NRECA’s Essence Tool Guarding Grid

By Cathy Cash, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

It was the perfect setup: remote, rustic and with a real electric grid ripped by sabotage.

The question for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association was how Essence, a tool it developed to monitor the grid, would facilitate a so-called “blackstart,” restoring power amid a ruined transmission network where cyber mayhem lurks.

To find out, NRECA’s chief scientist Craig Miller and senior research engineer Stan McHann, along with other electric utility technology experts, participated in a drill organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on Plum Island, New York.

The 840-acre island, about three miles off Long Island’s coast, has its own utilities and a dozen high-voltage substations. It holds shuttered federal defense facilities dating back 100 years and a midcentury laboratory to test diseases in farm animals.

“It was not a tabletop exercise. It was a physical problem with small substations and utility control centers. We needed to restore power to them and synchronize them to the grid,” Miller said.

DARPA created Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS) to explore ways to resolve prolonged outages wrought by disasters like earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes or cyberattacks, where networks are destroyed and utility crews are gone.

November’s RADICS exercise was a key test of the technology.

“DARPA is very interested in Essence as part of the solution to deal with catastrophic failure of the grid across a large region of the country,” Miller said. “This exercise focused on how Essence can help restore a massive outage.”

Essence provides a constant monitor of activity on the electric grid. Sensors gather thousands of data points and anything abnormal shows up quickly.

“Essence tells us what’s up and what’s not and what’s behaving accurately or atypically. It monitors voltage for stability and the physics of the grid. ‘Malware’ could show up and it detects it instantly on the network,” he said.

NRECA plans to release Essence to potential commercialization customers for evaluation in April, Miller said. Before that, adjustments will be made to make the tool more “utility-friendly” by delivering only the most salient information to utility staff, enabling them to respond faster to grid incidents.

NRECA has been working with electric co-ops in developing Essence to provide “situational awareness on both the electrical and the cyberfront of the grid,” Miller said. Through tests with co-ops, the tool has prevented cyberattacks, overloading of transformers and possible fires.

That’s what co-ops face every day: the reality of keeping the lights on while keeping threats at bay.

NRECA was involved in each of RADICS’s four exercises, but Miller said the recent Plum Island test brought “a new intensity.

“It tasked us with learning what the utility people want to know and when. There were no coffee breaks. You did not get lunch. You were under pressure,” he said.

Pummeled with wind and rain, McHann, the only member of the NRECA team on Plum Island, arrived by ferry and hiked the island to install Essence equipment on substations and perform local analysis of devices and sensors. He had to pack enough gear and food in case inclement weather kept him on the test site overnight.

On top of the sheer physical reconstruction of the grid, participants also had to battle cyberattacks that pushed misinformation and fouled communications.

“Whatever DARPA threw at us, we had to keep that critical asset electrified,” McHann said. “Our job is to take those hard problems, break them down and design technology to solve them. It was not a simulated environment. It was a very real environment.”

As part of the exercise, one goal was to maintain power to a building that had previously been used for government research. “The building had been abandoned and sealed for over 50 years. Our job was to ‘restore power’ to it,” said Miller, who worked from a control center in Long Island.

Red, yellow and green “air dancers,” often seen flailing at car dealerships, puddled beside buildings targeted for power restoration. “When power came on, they stood up,” said Miller. “It was fun.”

Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.

Tri-State Hydro Projects Play Central Role in Energy Mix

Renewable hydropower has been part of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s energy mix since its beginning more than 50 years ago. And, while the power supply co-op started with large hydropower from the Western Area Power Administration and its large dams in the western United States, today the power supply also includes smaller hydro projects located in Colorado.

There are five small hydropower projects so far within the Centennial State and they generate about 20 megawatts of electricity. Those projects are located near Boulder, Mancos, Ridgway, Parshall and Vallecito Lake northeast of Durango.

The hydropower projects are located on waterways where dams either already existed or where they were installed for reasons other than generating electricity. Tri-State has been able to utilize these situations to also generate electricity.

Hydroelectric energy is generated when the potential energy in a pool of water in a reservoir is conveyed through a pipe. The force created by moving water spins a turbine and generator, which produce electricity. This electricity is delivered to Tri-State’s member cooperatives in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Potential Solar Array for San Miguel Power Association

San Miguel Power in Ridgway recently took another step toward adding another solar project. The San Miguel County planning commission recently recommended the approval of a special use permit to allow the installation of a solar array that would provide electricity to San Miguel Power Association.

The project, which has already been approved by Tri-State Generation and Transmission, is slated to generate 366 kilowatts, 274 of which would be sold to SMPA.

The site will sit on a 1.6 -acre parcel of land near the Telluride Regional Airport. The array will be placed on a south-facing slope on the south part of the property and will have 16 rows of panels.

Mountain Parks Electric Rebates for Green Power

Granby-based Mountain Parks Electric rebated $34,260 to its consumer-members who installed local renewable energy systems last year.

MPE provides electricity to all of Grand and Jackson counties and parts of Larimer, Routt and Summit counties, which includes nearly 4,000 square miles. Any MPE member installing a new renewable energy system — solar, wind, hydro, biomass — is eligible to apply for the Green Power Program rebate.

The Green Power Program is voluntarily funded by more than 1,200 MPE consumer-members, approximately 7 percent of the total consumer base. Contributors donate anywhere from $1 to $100 a month, added on to their monthly electric bill. Since 2011, MPE, through this program, has rebated more than $170,000 to its members installing renewable energy projects.

