Co-op Women in Power

By Sharon Sullivan

Women have played an important role in the electric cooperative movement since those first rural wives and mothers used their egg money to pay the $5 membership fee required to sign up for the new electric cooperatives in the 1930s and ’40s. They made sure the electric poles, wires and much-needed electricity came to their farms and ranches, and the electric co-op movement grew.

Through the years, the influence of women expanded and changed as they moved into more direct leadership roles. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are a few of the women making a difference today in Colorado’s electric cooperatives.

Jessica Matlock

When a recruiter called Jessica Matlock in 2019 regarding the CEO position at La Plata Electric Association — a member-owned, not-for-profit electric distribution co-op based in Durango — Matlock jumped at the opportunity to return to her native Colorado.

With a bachelor’s degree in chemical oceanography and a master’s in public policy, Matlock is one of several female leaders working within Colorado’s electric cooperatives and the only woman currently serving as CEO of a CREA member association.

Matlock began her electrical career 20 years ago at Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon, before moving to Washington, D.C., where she continued working for Bonneville on public policy issues. Matlock also spent 13 years as government affairs director for Snohomish Public Utility District, one of the largest public power utilities in the United States.

Maintaining reliable service for LPEA members, while also ensuring the company’s 110 employees feel supported and valued is important to Matlock. During the winter holidays she gave each employee a small gift and handwritten card to show her appreciation. “I want them to know I think about every single one of them,” she said.

She recently received an email from a lineman’s wife praising her leadership: “In almost 30 years I’ve never seen my husband happier with a company and his job. Thank you for being so good at morale-boosting,” the woman wrote.

Ginny Buczek

Another female industry leader in Colorado, Ginny Buczek, was active in her community before joining the statewide CREA Board of Directors where she’s currently vice president. Prior to joining CREA’s board, Buczek served seven years as a Weld County councilwoman, was a Firestone town councilmember, and served on multiple committees. She also previously managed a hardware store and was “pie leader” for her kids’ 4-H Club. Buczek represents United Power, an electric co-op based in Brighton, providing service to 93,000 homes and businesses along Colorado’s northern Front Range.

“I believe that people bring their life experience to the board,” Buczek said. “The co-op model and its interaction with the community made me interested in serving on the board as a way of giving back to all the things United Power had given to my community and family. It’s truly our job to take care of our membership. I’m a member. I’m taking care of my power.”

Barbara Walz

From an office at Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association in Westminster, Barbara Walz works to provide wholesale electricity to 42 member co-ops and public power districts in multiple states as senior vice president of policy and compliance-chief compliance officer for the co-op power supplier. Her duties include developing and supporting policies and initiatives relating to energy and the environment while working with state and federal elected officials, representatives from the member co-ops Tri-State supplies electricity to and other key policymakers.

After graduating from the University of North Dakota with a degree in chemical engineering (“I always loved math and science so it was an obvious path,” Walz said), she worked as an engineer for the North Dakota Department of Public Health and Environment. “I grew to love the environmental work and understand the value of it — both to the environment and to industry,” she said. She went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental policy from the University of Denver.

Walz joined Tri-State 24 years ago after working in Washington, D.C., for several years where she continues to serve on the Carbon Utilization Research Council, as well as various boards and committees in Colorado and North Dakota.

As a woman, Walz has often found herself in the minority when working with individuals in similar positions across the nation, although she noted that has changed over time. “I was much more of a minority in college (majoring in science),” she said. “It was a bigger challenge. I just had to work hard, show my ability.”

Sylvia Spangler

Longtime electric co-op leader Sylvia Spangler serves on the Grand Valley Power Board of Directors in Grand Junction. She remembers when electricity came to her home as a child growing up on a ranch in Steamboat Springs. She recalls her family canning meat and vegetables and storing perishable foods outside in a box filled with ice. Her mother cooked on a wood stove before her family got electricity at their home.

Spangler’s family and neighbors were members of one of the first rural electric associations, she said. Her grandfather, George Cook, helped build the lines and served on the first board of Yampa Valley Electric Association in Steamboat Springs. The original board included two women, which was unusual at the time, she noted.

Spangler was asked to complete her husband’s term on the GVP board after he passed away in 1991. And because the board was like family, and because rural electric boards have “always been in my blood,” she accepted. Spangler, who turns 80 in March, has served GVP ever since.

