By Katherine Loving
Last year saw a record increase in electric vehicle sales, and experts are predicting that many major vehicle manufacturers will only produce electric models by 2035. But what does electric vehicles’ impact on the grid look like?
A 2021 study by the Department of Energy showed that increased electrification, or replacement of direct fossil fuel use with electricity, would account for a 38% increase in electricity demand by 2050 — and EVs will play a major role in this increased electrification.
The need for more electricity will have a major impact on the nation’s grid, which means power supply and grid infrastructure must be carefully planned to accommodate the increased need for electricity.
EV charging presents new challenges in maintaining the electric grid. Fully charging an EV battery requires the same amount of electricity needed to power a home during peak energy use times. However, EV charging is a concentrated pull of energy over an extended period, which can add stress to the local power grid by increasing the amount of electricity a utility has to provide.
Additionally, the neighborhood transformer needs adequate capacity to handle the increased load. EV charging can shorten the life span of transformers by straining and overloading their capacity if they are not matched to a neighborhood’s energy needs.
Electric cooperatives are currently identifying ways to manage this new pattern of electricity use, although exact strategies will vary based on each utility’s unique needs. Analyzing energy load patterns or identifying where and when the local grid has spikes in demand can provide electric co-ops with data on where to place higher-capacity transformers. This analysis can also provide a picture of overall energy use and patterns to help forecast energy consumption for the future.
Planning system maintenance and upgrades are also part of that long-range forecasting; however, this has been recently complicated by supply chain issues for transformers with wait times that are upward of one year.
EV owners can play a role in reducing energy costs and system stress associated with charging. Some electric cooperatives offer a designated EV charging rate that you may want to consider. Typically, an EV rate incentivizes charging during the night, when electricity demand and wholesale energy rates are lower. Check with your electric cooperative to find out if it offers this incentive. Charging at night is also a great way to ease demand in your neighborhood, even without a special EV rate.
Another potential change on the horizon is a new energy peak time. EV drivers who plug in to charge as soon as they return home from work would create even more electricity demand during this busy time of day. But if EV drivers use a timer to schedule charging at night, the electricity demand could be spread over a longer period to reduce stress on the grid. This would be especially beneficial for neighborhoods with multiple EV drivers.
EVs are only expected to increase in number. Electric co-ops and EV owners both have roles to play in accommodating increased demand. If you own an EV, let your electric co-op know so it can better plan energy demand for you and your neighbors.
Katherine Loving writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
A new type of home is on the horizon that emphasizes energy efficiency and cost savings for both energy consumers and electric utilities. GCEA, with offices in Gunnison and Crested Butte, recently announced that it will be exhibiting one of these homes from VISION House Transcend to demonstrate to consumer-members the efficiency and technology capabilities homeowners can attain while also inhabiting a beautifully-designed domicile.
GCEA and its power supplier, Tri-State G&T, partnered with Green Builder Media and VISION House Transcend to bring this new demonstration project to the Gunnison area. Designed and constructed by California-based prefab builder Dvele, these homes are “unique in that they have been optimized for cost savings, waste reduction, quality control, and expedited construction timeframes.”
“We are excited to have a project like this in our service territory,” GCEA Member Relations Supervisor Alliy Sahagun said in a November 2022 press release. “It’s going to be an interesting way to share with members the capabilities of a highly energy efficient home, and we are eager to showcase all the technology the home will feature.”
Features of VISION House Transcend homes can include energy-efficient doors and windows, heat pump technology, solar panels and battery storage. GCEA will research and gather data from the demonstration project to construct educational materials to share with its consumer-members so they can visualize the ways they can help the environment and their pocketbooks.
Sahagun said, “We call this ‘beneficial electrification,’ and the VISION House Transcend will provide a wonderful demonstration of what BE looks like in real life.”
Leaders at San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative in Monte Vista and at Alamosa County began talks with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to share its eagerness to convert retired agricultural land to a renewable solar generation and transmission site.
Decades of drought and overpumping of groundwater have created swaths of vacant acreage, leaving the area vulnerable to natural disasters, such as the 2018 Spring Creek Fire and the 2021 Marshall Fire. A new solar generation and transmission site could be a significant asset for utilities to access power when natural disasters damage or destroy other existing electricity-generating infrastructure, leaders believe.
The PUC set a December 30 deadline to hear from members of the public who are interested in bringing this solar development to fruition, according to the Alamosa Citizen.
