The Battle Behind Keeping the Lights On

By Paul Wesslund

Did you know squirrels, lightning and trees have something in common? They can all knock out your electricity.

Electric cooperatives across Colorado and the country work hard to keep your lights on all the time, but “you’re going to have power outages, and that’s just the way it is,” says Tony Thomas, senior principal engineer with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

An electric utility’s basic job of keeping the power flowing 24/7 calls for maintaining a complex network of power plants, poles and wires, but it also means battling the unpredictable. Thomas cites the top three troublemakers to electric reliability as trees falling on power lines and other interferences from vegetation, lightning strikes and animals going about their daily routines, especially squirrels chewing on electrical equipment.

“Utilities do an awfully good job, but Mother Nature gets in the way sometimes,” Thomas says.

However, humans contribute to power outages as well, with vandals deliberately damaging electrical equipment and drivers accidentally crashing into utility poles.

Statistics say the lights are almost always on
Numbers collected from electric utilities show that power in the United States is incredibly reliable. According to these figures, the percentage of time that the average American has electricity at the flip of a switch is 99.97. Thomas says what’s most important to know about that number is that it doesn’t change much.

“I don’t see big swings from year to year,” Thomas says. “If things are fairly consistent, that means the utility is operating about as efficiently as it can.”

When it comes to electric reliability, the biggest challenge is maintaining and updating the massive machinery of the nation’s electric grid. More than 8,500 power plants generate electricity that is shipped through 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines.

But utilities still try to improve on that reliability. Among the techniques being used to foil critter catastrophes are snake barriers around substations, buzzard shields on transmission towers and mesh coverings on wood poles to protect them from woodpeckers.

For some of the other causes of outages like trees and lightning, there’s now an app for that.

Utilities operate extensive right-of-way programs to keep vegetation away from power lines, from clearing underbrush to publicity campaigns asking people not to plant trees where they can fall on power lines. These days, those efforts can be aided by digital software that forecasts the growth of trees and other plants so utilities can recognize when to prune branches before they cause a problem.

Other software tries to manage lightning by analyzing the age and wear on the utility’s equipment that minimizes the damage from lightning strikes so it can be replaced before it fails.

While Colorado’s electric co-ops fight storms and squirrels to keep the power on, by far the biggest part of reliability comes from the decades of building, maintaining and updating their part of the massive machinery of the nation’s electric grid. In Colorado, a variety of power plants generate electricity that is shipped through miles of high-voltage transmission lines. Banks of substations and transformers step-down that voltage to send it to homes and businesses through an estimated 100,000 miles of local distribution lines.

Keeping that network up and running calls for a lot of planning among utilities to anticipate how electricity will be used in the future. Part of that reliability planning has focused on protecting the electricity system from computer-based digital attacks.

The never-ending job of cybersecurity
Bridgette Bourge is among those overseeing how digital technology affects reliability for electric co-ops and their consumer-members. As director of government affairs for NRECA, she sees both the positives and the negatives to the latest internet-based, or cyber, technology.

“Cyber helps a lot on reliability because it gives us the ability to monitor and know everything right away,” she says. “But whenever you increase reliability through a technology, you do potentially open up vulnerabilities as well from the security angle.”

For any organization, including electric utilities, the benefits of the internet come infested with mischief makers. Bourge says it’s routine for a company to receive tens of thousands of attempts each day to break into its computer network. Those “knocks” at the cyber door can come from individuals, countries and organizations, or from the army of automated “bots” roaming the internet worldwide, testing for weaknesses where a hacker could enter.

For a utility, a troublemaker inside the computer network could affect electric service, and that’s why local electric cooperatives work with their national organization, NRECA, to organize a variety of cyber reliability programs.

Bourge says those cyber reliability programs aim to help protect against a range of threats, from broad attempts to shut down parts of the electric grid, to more focused efforts to corrupt pieces of software used by electric cooperatives.