“We’re always looking at new technology, which has changed the business dramatically,” Spangler said. “Grand Valley Power has a solar farm — we’re one of the first co-ops in the state to implement that. Our big mission is to maintain safety for the co-op — and quality of service.”

That focus on service and safety was there when previous leader Shirley Bauer led CREA as its first female board president from 1998 to 2000. Now retired, Bauer was well-known in her former Cortez community for organizing kids’ school activities and other community events. Because of those leadership skills, fellow electric co-op members encouraged Bauer to run for a seat on the board of directors of Empire Electric Association, a southwestern Colorado electric co-op. Bauer served on the Empire board from 1990 to 2006, including serving as president from 2004 to 2006. She also spent 10 years on the CREA Board of Directors, including those two years as board president.

“By serving on CREA’s board I learned a lot about politics and how important grassroots movements are,” Bauer said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how much work it takes to keep the lights on” — whether you’re a woman or a man.

And it helps when there is support from others. Matlock has been instrumental in reaching out to other women in the electric co-op world, helping create a network to support women in the industry. In the fall of 2020, Matlock and friend Libby Calnon, general manager of Hood River Electric Co-op in Oregon, founded “Women in Power” within the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national electric co-op trade association, to connect women nationwide by providing them a platform to share stories, advice, encouragement and training.

With this kind of support and the willingness to get involved that women have always shown, women will continue to lead within Colorado’s electric cooperatives.

Sharon Sullivan, a freelance magazine writer based in Grand Junction, enjoyed getting to know some of the women in the electric co-op world.

YVEA Unveils New EV Fast Charger

Steamboat Springs-based electric cooperative Yampa Valley Electric Association unveiled and energized a new EV charging station on February 8.

YVEA’s partnership with Routt County, the town of Yampa, the Department of Local Affairs, the Colorado Energy Office and Travelodge by Wyndham brought the Level 3 EV charging station to the area. Located at the Travelodge in Yampa’s central business district, the fast charger will connect the important travel corridor along Colorado Highway 131. It will also connect Yampa to Meeker along the Flattops Scenic Byway.

This is the second grant YVEA received through the CEO’s Charge Ahead Colorado program. The first grant in 2019 helped install two EV charging stations at YVEA’s campuses in Craig and Steamboat Springs. The EV charging station in Craig was the first public charging station in Moffat County.

“EVs will benefit our cooperative, membership, communities and environment as we strive to ‘electrify everything,’” YVEA CEO and General Manager Steve Johnson said.

New Co-op Program Combines Efficiency and Solar

Ridgway-based electric cooperative San Miguel Power Association has developed programs for income-qualified consumer-members who struggle to pay their electric bills. SMPA designed these I.Q. programs to enhance the co-op’s home efficiency program — the I.Q. Weatherization Program — and to increase consumer-members’ access to community solar.

Assistance from the I.Q. Weatherization Program begins with a complete home energy assessment courtesy of the cooperative. The co-op’s energy auditor visits a consumer-member’s home to perform a blower door test and to take other measurements to determine the energy efficiency of the home. The tests reveal if the home needs upgrades such as LED lighting, low-flow fixtures, air sealing work, insulation upgrades, appliance upgrades and other energy efficiency improvements that can lower electricity use and high electricity bills. Once the improvements and upgrades are made — at no cost to the consumer-member — the savings on the monthly electric bill are immediate and significant.

After the energy audit and upgrades are complete, the consumer-member is enrolled in the I.Q. Solar Program, where they are granted a five-year subscription to the co-op’s 200-kilowatt community solar array. This solar program gives those qualified consumer-members access to a maximum of 2 kilowatts of generation, providing savings from local and renewable solar power. Consumer-members receive bill credits for their portion of the array’s generation each month, thus lowering their bills even more.

In true cooperative spirit, SMPA is excited to provide these weatherization and solar programs to its consumer-members in need of help.

Electric School Bus Comes to Southern Colorado

Durango-based La Plata Electric Association collaborated with Durango School District 9-R to apply for a grant to purchase a fully-electric school bus and install the necessary charging infrastructure.

The district was awarded over $300,000 for the equipment through the grant from the Regional Air Quality Council’s ALT Fuels Colorado program. The grant to the school district was one of eight grants awarded out of 38 total applicants. LPEA will contribute an additional $120,000 to help cover costs.