By Mona Neeley
Photography by Studio 1441
There will be lights this Christmas in the small, remote village of La Montanita de la Virgen, thanks to electric cooperatives in Colorado and Oklahoma who were tasked with bringing light to Guatemala. And, 16 lineworkers here in the United States will celebrate the holidays with a special appreciation for all they have.
An Electrifying Process
The lights came on for the first time in mid-September in La Montanita in the municipality of San Pedro Pinula. Life is slowly changing as the villagers enjoy the benefits of electricity.
A team of 16 lineworkers, including four from Colorado’s electric co-ops, spent August 29 to September 16 in the rural Guatemalan mountain community building power lines to bring electricity to the area. The men installed 5 miles of primary line, 3.5 miles of secondary line and six transformers to extend the country’s power grid to the remote village. They also wired 81 homes, two churches and the elementary school as part of a project coordinated by NRECA International.
It was grueling work for the lineworkers, who worked without the benefits of their usual bucket trucks and other power tools. Instead, they climbed each pole with their spikes, used block and tackle configurations to lift transformers and heavy spools of wire, pulled that wire by hand across deep valleys and up mountainsides, and generally did their line work the way it was done years ago in the States.
“Bringing electricity to remote areas in developing countries takes electric cooperatives back to their roots,” noted CREA Executive Director Kent Singer. Being part of a project like this helps lineworkers appreciate where Colorado’s electric co-ops got their start, with neighbor helping neighbor to set those first poles and string the first wires.
That was how it was in Guatemala, too. The villagers were invested in this project and provided assistance where they could.
It Takes a Village
La Montanita is a remote mountain community of about 560 people located off a gravel road and up a dirt trail. Homes are spread throughout a large area that surrounds the school, church and dirt soccer field at the center of the community. Much more like homes spread out through Colorado’s rural co-op territories than a town with streets and nearby neighbors, the community, brought its people together to help the American lineworkers complete this project.
Prior to the Colorado-Oklahoma team arriving, men in the village installed the power poles and anchors outside of homes after working together to carry the poles to each site and dig the holes. Then, when the Americans arrived, the men, young and old, took turns helping wherever they could.
They climbed trees, carried equipment and helped pull line, especially when it had to go up a mountainside. There was one long span across a deep, wide river valley, remembered project leader Damon Lester, an Oklahoma lineman. The American team expected it to take most of the day to get the line from one side to the other. It took 45 minutes, Lester noted with a wry smile.
Once the team was set on one side of the chasm and the wire was ready, villagers took off with the heavy line. They were down one side, across the small river and up the other side to the pole the team had ready on the other side, Lester explained. It took no time at all.
That’s how the villagers were, said Trenton Jole, a lineman from Holy Cross Energy headquartered in Glenwood Springs. They would take turns helping the Americans in between working in their small corn fields on the sides of the mountains since it was planting time. They would hand plant a field and then show up the next day to help on the electrification project.
An Experience Worth Remembering
Grand Valley Power lineman Zeb Birch remembers an older man who was on the village council. He was there to help the team even though he didn’t have the equipment or, even any good shoes. “His shoes were completely blown open,” Birch said.
Many of the younger men had backpacks to carry tools, rope and other supplies, but this older man didn’t have that either. He had an old sack that he used for carrying sand. It had been repaired and a handle rigged on it so he could carry whatever he needed — he was there to help bring electricity to his village.
Most of the homes in the village also didn’t have much. The linemen who wired the homes saw inside those homes. They saw how the kids did their homework by candlelight, how the people made do with what they had.
The homes were mostly built with adobe with tin roofs. Some had dirt floors. Some kitchens were a covered area on the side of the house. Other homes were simply a large room with sleeping hammocks at one end and the kitchen with its fire and workspace at the other end. But the people had pride in what they have. Their kids were clean, their clothes washed on stones at the river that runs through the community.
Celebrating the Gift of Light
Each of those homes received four lightbulbs, two light switches and two electrical outlets. Each homeowner chose where those were placed.
It’s not much, but these people are resilient. They have built a life for themselves in a place with no running water and, up until now, no electricity.
They are grateful that electricity has now come to their community. “We thank God and the Americans for the gift of electricity,” said Roberto Ramirez Guerra, the mayor of San Pedro Pinula. He has been working with NRECA International, the philanthropic arm of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, since 2019 to bring electricity to this village. The pandemic stalled that progress until this year.