Working closely with the nation’s electric co-ops, NRECA shares the techniques for protecting utility systems from internet invaders. NRECA also works closely with federal government cybersecurity groups in the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

NRECA is also part of a national program to create a cyber mutual assistance agreement. Much like how groups of lineworkers from an electric co-op travel to help restore power after a hurricane, these cyber agreements would utilize teams of information technology experts in the case of a cyber incident.

“You can’t solve cybersecurity,” Bourge says. “No matter what you do today, the bad guys are going to figure out a way around it tomorrow. You have to keep thinking about the next step.

“Electric cooperatives take cybersecurity very seriously,” Bourge adds. “It’s built into their DNA.”

Electric co-ops are well-placed to pay attention to cybersecurity. She says that as community-based, member-led businesses, electric co-ops have a unique interest in protecting the reliability of the local community’s energy supply. Co-ops are prepared to act quickly when lines are down and work hard to thwart cyberattacks as they battle to keep the lights on.

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

Co-ops Hit High Point of 58% Renewables

At one point in early May, electric co-op power supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission supplied 58% renewable energy to its members.

It was a sunny May 4, and Tri-State averaged 46% renewable energy for its members for the day, peaking at 58%. Then again, on May 7, Tri-State averaged 47% renewable energy for its members with a peak of 55%.

The power supplier’s goal is to provide 50% renewable energy for its members year round by 2024. It is adding an additional 1,000 megawatts of wind and solar to its system to accomplish this goal.

Tesla Test Drives for Co-op Members

After being suspended for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gunnison County Electric Association’s robust electric vehicle test drive program is up and running again. Exclusively for consumer-members of the co-op, GCEA members can take the co-op’s Chevy Bolt for a week-long test drive. Or they can request a guided test drive around the Gunnison, Crested Butte and Blue Mesa areas in the co-op’s Tesla Model 3. The guided test drive shows members all the features of the vehicle, which are all controlled on the main screen on the vehicle’s dashboard.

Mountain Parks Electric is also the proud new owner of a Tesla Model 3. The Granby-based co-op is still finalizing how and under what conditions it will let consumer-members drive this new addition to its fleet. Under MPE’s Electrify Everything program, the co-op is offering financial assistance and on-bill financing for commercial EV charging stations. EV home charging rebates and wiring rebates are also available for MPE consumer-members.

New EV Chargers in Southeastern Colorado

La Junta-based electric cooperative Southeast Colorado Power Association recently installed two electric vehicle charging stations, made possible by a Charge Ahead Colorado grant through the Colorado Energy Office.

The first EV charger is located at the co-op’s headquarters parking lot, and the second one is located in the Holiday Inn Express parking lot, also in La Junta. Both stations are Level 2 chargers and can charge two EVs at once.

Assess Your Energy Situation

By Derrill Holly and Amy Higgins

Staying at home can open your eyes to the changes that can benefit your castle — changes you may or may not have taken notice of before. Perhaps you’re noticing a draft around your windows and doors. Maybe you detected a hot spot in an area of your home that was previously overlooked. And with that, it’s conceivable that your electric bill is higher than it was last summer.

Better energy efficiency at home starts with savings, not sales, and an energy assessment conducted with help from a trained energy advisor from your electric cooperative can help you get there.

Some co-ops offer general assessments of the energy situation; some provide audits; all have expertise they can share. Co-ops are always there to answer questions about energy efficiency. In the past, some offered in-home assistance with energy questions. Others offered answers over the phone or via their website. As we move into our new “normal,” each Colorado co-op is finding ways to help its consumer-members answer their energy efficiency questions.

“In my opinion the biggest benefit for a member having an energy [assessment] is knowing exactly where your energy is going — if you’re being the most efficient with your energy that you can possibly be,” said Andy Molt, director of member services at Y-W Electric Association in Akron.

Co-ops provide this information because they are trusted energy advisors that are always working to help their members save energy and control their electricity costs.

“I’m usually looking for whatever problem the member has indicated, which could be high bills, a cold and drafty house or to check the efficiency of appliances,” said Alantha Garrison, energy use advisor at Gunnison County Electric Association in Gunnison, who has provided 535 assessments since 2010.