Not only is this the first electric school bus for the school district, but it is also the first vehicle-to-grid installation in LPEA’s service territory. Using bi-directional charging, the bus can pull electricity from the grid to charge during off peak hours, and LPEA can pull electricity from the vehicle onto the grid during critical times when power is needed.

This innovative project will reduce diesel emissions and improve air quality.

Managing Vegetation to Mitigate Colorado’s Wildfires

By Sarah Smith

Wildfires ravaged Colorado this summer, wreaking havoc across the state and scorching more than 665,000 acres of land. The 2020 wildfire season marked the worst in the Centennial State’s recent history, and the Colorado Rural Electric Association, representing Colorado’s electric cooperatives, and its member cooperatives are determined to serve as advocates for better wildfire mitigation. The prevention of these devastating fires is not only imperative to restore and maintain the natural beauty of Colorado, but also the functioning of critical infrastructure and, of course, public safety.

Making sure the rights-of-way are clear from trees helps mitigate wildfires caused by power lines.

Colorado’s electric co-ops work tirelessly to mitigate situations in which their power lines might cause a wildfire. Some approaches include trimming trees on an annual basis to ensure they aren’t coming into contact with electric lines, maintaining the rights-of-way and keeping infrastructure up to code and equipment operating properly.

Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs has taken vegetation management a step further by finding new and innovative ways to utilize technology to pinpoint potential fire risks. Holy Cross recently teamed up with Intel Geospatial, a cloud “geovisual” data management platform, for a proof-of-concept project. The project consisted of performing an overhead system inspection with an unmanned aerial vehicle, and then providing the photos to Intel Geospatial.

“Intel has developed a software platform designed to allow integration of the inspection photos into a set of base maps, which then allows the end user to review the photos more efficiently for system deficiencies and create reports for field crews to repair the issue,” said Cody O’Neil, vice president of the Glenwood Springs district operations group at Holy Cross.

“We look forward to incorporating this software into our system maintenance program, with the end goal of improving our system reliability, which in turn minimizes the chance that the electric system ignites a fire,” O’Neil added.

Sangre de Cristo Electric Association, Inc., in Buena Vista is another cooperative that is thinking outside of the box. The association recently added a $6 per month wildfire mitigation rate rider on SDCEA monthly bills, which began in January 2021. The co-op experienced the depredation of wildfires firsthand with the Decker and Hayden Creek fires. The aftermath of these fires created a major impact on those living near the lasting burn scars, and Sangre de Cristo’s region remains at high risk for an even larger, more severe wildfire in the future.

Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on vegetation management over the past several years, it would take an additional 20 years under the co-op’s current allocated budget to raise enough money to efficiently clear regional electric lines, and the association knew it had to accelerate the process. According to SDCEA, the board approved the $6 per month rate rider for 2021, with an incremental increase of $1 per year until it reaches $10. The rider will be reviewed periodically to guarantee its effectiveness and will be removed from SDCEA bills when it is deemed no longer necessary.

“Over the years, Sangre de Cristo has budgeted and spent millions of dollars cutting back trees in our ROW [rights-of-way] and our easements. We have tried to preserve as many trees as we could. But the recent spate of wildfires in California and Colorado, along with the loss of life and homes, has caused us to re-evaluate our risk and the urgency that it requires. Our highest calling is the protection of life and property,” said Paul Erickson, SDCEA chief executive officer.

The safety and livelihoods of co-op consumer-members are always top-of-mind, which is why CREA, along with its member cooperatives, is pursuing a three-pronged approach to reduce the threat of wildfires throughout the state. The approach will heavily focus on the power line rights-of-way through the state’s vast landscape. The three prongs are:

1. Reviewing the vegetation management strategies in rights-of-way with private landowners and public land managers. Sometimes, co-ops and other utilities experience difficulties accessing the rights-of-way or easements if they can’t gain permission from adjacent landowners to cross their land.

2. Working with policymakers on changes that will allow for better vegetation management in rights-of-way.

3. Joining the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in addressing concerns regarding access to rights-of-way on federal lands.

Electric co-op crews clear trees and other vegetation that could increase wildfire risk.

A right-of-way is an easement agreement between the landowner and the co-op allowing the co-op to access the power line (or whatever infrastructure is in the right-of-way). It also allows the co-op to maintain the power line and to clear any trees or other vegetation that might cause a threat to the power line. Generally, the co-op pays the landowner a yearly fee for this access, which is negotiated between landowners and co-ops.