He led the celebration on Tuesday, September 13, when all of the villagers turned out to thank the lineworkers who brought light and electricity to their community. There was dancing, songs, poems and speeches as the villagers thanked the Americans for coming to Guatemala and working so hard for three weeks.
It was a bittersweet time for the lineworkers. They were ready to go home to their families, but they were leaving pieces of themselves behind in a community where they had established deep ties in a short amount of time.
“It was a privilege to use the line work trade to make a positive difference in the lives of the people of La Montanita. Their simplicity, joy and friendship were truly a gift,” said Clayton Shonk of White River Electric in Meeker.
“They can be so happy with so little,” added Nathaniel Pennell of Mountain View Electric, headquartered in Limon.
“We planted a seed that will be harvested for years and years. It’s not going to become a big plant by tomorrow, but it will continue to grow and bear fruit with time,” Lester said. “The elders see it as a convenience. The younger ones see it as opportunity for economic development.”
Access to electricity will enable growth in education, security, health care, economic prosperity and, overall, a better quality of life.
This Christmas, the lights will be on in the village of La Montanita de la Virgen, thanks to the Colorado and Oklahoma lineworkers who gave of themselves.
“We all believe in giving and doing what it takes,” said Birch, speaking for the entire American team, “yet, I didn’t give a tenth of what I got out of it.”
Editor Mona Neeley, traveling with the leadership team, was in La Montanita when the lights came on in the school.
By Kylee Coleman
Supply and demand. It’s not a new concept. It’s our collective way as a society of finding balance for goods and services, such as that piping hot cup of joe from your favorite java drive-thru on a subzero Colorado morning. They supply the steaming paper cup full of roasted, ground, filtered and brewed beans. And most mornings, let’s face it: we demand (and sometimes need) the caffeination.
Finding equilibrium is always a goal when it comes to supply and demand. The larger coffee chains presumably work to source just the right amount of beans to keep the coffee flowing. If they receive an abundance of beans for seasonal pumpkin spice lattes, the company’s supply gets out of whack; the beans may perish before they get used or there’s a risk of not having adequate storage space for the supply.
Through a network of landowners, growers, vendors, importers-exporters, roasters and more, coffee chains source coffee beans to fulfill their supply and meet their demand — the strategy for future needs and sales is likely on point. But if just one of these links in the supply chain breaks, it could throw off the whole operation and then the opposite happens: not enough beans. What then? You can forget that Friday date with your standing order of a grande, hot Americano with cream.
What’s assumed in this example, is that your coffee chain has the adequate resources — beans — to maintain its role in our caffeine cravings.
Supply, demand and the grid
This coffee supply-demand example is admittedly elementary. Is it that straightforward when it comes to our electricity supply and the grid of the future? Short answer: No. So what does “supply and demand” have to do with your electric cooperative?
Clearly, the electric grid and electricity distribution are much more complex and important than a fondness for a Friday cup of coffee. “At every moment, electric utilities and grid operators match the supply of power to the load demands of consumers, but there are many other dynamics to consider,” Tri-State G&T CEO Duane Highley said. “Utilities need to be flexible with generation resources so that they can reliably serve loads.”
Electricity is seemingly simple and predictable at this point, right? We flip a switch and hit a button on the remote — the lights turn on and the TV powers up. That’s the reliability we’ve come to expect and depend on.
We don’t give it much thought because, even with significant changes to the grid and technological advancements over the last 70 to 80 years, Colorado’s electric cooperatives have done a remarkable job at keeping our time in the dark at a minimum.
But there is so much more behind-the-scenes action that powers your life.
Demands of evolving energy alternatives
Colorado is in the midst of a clean energy transition. In 2019, the state legislature passed laws that set Colorado’s decarbonization goals. The state is moving away from coal-generated electricity and there is a major shift happening both in Colorado and across the country.
What may not be readily apparent to many consumers is, with these decarbonization efforts and the shift from fossil fuel energy sources, demand for electricity will grow — and continue to do so.
Consider, for example, charging your electric vehicle at home, using an air-source heat pump for home heating, or cooking on an electric induction cooktop. This surge of electricity use has led to increased consumer concern about the adequacy of electric resources to meet demand. Consumers are using more electricity, yet coal power plants are closing and being replaced with variable energy resources, such as wind and solar.