Members become frantic when they see a major increase on their power bill and want almost immediate answers as to why. In conjunction with experience and the ability to refer to meter data reports, the process of identifying major power consumption problems has been simplified and resolved in many instances.

Problems, such as poor insulation or air leaks from windows and doors, can be identified rather quickly using a thermal camera. “I can actually look and see if there are voids in the insulation and walls with [a thermal camera],” Molt said. Interestingly, Molt said he not only finds insulation problems in older homes, but sometimes also finds “huge voids” in the insulation of newer homes.

Energy advisors are constantly receiving training, certifications and reading materials to hone their skills. During on-site assessments, energy experts use all their senses and teachings to find abnormalities, such as hot water line leaks, running well pumps or damaged power cords. Their close examination sometimes leads to identifying safety issues as well.

Amy Blunck, communications director at Fort Collins-based Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association, shared that during one walk-through assessment, they found an old, metal surge strip that was malfunctioning. “It had burned a hole in the back of the strip, and it was arcing,” she explained. “This surge strip was in a barn sitting next to a pile of wood, and it could have burned the whole barn down if not discovered.”

Expert advice
Many of the electric co-ops that provide energy advice support professional development for energy advisors that includes exposure to building science concepts.

Training focused on both new construction techniques designed to improve energy efficiency and retrofitting options for upgraded older housing are common. Specialized training for multifamily units and manufactured housing are also common.

“By providing a picture of how energy is used in the home, people can concentrate on what can save them the most energy,” said Eileen Wysocki, an energy auditor with Holy Cross Energy, headquartered in Glenwood Springs.

Wysocki starts with a baseload estimate of energy use based on meter data. Talking with the consumer-member, she learns about household size and behavior patterns, and considers seasonal factors like heat tape used to prevent water lines from freezing during winter months.

“We have many ‘second homes’ in our service territory,” Wysocki said, adding that even when those homes are empty, energy use continues. “Fan coil blower motors, whole house humidifiers, boiler pumps, ventilation systems, driveway snowmelt pumps, pool pumps, hot tubs, garage heaters, heated toilet seats and towel bars are using energy, regardless of occupancy.”

The co-op serves Colorado’s popular ski areas around Aspen and Vail, and is currently designing a new audit form. It will stress benefits members can receive through efficiency upgrades, including comfort, said Mary Wiener, energy efficiency program administrator for Holy Cross Energy.

While some co-ops provide assessments free of charge, especially when they are requested in response to high bill concerns, others may charge a small fee, offering rebates to members who implement some of the recommendations provided.

An energy advisor can help a member avoid ineffective upgrades or the purchase of outsized equipment that might not improve their comfort or produce savings through recoverable costs.

“For members, simply talking to us on the phone about their energy use or asking us to help them find the problem at their home or business often answers their questions, and they start to understand how much control they have over their own costs when it comes to their electric bill,” Blunck explained. “Understanding that something as simple as using a smart thermostat, where they can control the temperature so their kids aren’t constantly turning up the AC, or putting the donkey up in a corral, where he can’t get to the stock tank heater cord, can make a big difference in your electric bill.”

Offering solutions
Most energy assessments are initiated following a request tied to high bill concerns, when members are really motivated to control their energy costs.

On average, members can reduce their energy use by about 5% if they follow the low-cost or no-cost advice given after an assessment. Additional savings of up to 20% can be achieved by addressing issues with big-ticket items, such as heating and cooling replacement, adding attic insulation or major duct damage discovered during the assessment.

Improved energy efficiency not only helps the co-op control peak demand and wholesale power costs, it also provides opportunities to discuss services available to members. Those include rebates, weatherization programs and payment assistance.

So, what are the biggest benefits of having an energy review? “Finding areas to air seal; learning specific habit changes that can make a difference; learning when it’s most expensive to use power; learning how much energy different items use, so you know what to expect on your energy bill; learning about new co-op programs you might not have known about,” Garrison said, adding, “also, if you have a pet, I’ll probably take an infrared image of it to send to you, which people love.”