In Colorado, these rights-of-way can vary in width depending on the type of power line running through the rights-of-way or according to the agreements with landowners. Land owned by the state or federal government can present its own set of challenges. Each governmental agency has its own criteria and policies regarding rights-of-way. Sometimes, it can take months or even years to get necessary permits to work within existing rights-of-way or easements. This lack of consistency and often drawn-out processes can make maintaining the vegetation to minimize wildfire risks difficult.

Positive news is on the horizon for electric cooperatives across the nation. “The [federal] agencies have recently taken several positive steps to streamline approvals that allow electric co-ops more timely access to power line rights-of-way located on federal land,” said Janelle Lemen, NRECA regulatory issues director. “NRECA is engaging with the agencies to ensure consistent and coordinated implementation of these regulations.”

That work is having an effect. The U.S. Forest Service issued a final rule on November 19, 2020, under the National Environmental Policy Act, which ensures that co-ops will no longer face a waiting period when there is an emergency vegetation management situation or maintenance that cannot be put on hold.

Wildfires are not completely avoidable, especially during the dry summer months in Colorado. CREA and its member cooperatives are committed to providing safe, reliable electricity at an affordable rate. Vegetation management for wildfires is a fundamental aspect of the service electric cooperatives work to provide to their consumer-members, and co-ops will continue to act proactively on wildfire mitigation. By working together, wildfire threats in Colorado can be reduced.

Sarah Smith, a freelance writer in Colorado, has a long history with electric co-ops.

More Solar Power for United Power Consumer-Members

Brighton-based United Power recently completed construction on its newest solar project, Rattlesnake Solar Farm.

This solar farm will provide an additional 6 megawatts of energy to the electric cooperative’s renewable energy portfolio, bringing United Power to more than 43 MWs of local, utility-scale solar. This is in addition to the more than 5,500 residential rooftop systems that are connected to United Power’s system.

The advancement and innovation of local renewable energy is not new for United Power. It launched its first innovative community solar model in 2009, which was the first of its kind in Colorado.

NE Colorado Has EV Charger, Thanks to Electric Co-op

Highline Electric Association announced recently that its new Level 2 EV charging station is ready for public use at its headquarters in Holyoke. This is the first public charging station for electric vehicles the co-op owns and the first within the Phillips/Sedgwick/Chase/Washington county area of northeastern Colorado.

The Enel X JuicePedestal 40 dual head station was purchased by the co-op after it applied for a Charge Ahead Colorado grant last year through the Colorado Energy Office. In addition to receiving the grant, the northeastern Colorado co-op’s power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, offers a rebate program to its member co-ops to help offset the costs of new EV infrastructure.

Rates for the station are $0.50 per charging session plus $0.08 per kilowatt-hour usage. Highline Electric Association Manager of Member Services Tad Huser says, “My Nissan Leaf takes about 12 kWh to charge back to 100% from my 40-mile commute from home to the HEA office. My charge costs the $0.50 session charge plus $0.96 for the 12 kWhs used for a total of $1.46.”

Highline Electric is excited for this EV charging station addition to its headquarters and region.

Community Solar Garden Begins Production

Gunnison County Electric Association recently announced that the new community solar garden at its Gunnison headquarters is officially producing energy. This is the co-op’s second community solar garden. 

The new array is 101 kilowatts, which is five times the size of GCEA’s solar garden in Crested Butte. It’s clear that the community solar garden is a popular option for GCEA’s consumer-members to participate in clean, renewable energy; the short-term, month-to-month lease option is currently sold out. The co-op also offers a 20-year lease option. 

How does community solar work? Consumer-members may lease up to 5 panels per month at $4.71 per month, per share. Consumers then receive a bill credit for the monthly production of their solar shares. 

GCEA is working with other entities to develop additional community solar arrays and plans to have at least one additional project completed in 2021.

The solar garden is an easy and affordable way for GCEA consumer-members to support local renewable energy.

Cool Technologies Keep Lineworkers Well-Connected

By Tom Tate
When electric cooperatives were formed in the 1930s, their technology was primitive by any standard — digging holes for the utility poles by hand, walking the poles up into those holes, using ladders to reach equipment needing service. And if you had to get in touch with the line crew, face-to-face communication was the only option.

Today, the lineworker rivals any other worker when it comes to having the necessary tech to get the job done safely, quickly and more accurately. Let’s take a look at a few of the devices behind this evolution, starting with the tablet.