Even with these changes, outstanding reliability remains a core competency and primary goal of Colorado’s electric cooperatives and Tri-State G&T, the power supplier that serves the majority of the state’s electric cooperatives.
“The first job for Colorado’s electric co-ops is to keep power flowing to co-op consumer-members day and night, in good weather and bad,” CREA Executive Director Kent Singer wrote in a June 2022 column in Colorado Country Life magazine. “The energy transition that’s happening in Colorado adds yet another layer of complexity to the task of providing reliable, affordable electric service.”
The question your electric co-op is asking itself is: How will we maintain the reliability we are so good at providing if there’s a less-consistent supply from potentially variable generation resources such as wind and solar?
Resource adequacy explained
“Resource adequacy” is defined as the ability to provide reliable electric service at times of high demand or having enough capacity to meet customer needs under any scenario.
This means not only having sufficient supply to meet expected energy requirements, but also a reserve margin to account for potential situations that might impact the availability of resources. For example, more power might be needed when a long cold spell requires more heat for homes and businesses.
Situations like this not only affect our ability to light our kitchen, cook a meal and run the dishwasher at the end of the day, they also have the potential to impact the overall resiliency of the grid. That said, “resource adequacy” is closely tied to “grid resilience.”
“Grid resilience is not a new term for the utility industry as it’s what we strive for at Tri-State every day,” Highley stated. “But the way we approach grid resilience is changing.
“As we transition to cleaner energy,” Highley continued, “Tri-State recognizes the importance of establishing a regional transmission organization (RTO) in the West to access a larger pool of generation resources that enhances system resiliency. And we’ve been promoting timely participation in RTOs for years in order to meet the state’s and our members’ clean energy goals.”
The resource mix that utilities rely on to serve customer load includes increasing amounts of variable generation, such as wind, solar and emerging technologies. “Maintaining and enhancing the resilience of the grid requires continuous forecasting, planning, monitoring, testing and coordination,” Tri-State’s Vice President Planning and Analytics Lisa Tiffin said. “A changing resource mix, with increased renewable energy resources, adds new complexities that utilities are demonstrating can be well-managed to ensure reliability.”
With the increased use of wind and solar resources, emerging battery storage technology also has a role in resource adequacy. “When the output of renewable resources exceeds the immediate need for power, excess energy can be saved in batteries to provide power during periods of high demand or when there is decreased output from renewable resources,” Tiffin explained. “Battery storage has limitations due to efficiency, storage and charging hours and is not a single solution to resource adequacy and a resilient grid but is part of the overall solution in a transitioning grid.”
Reliability powering the clean energy transition
“Electric co-ops understand that electricity is the lifeblood of the West, and that electric system reliability is our first priority,” Highley said. “As a cooperative power supplier, Tri-State has risen to meet the challenges of resource adequacy and grid resiliency for decades, delivering reliable power to our members.
“As we move through our clean energy transition, our commitment to reliability is unwavering,” he continued. “Ensuring proper resource adequacy and grid resiliency helps ensure reliability, and we are working with our member co-ops, grid operators, stakeholders and regulators so that we can always keep the lights on.”
Just as our favorite coffee drive-thru needs the right amount of beans to keep its business booming and to keep us energized, Colorado’s electric distribution network needs the right amount and the right resources of power generation to produce the supply consumers have come to rely on and trust.
Through innovation, employing forward-thinking leaders, and setting and exceeding their own clean energy goals, Colorado’s electric co-ops are finding ways to keep resource adequacy, reliability and resiliency at the forefront of the conversation regarding Colorado’s clean energy transition. Not only that, your electric co-op is doing a remarkable job powering your way of life.
As Singer said, “Electric co-ops are confident that they can meet this challenge like they have met every other challenge for the past 80 years.”
Kylee Coleman researches and writes about topics affecting Colorado’s electric cooperatives and how your electric co-op innovatively approaches a rapidly changing industry.
For a deeper look into resource adequacy in Colorado and an analysis of potential legislation, visit crea.coop/crea-whitepapers.
An innovative partnership between Gunnison-based electric co-op GCEA, the National Park Service and Rivian broadened the electric vehicle charging infrastructure network in the Gunnison area in central Colorado.
In early October, a dual-port 11.5-kilowatt Rivian Waypoints Level 2 EV charger and a single port 62.5 kW ChargePoint DC fast-charger became operational at the Lake Fork Campground in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. The chargers are officially open to charge all makes and models of EVs.