To learn more about energy assessments available to you, contact your local electric cooperative.

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

Amy Higgins has been writing for Colorado Country Life for nearly a decade focusing on the topics that make a difference in the lives of its readers.

The Great Outdoors Goes Electric

In an effort to promote beneficial electrification, Colorado electric co-ops in all corners of the state are encouraging consumer-members to make the switch to electric outdoor power equipment. They are doing this by partnering with power supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission to offer consumer rebate opportunities on new outdoor equipment.

Mountain View Electric Association, Inc., headquartered in Limon, is holding an outdoor equipment contest for its members to enter: The co-op will give away an electric lawnmower in June and an electric snowblower in October. MVEA states on its website that, while there is an initial investment when making the switch to electric equipment, switching to electric can save consumer-members money over time since the equipment or the equipment battery chargers plug into a wall. Electric lawnmowers, snowblowers and chain saws don’t need to be refueled and the cost of electricity is cheaper than other fuel sources.

Electric outdoor equipment is also better for the environment, as gasoline-powered lawn equipment creates pollution from exhaust and spillage when refilling the tanks.

This is just one more way that Colorado’s electric co-ops and Tri-State are innovatively creating beneficial electrification opportunities for consumer-members across the state.

Colorado Rural Electric Cooperatives Provide Essential Internet Services

San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative, and its high-speed internet subsidiary Ciello, partnered with a local, high-poverty school district to wire family homes with internet to give students a chance to be successful at remote learning during the on-going pandemic. The school district is paying for the Wi-Fi service through the remainder of the school year. Ciello waived installation and equipment fees and contract terms.

According to a Colorado Futures Center report, at the beginning of this recent period of remote learning caused by the novel coronavirus, about 54,000 school-age children lived in homes with no access to internet service. Higher numbers of these students live in southwestern Colorado

This innovative way to support local communities is not uncommon for Colorado’s electric cooperatives. Delta-Montrose Electric Association also met a need in its community with its internet service provider, Elevate. At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, Elevate took every residential internet subscriber to 1 gigabit per second speeds while maintaining the same price structure.

The pandemic has brought to light the disparities that rural Coloradans face when it comes to what could be argued as an essential, basic service in every home. Many rural electric cooperatives across Colorado are stepping up to assist in bringing internet access to local communities that larger internet companies ignored because it is not cost-effective to serve these areas.

Co-ops Come Together During COVID-19

By Amy Higgins

In the wake of COVID-19, Colorado’s electric cooperatives have quickly altered the way they deliver their essential services. It’s no doubt more challenging, but they are still continually looking for ways to help their communities. After all, “concern for community” is one of the seven cooperative principles each co-op passionately stands by.

Tending to the welfare of their families, friends, communities and worldwide population, Colorado’s electric cooperatives are adhering to their own safety guidelines as well as those provided by the Colorado Rural Electric Association, the local and national government and the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While some co-ops weren’t initially equipped to do so, they swiftly figured out how to perform their work duties remotely and are using emails, phone calls and video chats to meet with fellow employees. Line crews are maintaining safe distances when on the job, and those few who still operate at co-op offices are performing maximum sanitization practices and distancing from others to make certain they’re available to consumer-members without the need of face-to-face interaction.

Over the last several weeks of uncertainty, Coloradans had to learn the ropes of “social distancing,” which can be contradictory to how they typically operate, including those electric co-op personnel still working in the field. “The rule [in our communities] is everything is about shaking hands, so it’s a little bit of a change from what they’re used to,” said Dale Kishbaugh, director of safety and loss control at CREA, adding, “Some of the members may look at it as guys being rude for not wanting to shake their hands, but the situation that we’re in, you’ve got to realize, it’s the best thing for them.”

The biggest challenge, Kishbaugh said, has been communication. “Our [line crews] are really, really good at hands-on. And having to convert over and try and put it into words in an email is a lot more challenging than we ever envisioned it would be,” he explained.