Other local renewable power includes the hydropower from Granby Dam and from the town of Grand Lake’s micro hydropower recovery system. Currently, MPE’s overall power supply is 33 percent renewable.

For more information about the rebate program, visit

Grand Valley Power Sets Clean Energy Goal

Grand Valley Power recently announced that it has adopted one of the most aggressive environmental targets of any electric cooperative in the nation. The Grand Junction-based electric co-op set a goal to deliver a 60 percent clean energy mix to its consumer-members by 2030.

Currently delivering electricity with a 30 percent renewable mix, Grand Valley Power has been ahead of the curve in renewable energy standards. The cooperative met Colorado’s statutory Renewable Energy Standard 10 years ahead of the requirement partially because its power supplier, an investor-owned utility has found it financially beneficial to increase its renewable energy portfolio.

GVP’s Chief Executive Officer Tom Walch states that GVP will continue to deliver value to its consumer-members and will “meet this 60 percent target by 2030 while maintaining rate stability and excellent reliability standards.”

GVP buys its wholesale power from Xcel Energy, Western Area Power Administration and cooperative-owned generation resources.

CREA Backs Your Local Co-op to Serve Members Better

By Derrill Holly and Amy Higgins

The true power of locally-owned electric cooperatives is the consumer-members living and working in the communities they serve, and when those co-ops are connected, their collective energy gives them statewide reach.

That’s the role that the Colorado Rural Electric Association and other electric cooperative statewide associations play in supporting the goal of ensuring that co-op consumer-members always have safe, affordable, reliable energy.

“Our main objective is to complement what Colorado’s electric co-ops do at the local level,” said CREA Executive Director Kent Singer. “We aggregate all of their great work so we can talk about it collectively to all of the interested parties in the state who potentially have an impact on co-op consumers through laws, regulations or public policy.”

At the direction of its affiliated electric cooperatives, CREA is regularly involved in education and training, legislative affairs, tax and regulatory matters and regional planning. It also provides a framework for coordination of many activities that provide more meaningful results when addressed through collective action.

Capitol Concerns
It’s not unusual for Colorado’s lawmakers to deal with hundreds of bills with thousands of amendments during a legislative session — many never advance beyond committees or face numerous revisions during hearing and review processes. Keeping track of even major changes is no small feat.

Besides members of state legislatures or general assemblies, there are also regulatory commissions, typically made up of appointees who may be more familiar with major investor-owned utilities than they are with member-owned electric cooperatives.

“It’s all about making policy-makers aware of who we are, what we do and why we do it,” said CREA Director of Government Relations Geoff Hier. “We need to do whatever we can to help them understand who we are and, most importantly, that we’re all reaching for the same goal: providing safe, reliable, environmentally-friendly electric service at the lowest possible cost.”

Leveraged Learning
When it comes to safety, operating efficiency and governance, skills and training can help an electric cooperative run more successfully and serve its members better. But when co-op employees are spread across several locations and committed to maintaining 24/7 operations, getting true value for training dollars can be challenging.

CREA offers training in multiple locations across the state, so participants don’t always have to travel to Denver. In 2018, CREA’s education department had 272 people in the eight director courses it offered. For employees, 28 classes were offered ranging from courses on leadership skills to work orders, line design and staking, as well as training for different work groups such as the mechanics and human resource managers. More than 500 employees participated in these classes.

Education opportunities abound for those who participate in CREA’s annual meeting, the Energy Innovations Summit and the Fall Meeting. The Energy Innovations Summit is open to guests outside the co-op program and is an opportunity to mix with other industry leaders, adding additional value to the program.

CREA provides safety training for all 22 distribution cooperatives in Colorado. With three job training and safety instructors, each cooperative receives five weeks of training per year. The safety training is generated around Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements.

The department also offers mutual aid assistance to members and to other states requesting assistance during times of need. The cooperatives participate in a National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Federated Insurance program called the Rural Electric Safety Achievement Program, or RESAP, which is managed by CREA’s safety and loss control department. Once every three years, each cooperative is extensively examined by volunteers from other cooperatives.

Engaging Future Co-op Members
Electric cooperative statewide associations also take a leadership role in many of the youth outreach programs supported by local electric cooperatives. CREA and other statewide associations coordinate the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour, sending about 1,900 high school students from 46 states to Washington, D.C., every June.

“As cooperatives, we understand that our student leaders of today are our community leaders of tomorrow,” said CREA Director of Member Services and Education Liz Fiddes. “What better time to teach these students about the cooperative business model and co-op careers than through our youth programs?

“Colorado has taken students to Washington, D.C., for 25 years and to the Cooperative Youth Leadership Camp for 42 years,” Fiddes added.

For many Youth Tour participants, the co-op sponsored trips are the farthest they have ever ventured from their home communities without their families. They also provide exposure to state and federal government operations, and opportunities to learn and practice skills that will serve them for a lifetime.

“We promote the life skills that today’s generation value, like building relationships, developing leadership skills and enhancing their resumes,” Fiddes said.

Participants develop strong relationships with their sponsoring electric co-op that often include speaking or volunteering at annual meetings and other co-op events. The results are meaningful community service hours and experiences that often inspire college application essays or can lead to technical or member services career opportunities after graduation.

These are just a few ways that statewide associations like CREA support electric cooperatives. Everything they do is aimed at one goal: bettering the communities they serve.

Derrill Holly writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Amy Higgins is a contract writer covering Colorado’s electric co-ops.