Grant funding from the Colorado Energy Office’s program, Charge Ahead Colorado, and contributions from Tri-State G&T, Gunnison County, Adopt a Charger, GCEA and Rivian made these chargers a reality. GCEA provided the necessary electrical upgrades required for the station while the National Park Service provided the site location.
Lake Fork Campground is an ideal location for these chargers due to its proximity to the three-phase power that’s needed to support the DC fast charger. And it is centrally located between Montrose and Gunnison to provide another point of charging support on the expanding system of EV chargers throughout the state. At the junction between Highways 50 and 92, these new stations will provide convenience for drivers traveling to multiple destinations along the Western Slope of Colorado.
“Over the last two years, Gunnison County has seen a 235% increase in the number of registered EVs. Having the necessary charging infrastructure in place is key in sustaining the growth of EV purchases,” GCEA Member Relations Supervisor Alliy Sahagun said in a recent press release. “The partnership between GCEA, Rivian and the National Park Service is paving the way for more EVs to have a place to charge.”
Grand Junction-based electric co-op Grand Valley Power utilizes an outage management system to track and log power outages on its distribution system. In 2021, the co-op’s System Average Interruption Duration Index was under 45 minutes. SAIDI measures the total number of minutes a consumer experienced a power outage over the course of a year.
GVP started exploring the capabilities of data mining and mapping technology to continue the trend of keeping outages at a minimum. Geographic information systems analyst Ethan Schaecher found that there was a flaw in the software system when attempting to track outage causes, history, date, time and equipment affected across GVP’s service territory. When the outage ends, it disappears from the map and no location information is saved.
Schaecher started looking through outage history records and found there was enough data to tie the outages back to GVP’s service map. Using data mining, Ethan re-plotted nearly 2,700 outages spanning 10 years. He mapped the outages as points on a map and also categorized the data into 12 different outage causes, such as trees. Taking this a step further, he then compared the cause of the outage to the time it occurred using a data clock.
This innovative GIS and mapping methodology Schaecher developed helps GVP visualize patterns in time and space and will help solve complex outage problems and increase reliability to its members.
Working together ensures phones are always answered
By Sarah Smith
Your local electric cooperative may be a relatively small utility, but its services are those you would expect from a much larger company. That is only possible because your co-op works with other small cooperatives to provide much more than it could by itself. We call it cooperation among cooperatives.
National Cooperative Month
October, which is National Cooperative Month, is a great time to look at how standing together and pooling resources can help local co-ops do their job better, more efficiently and more cost-effectively. It’s a time to celebrate cooperation among cooperatives (one of all co-ops’ seven guiding principles).
Handling after-hours outage calls and storm calls is one area where Colorado’s electric co-ops work together to make sure their consumer-members always have someone answering the phone. Many of the co-ops work with cooperative organizations such as Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Security and Response Services (SRS) and the Cooperative Response Center (CRC) to meet this need.
SRS is offered by Basin Electric, a generation and transmission cooperative, and provides 24/7 dispatchers who add that local touch, answering calls with the specific cooperative’s name. Consumers are pleasantly surprised to hear a friendly voice when they call — even late at night or on weekends.
“It is extremely important for customers to experience the same satisfaction and care while using the after-hours line that they receive during the day,” said Jolene Johnson, SRS dispatch manager for Basin Electric. “We currently provide services for 86 co-ops in 12 different states. However, our main goal and primary focus is the safety of our lineman. Our customer service is a very high second, but SRS is here to ensure that the lineman is safe, from the time an outage is reported until the lineman is back home with their family.”
Co-ops Utilizing SRS Service
Currently, SRS provides service to seven of CREA’s electric cooperatives: San Isabel Electric in Pueblo West, Southeast Colorado Power in La Junta, SDCEA in Buena Vista, K.C. Electric in Hugo, Y-W Electric in Akron, White River Electric in Meeker, and Mountain Parks Electric in Granby.
This year, SIEA experienced big storms, causing after-hours outages. SRS eased the impact on SIEA’s member services, linemen and dispatch teams during those critical times for the co-op and its consumer-members.
“SRS is really great to work with in every capacity,” said Candace Alfonso, a dispatcher at SIEA. “They are always willing to meet my needs and consistently value all feedback. Over the last six to12 months, we have experienced some major storms that caused outages overnight or landed on the weekend when I was not available, and SRS rarely needed my assistance. I appreciate all their hard work and dedication. They don’t have all the resources that I have, but they do the best they can with what they do have.