Since social distancing and sanitation standards were established, line crews have been relying on emails and phone calls to relay information instead of the face-to-face meetings they were accustomed to pre-COVID. CREA’s safety and loss control department is creating weekly videos to encourage and assist the crews when they’re on the job, highlighting the importance of maintaining safety practices and staying physically and psychologically healthy, among many other things. Topics have included the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE), job briefings and stress management.

Kishbaugh stressed the importance of getting outside, talking through stressors with someone you can count on and keeping family life and work life separated as much as possible.

In-house employees have also experienced the growing pains of change. “Initially, simply closing our offices to any member access was a paradigm shift,” said Tadius Huser from the member services team at Highline Electric Association in Holyoke. “We have drop boxes and drive-through windows that still function, as well as staffed offices to take calls. Eventually we worked on providing options for employees to work from home, and our IT team has done an exceptional job reacting to this need as, until this pandemic, we didn’t have a work -from-home option.”

Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association in Fort Collins recently held its first ever virtual annual meeting, with nearly 700 consumer-members tuning in — a considerable drop in comparison to the 1,800 average, but notable given today’s circumstances. “We certainly wish we were able to do this annual meeting in person like we’ve done for over 80 years. However, with the times we find ourselves in, that just isn’t possible,” said PVREA President and CEO Jeff Wadsworth in his opening remarks. “We look forward to next year when we’re able to meet in person.”

Andy Carter, member engagement manager at Cortez-based Empire Electric Association, said it was initially a challenge to get a work-at-home system in place with an IT department of two people and many staff members who never work from home. He explained: “We are a small co-op (60 employees) and, while we cross train employees, we don’t have a lot of depth to cover all of the normal duties if employees become ill.”

But the message has remained the same throughout Colorado’s electric co-op territories: “Our crews may be staggered and some of our employees may be working at home, but none of these changes impact the reliability of our services,” said Sarah Schaefer, communications supervisor and public information officer at Mountain View Electric Association, with offices in Falcon, Limon and Monument.

CO-OPS COLLABORATE
“Cooperation among cooperatives,” another cooperative principle, is significant for information sharing, brainstorming and assisting in a slew of ways, especially when the answers aren’t particularly evident.

“I am in regular communications with several other comparable cooperatives in Colorado. We are sharing ideas and resources, and brainstorming solutions. It’s a very collaborative and supporting environment,” said Hillary Knox, vice president of communications at La Plata Electric Association in Durango, adding, “no one has ever dealt with anything like this before.”

Amy Blunck, communications director at Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association, works at home during the mandatory statewide stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Polis.

Colorado’s electric cooperatives utilize the “cooperation among cooperatives” principle in a variety of ways, and always have. Utilities collaborate with local co-ops, CREA and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to help with communications efforts, both internally and externally; assist in a variety of local disaster relief efforts; dispatch assistance; share resources; and much more. “The beauty of ‘cooperation among cooperatives’ and working together is that we’re stronger and better for it,” said Christmas Wharton, communications manager at Grand Valley Power in Grand Junction.

“There is a special camaraderie among electric co-ops — we’re not competitors, we’re family. We have been for over 80 years,” said Amy Blunck, communications director at PVREA.

MAKING AN IMPACT
To help with COVID-19 relief efforts, several organizations are making financial contributions, including CREA, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and CoBank, a cooperative bank that serves agribusinesses, rural infrastructure providers and Farm Credit associations throughout the United States. CoBank recently announced that it is committing $1.4 million, Tri-State donated $200,000 and CREA contributed $5,000 toward those efforts.

Colorado’s electric cooperatives are also contributing to COVID-19 relief efforts. For example, Mountain Parks Electric made a generous donation to Mountain Family Center — both based in Granby — to help vulnerable populations faced with hardship in Grand and Jackson counties pay their electric bills during the COVID-19 outbreak.