Many electric co-ops send their crews into the field with ruggedized tablets. What are those? They are tablets (and smartphones) with special cases and screen protectors built to tough specifications that will allow a lineworker’s devices to survive bouncing along in a line truck, being exposed to all kinds of weather and being dropped into a bucket or toolbox.

Depending on the electric co-op, the data and other content on these ruggedized devices varies. Often work orders detailing the day’s project are found on these devices. These can include construction drawings for how the job is to be built, the bill of materials so the crew knows what to pull from inventory before hitting the road, and system maps so lineworkers know exactly where to go. Gone are the reams of paper and cumbersome map books of the past.

Not quite as new, but equally important, are global positioning system, or GPS, coordinates. This functionality might be built into the lineworker’s tablet, a ruggedized smartphone or a handheld unit. As more co-ops map their systems using GPS coordinates, the GPS capability gets the crews where they need to be in an efficient manner. Some GPS units are designed specifically for heavy trucks, and plot routes that avoid bridges with weight limits or roads with height restrictions.

Close up of an infrared camera

Infrared cameras help lineworkers scan power lines and other equipment and find hot spots that could mean equipment that could fail.

Another popular tool is the forward-looking infrared camera, also known as FLIR. Many people are familiar with this technology from the many ghost hunter programs currently on television. With a FLIR camera, crews can rapidly scan power lines, transformers and other equipment when searching for hot spots. A piece of distribution equipment about to fail will often get hot. While not visible to the naked eye, it shows up clearly on a FLIR display. Scanning the system with a FLIR camera is a fast and accurate means of spotting a problem before it becomes an outage.

And today, many lineworkers have eyes in the sky in the form of drones. Colorado’s electric cooperatives cover territory that is often difficult to access when they need to survey the system for necessary repairs or to locate a new power line route. Instead of tackling the job on foot or on four-wheelers, the co-op crews might be able to send in a drone. Flying above the area provides a great view of the situation and allows the crew to make an assessment of what to do next without having to be there in person. This is especially useful after a major storm when roads can still be blocked.

Cooperatives are laser focused on providing the best reliability possible at the lowest possible price. A major aspect of reliability is getting the lights back on as quickly as is safely possible after an outage. Key in this is the outage management system, or OMS. This system builds on “geo-tagged” system maps (each pole has its GPS location mapped), sophisticated engineering models of the distribution system and, for maximum accuracy, an advanced metering system.

When an outage occurs, the system uses models and databases to determine the exact location of the fault and the extent of the outage. Crews can then be sent to the right spot to correct the problem. Part of this restoration effort might be a vehicle tracking system that tells operations staff the exact location of each line truck. The crews closest to the outage are sent to restore power — and essential information can be accessed on the tablets, depending upon the situation.

Sometimes all the technology in the world is not enough and a good old-fashioned visual inspection is required. During daylight hours, it can be easier to see the cause of a problem. But at night, lineworkers need a reliable source of light. Today, that comes from LED flashlights and truck-mounted lights. These powerhouses are a fraction of the size of regular flashlights, and they make an older incandescent model look like a candle by comparison. In the hands of a lineman, they provide an amazing view of the lines during the darkest of nights.

Technology is permeating every aspect of cooperative operations, allowing your electric co-op to constantly improve your service. The well-connected lineworker is at the forefront of that technical evolution.

Tom Tate of writes on the electric industry for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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Tri-State Committed to Reduce Statewide Emissions

During recent proceedings, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission accepted Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s voluntarily-announced retirement dates for its coal power plants Craig Station Units 2 and 3. This is after the AQCC was considering enforcing early closures.

According to a Tri-State press release, the plan meets or exceeds federal requirements to improve visibility in Colorado’s national parks and wilderness areas, according to Tri-State CEO Duane Highley. The cooperative power supplier’s Craig Station Unit 1 will retire by December 31, 2025; Craig Station Unit 2 by September 30, 2028; and Craig Station Unit 3 by December 31, 2029.

And separate from the AQCC proceedings, Tri-State and Gov. Jared Polis announced Tri-State’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado by 80% by 2030. This is part of Tri-State’s innovative Responsible Energy Plan. Tri-State filed its Electric Resource Plan with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on December 1. The ERP includes a preferred scenario to reach emissions reductions by retiring Craig station, adding 1,850 megawatts of renewable resources and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that support state goals.