“All their dispatchers are very friendly and provide great customer service to SIEA’s members. They are supposed to represent us as much as possible, and I think they do an excellent job. Not only do they do exemplary work with outages, but they also answer all outage calls and take a ton of hazard calls. We are a great team and I love working with them,” Alfonso added.
Co-ops Utilizing CRC Service
CRC is another service-based organization that is an important tool for a handful of CREA’s electric cooperatives. Among the co-ops that use CRC services are Empire Electric in Cortez, Morgan County Rural Electric in Fort Morgan, Poudre Valley Rural Electric in Fort Collins, San Luis Valley Rural Electric in Monte Vista, and Yampa Valley Electric in Steamboat Springs.
CRC offers customer contact, a dispatch center and a central station alarm-monitoring service for electric utilities, which ensures their members’ need for reliable service is met, any time of day or night.
MCREA uses the after-hours call service center offered by CRC and appreciates that a co-op of its size has its phone lines answered 24/7. Occasionally, MCREA also leverages CRC’s services during normal business hours if a larger outage occurs. This frees the phone lines for employees who would otherwise be overwhelmed by the onslaught of call volume because of the outages.
“CRC is very quick to get in touch with our operations department when an issue on our system is reported by a community member. They text our on-call employees with after-hours outage information very quickly, allowing them to mobilize without delay. In addition, CRC conducts text message safety checks on MCREA’s employees when they are in the field performing after-hours restoration work,” said Rob Baranowski, MCREA’s manager of member services
“And CRC’s help doesn’t stop at outage calls. For example, we asked them to provide a dial-back number for this year’s annual meeting, which was held by phone. That way, any members who noticed a missed call from MCREA during our initial evening callout were given the live callback number by a CRC operator when they returned MCREA’s missed call,” Baranowski said.
Ken Tarr of EEA in Cortez agrees. “CRC is a blessing to our system operators during outage situations — especially large-scale ones — when they handle all the incoming calls. Our system operators are able to focus on getting power restored as well as the safety of our linemen in the field,” he said.
Cooperation Among Cooperatives in Action
Grand Valley Power in Grand Junction and Delta-Montrose Electric in Montrose also demonstrate cooperation among cooperatives on a smaller, but just as significant, scale. GVP and DMEA are close in proximity, with just about 60 miles between the two cooperatives; both serve the far western side of the state. GVP utilizes DMEA’s after-hours line, and occasionally, if all GVP’s employees are out at a training, they can also forward calls to DMEA’s call service.
Whether it’s at 10 p.m. during an unexpected power outage or on a Sunday afternoon when a blizzard hits, electric cooperatives rest easy knowing their members are still getting the immediate help they need when they call, whether it’s from SRS, CRC or even a neighboring co-op.
Cooperation among cooperatives is an integral component to running a successful organization, where its customers feel valued, heard and, most importantly, safe.
Sarah Smith, a former CREA employee, writes freelance articles on Colorado’s electric industry.
Co-ops ready for utility drones to expand their reach
By Reed Karaim and Mona Neeley
Imagine a drone flight at an electric cooperative in the not-too-distant future. Cool technologies, including utility drones at electric co-ops, are legitimately part of the conversation.
No longer limited to staying within the line of sight of its on-the-ground operator, it travels much, much farther down the power lines, using an array of visual, thermal and LIDAR sensors, which use lasers, to accomplish miles of inspection in a single flight.
Flying higher than today’s drones with an optical sensor on board, this future drone scans the sky for dangers, busily feeding data to an onboard artificial-intelligence-powered computer, which is linked to the flight computer. Sensing a private plane in its airspace, the drone automatically executes an avoidance maneuver, dropping rapidly in altitude and banking to avoid any chance of collision.
Miles away, at a control station, the co-op’s drone pilot sees the maneuver and could take control if necessary. But knowing the drone is designed to adjust its flight path more quickly than humanly possible, the pilot decides to allow the unmanned vehicle to fly itself to safety.
Danger averted, the drone resumes its mission down 50 miles of line or more, saving the cooperative untold hours of physical inspection by ground or helicopter.
“There is no question that that (beyond-line-of-sight rules) will have a huge impact on how we’re able to use and grow this technology,” said Bill Havonec, GIS lead for Sangre de Cristo Electric in Buena Vista, in an interview with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s RE Magazine.