GVP recognizes the hardships its community is incurring in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, including small businesses. GVP is hosting several contests on Facebook that will give purchased gift certificates from local restaurants, service providers and boutiques to winners. The electric co-op also hosted a virtual food drive, and several of its employees took it upon themselves to sew face masks for local health care providers. “Our employees, even if it’s just time or energy, all contribute to our communities in the most wonderful ways,” Wharton said. “It’s because we’re a part of our community, and a rising tide lifts all boats.”

TOGETHER WE’RE STRONGER
It seems most folks recognize the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic, yet others underestimate the importance of social distancing and the toll it takes on all those surrounding them when they fail to do so. “That’s why they had to go to the extent of closing everything down — it’s because people weren’t following directions,” Kishbaugh stressed. “That’s why the restaurants are in the situation they’re in now — people kept congregating at the restaurants and [other places].”

COVID-19 has had a detrimental effect on lives, livelihoods and the economy worldwide, and experts don’t envision a sudden “return to normalcy,” but following the guidelines presented by our health experts and legislators can help us get on the road to recovery.

Right now, many are out of work and unable to afford provisions or pay their bills. However, if you take a look around, acts of kindness are being performed all around us, and companies, like your electric co-op, are urging consumer-members to contact them if they are struggling to pay their bills.

“I would like to acknowledge the stress and emotional toll it takes on the customer service reps working the phones making payment arrangements with our members who are scared and not sure how they will pay their bills. It’s a lot to do all day when they themselves are struggling with some of the same issues,” said Kathy Bertrand, member services manager at Yampa Valley Electric Association, based in Steamboat Springs and Craig.

Bottom line is, we’re in this together. “We urge our members to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and avoid all nonessential travel,” Blunck said. “Take this opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors in our beautiful state and spend more quality time with family. Our nation is strong, and we will get through this together.”

Amy Higgins has been writing for Colorado Country Life for nearly a decade and has a good understanding about the topics that affect its readership.

United Power Masks Keep Crews Safe

In response to the CDC’s recommendation to wear masks while performing essential services in the community during the pandemic, a group of United Power employees (Operations Manager Brent Sydow; Safety Specialist Mike Robinson; Purchasing Director Curtis Subia; and Operations Superintendent Kurt Eisenbarth) had an innovative idea: repurposing fire-retardant work shirts into masks.

The Brighton-based electric cooperative had an extra supply of bright yellow FR (flame resistant) shirts on hand and gave those to a local seamstress to design and make the masks. The masks were provided to all United Power essential crews.

These special masks are important since lineworkers dress for the job and their clothing is designed to protect them in case of an electrical contact. These essential workers cannot simply use an off-the-shelf face mask and stay safe on the job. The FR face masks maintain that protection for these crews.

The cooperative is also providing the rest of its employees with non-FR masks repurposed from United Power T-shirts it had in stock. These will be used when the social distancing restrictions have been lifted and their staff is back in the office. Currently, the co-op is utilizing teleworking protocols and many of their 175 employees are working from home when it is feasible.

Poudre Valley REA Goes Virtual

Poudre Valley REA held another successful annual meeting on April 4. And it was all virtual. Due to statewide social distancing requirements, the electric co-op hired a professional marketing company to film the annual meeting in the co-op’s community room at its headquarters in Fort Collins. Linden Marketing also did all of the post-production for the co-op, overlaying the video with slides, titles and pop-up prompts. PVREA uploaded the video to YouTube and scheduled it to air on the original annual meeting date using the YouTube Premier feature.

“Over 700 consumer-members tuned in to the meeting on April 4 and we received great feedback,” PVREA Communications Specialist Jessica Johnson said. The election of directors proceeded as planned with an independent third-party performing mail-in ballot counting and ballots were even allowed to be cast onsite the day of the meeting. Any consumer-member who submitted a ballot was entered into the co-op’s prize drawings. The grand prize winner won a home package that consists of electric outdoor equipment as well as smart gadgets.

The innovative solution to making sure co-op consumer-members still had a chance to participate in the annual meeting and director elections will surely be replicated across Colorado and the nation as the need arises and social distancing measures are still in place.