful for local EV owners and visitors. GCEA is seeing growth in station use, especially in Crested Butte.

The new stations will be located to enable greater use of existing EVs and to encourage new EV use by community members both near and far. Charging time limits will vary by station and “will be enforced to achieve a balance between facilitating participation in nearby activities and maintaining charging station availability,” according to Logann Long, communications specialist at GCEA. Fees charged to drivers at the four charging stations will vary. The project will start in September with completion by year-end.

GCEA is known around the state for its progressive programs in which they loan EVs to members who want to experience an EV. The “Adopt Spark-e” program is especially successful and popular in the area. The co-op is excited to promote clean energy technologies and encourage the use of more electric vehicles in the area.

For more information regarding the existing and new charging stations, visit

A New Solution for Greenhouse Gas

By Paul Wesslund

Later this year, five teams of scientists and engineers from around the world will start packing up and relocating their laboratories to a patchwork of gravel lots next to a coal-fired power plant in northeast Wyoming. Their mission: nothing less than finding beneficial ways to reuse greenhouse gas that’s released into the Earth’s atmosphere.

They aim to grab the carbon dioxide gas from the burning coal before it can contribute to climate change and turn it into something that might be part of everyday life, like concrete, plastic or liquid fuel.

Dan Walsh, the senior power supply and generation director for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, sees value in the Wyoming research, even beyond reducing the environmental effects of coal plants. He says it would be great if we stopped thinking of the carbon in carbon dioxide as nothing more than waste.

“We see a need to take carbon dioxide and turn it into a useful product,” Walsh says. That won’t only reduce waste at coal power plants, he says, but also for users of other carbon-based fuels like natural gas and gasoline.

“The electric power industry is no longer the largest generator of carbon. The transportation industry now owns that title,” Walsh says. “We have to do something, not just for power, but for the planet to come up with a way to utilize carbon dioxide in a beneficial way.”

A breakthrough for humanity

XPRIZE finalists are building labs at this Wyoming power plant where they will test beneficial uses of carbon dioxide.

The Wyoming launching pad for that high-flying goal brings together far-flung partners, including Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which supplies electricity to 18 of Colorado’s 22 electric cooperatives. Other partners include Wyoming’s governor, local electric co-ops and a group that awards multi-million dollar prizes “to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

Two years ago, the XPRIZE, a private innovation group based in California, announced $20 million in prizes “for transformational approaches to converting (carbon dioxide) emissions into valuable products.” The final prizes will be awarded in 2020.

In May of this year, XPRIZE narrowed the applicants to 10. Five of those will set up shop later this year on the Wyoming test site. The other five will operate out of Alberta, Canada.

Electric co-ops have a special stake in the Wyoming test site: the power plant is owned by Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which is based in North Dakota; and financial support comes from Colorado’s Tri-State Generation and Transmission, as well as NRECA.

The XPRIZE finalists that will be building their labs at the Wyoming site are:
BREATHE — from India, working to produce methanol, which can be used as a liquid fuel.
C4X — from China, developing new ways to produce plastics.
Carbon Capture Machine — from Scotland, producing building materials.
CarbonCure — from Canada, specializing in cement and concrete processes and products.
Carbon Upcycling UCLA — from California, making a substitute for concrete.

During the next six months, those teams will be setting up “mini-factories” at the Wyoming test site, says Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, which oversees the site, whose formal name is the Wyoming Integrated Test Center.

Begger says the teams will set up to access the ductwork and piping providing flue gas from the power plant, which contains about 12 percent carbon dioxide. They’ll develop the technology to separate and convert the carbon dioxide from the flue gas and show that their projects can turn waste carbon into useful products.

The test center project started with a state government initiative to plan for the future of the region’s coal resources, and has quickly connected to the larger worldwide effort to capture and use carbon dioxide. In June, the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority formally partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Carbon Capture Center, a testing site in Alabama established about nine years ago. That agreement will mean closer cooperation with the Carbon Capture Center’s experience and its network of experts.

Connecting with other researchers

The DOE’s Carbon Capture Program Manager John Litynski explains how the agreement benefits the Carbon Capture Center as well: “We can only test up to 1.5 megawatts, which we call small pilot scale. The Wyoming test center has the capability to test up to 18 megawatts … which we would call large pilot.”

For years, the DOE has explored ways to remove the carbon dioxide from power plant emissions. The basic problem they’re trying to solve is the costliness of the process and the huge share of electricity produced by the power plant that it uses up. One of the longstanding ideas for managing greenhouse gases has been to remove the carbon dioxide from the power plant emissions, then inject into underground rock formations, an idea called carbon capture and storage.

But the XPRIZE and the Wyoming test center take a different approach of finding something more useful to do with the carbon dioxide than storing it permanently underground.

The DOE recently added the quest for new uses of carbon dioxide to its research. The main focus of the DOE effort is to search for better ways to remove the carbon dioxide from power plant emissions. Litynski says that this year the department is spending $90 million to research carbon capture. Its spending about $12 million on carbon utilization, up from about $1 million three years ago. This summer the DOE issued a $13 million request for research projects on “novel methods for making products from carbon dioxide or coal.”

While headlines about coal and climate change are generating controversy around the globe, the Wyoming test center is heading in a different direction. Walsh credits the center’s international collaboration of government, private groups and electric co-ops with “a great vision” for rethinking one of the world’s biggest energy dilemmas.

Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.