This future is already here for a small number of electric utilities that have received Federal Aviation Administration waivers allowing beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights. But utility drones at electric co-ops is coming for more organizations as the FAA moves toward issuing regulations that could make BVLOS operations typical for those that meet the requirements.
An FAA advisory committee published recommendations establishing a roadmap to meet that goal, which could arrive within the next couple of years. The proposed changes also would give expanded right-of-way access and airspace rights to BVLOS drones that meet standards for avoidance and control capabilities.
“This is a huge deal,” said Stan McHann, senior research engineer and chief drone pilot for NRECA. “You’re going to see a massive improvement in what you can get done in a day.”
Josh Dellinger, general manager of Empire Electric Association in Cortez, agrees. The additional distance that drones will be able to fly will be especially valuable in hard-to-reach places. “We have quite a bit of that where lines go through areas adjacent to the road or forest service or BLM land,” he says.
“A trainload of data”
BVLOS is a key part of an evolution in drone capabilities that could transform inspection and maintenance for electric utilities in the coming years. McHann also foresees smaller drones strategically placed throughout a distribution system, able to respond to a SCADA event by taking to the air and quickly checking a trouble spot, sending images and other data back to operations, and giving the co-op a clearer idea of what is going on and what response is needed before sending a crew.
As utility drones at electric co-ops become commonplace in co-op fleets, other innovative uses are likely to surface. Even with today’s limitations on flight range, drones are being used by co-ops for regular inspections, vegetation management, placing bird diverters on lines and pulling lead lines across rugged terrain to run new transmission lines.
“At SDCEA, we’re discovering a variety of uses for drone technology. It started with inspections and getting data into the GIS/ mapping and work order systems,” said Havonec.
“In addition to our routine maintenance inspections, we’re prioritizing flight plans with historical outage data and using that as a tool for system improvement,” he said. “Additionally, we’re inspecting new construction rights-of-way and vegetation management areas for inventory, monitoring and quality assurance.”
“Colorado’s co-ops each have between 1,000 and 10,000 miles of line to cover,” said Curt Graham, a job training and safety instructor with CREA who visits many of those co-ops regularly. “When you can get an uncrewed aircraft doing line inspection for you, looking at things on a schedule and reliable enough where you don’t need to have an operator actively supervising it all the time — that’s got real potential,” he said. “And it’s coming.”
Advanced sensors will provide a new level of granular detail on the condition of system hardware. Infrared sensors, for example, can look for hot or arcing connections, transformers and other components, spotting current or future problems hidden from the human eye.
Taking full advantage of these capabilities will require the ability to effectively manage the data they can provide.
“Software is key here,” McHann noted. “One flight will create a trainload of data, and it’s essential that you be able to process it and see that it’s integrated into your system in ways that get the information where you need it.”
NRECA is already working with local electric co-ops on flight management and data analysis software integration.
Training and certification
BVLOS will require a new level of training and certification for drone operators. Today, a Level 107 certification from the FAA, which entails passing a written test, is all that is necessary for basic, within-visual-line-of-sight drone operations at a co-op or other electric utility.
The FAA advisory committee’s recommendations include a new pilot certification for BVLOS flight, although physical piloting skills combined with aviation safety best practices will remain important.
The human factor
Operating today with a drone and operator out in the field, McHann said, a co-op can cover to 80 to 120 assets a day, maybe only 70 to 80 in rougher terrain. Taking advantage of the longer range, flying time and speed at which BVLOS drones can operate, a greater-than-tenfold increase becomes possible, with a drone able to cover nearly 1,400 assets in a day.
“Your SAIDI-CAIDI (outage measurement) numbers are going to come down. That’s real money,” McHann noted.
“And as the price of the cameras and sensors and other equipment come down as well, it will effectively bring everyone into this space,” said Havonec.
While the newest hardware often gets the most attention, the unmanned vehicle technology is just a piece of the program. The parts that really tie everything together will be the training and regulatory requirements necessary to fly the drone.
Meeting those standards to take full advantage of BVLOS and other advancements down the road will be essential to economically meeting the demands of maintaining the grid, according to co-op managers.
The rewards will be increased efficiency, system reliability and personnel safety through reducing hazardous tasks such as pole climbing, and these can outweigh the costs.
Reed Karaim writes on rural cooperative news for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Mona Neeley is editor of Colorado Country Life magazine.