Co-ops’ Commitment to Zero Contacts

By Amy Higgins

Complacency can be dangerous. And with years of experience and daily repetition, it is easy to get complacent — both at home and on the job.

But complacency at work, especially for electric lineworkers, can be disastrous. Working with electricity is one of the most dangerous jobs out there and one mistake can lead to a catastrophic event. For example, if a lineworker fails to inspect his rubber gloves and has the smallest tear, he could be vulnerable to a fatal contact with electricity.

A new electric co-op initiative is designed to help lineworkers get back to basics, slow down and take time to be safe.

Identifying the problem
About five years ago, the injury rate at electric cooperatives was declining, but a closer look showed that the most serious injuries and fatalities were far too frequent to ignore. From 2006 to 2016, the electric cooperative industry experienced an average of 23 injuries per year. Of those injuries, approximately 40 percent — 10 to 11 per year on average — were from an electrical contact.

“When we looked across the industry, it was the same across communities in the industry, so we started partnering with Federated (the electric co-op insurance company) and meeting with cooperative leaders and looking at what we could do to study the problem,” said Bud Branham, director of safety programs at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “We started looking at that [data] and realized very quickly it’s a cultural- or behavioral-based problem where people — at organizations and co-ops — get blind spots over time, and in those blind spots you might have some inconsistencies in your basic work practices.”

“A lot of times we just focus on the power lines; we don’t focus on the other things around us,” said Dale Kishbaugh, director of safety and loss control at Colorado Rural Electric Association. Things like surrounding traffic, uneven working ground or confined spaces could affect how safely a job is done.

“We want to slow people down, especially on the routine work, and we want to do good job planning,” Branham explained.

Creating the program
Driven by the dedication of the safety of cooperative employees, NRECA, Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange and the safety leaders at the nation’s electric cooperatives introduced the Commitment to Zero Contacts initiative in April 2018. Through the program, participants are asked to take a pledge to take all the necessary steps at work and home to eliminate serious injuries and fatalities.

Following protocols, even if it makes the job longer, means everyone goes home at the end of the day.

Following protocols, even if it makes the job longer, means everyone goes home at the end of the day.

“We also asked senior leaders and the employees at the co-op, especially the field employees, to make a commitment. That commitment is really key,” Branham explained. “All the research shows that when people make a voluntary commitment that links to their internal values and they put it in writing — display it publicly — it has a large effect on changing or affecting their behaviors and awareness.”

“Commitment to Zero is not the next program; it is an initiative focused on eliminating contacts by permanently changing culture and addressing perception and behavior,” noted Corey Parr, Federated vice president of safety and loss prevention. “The initiative is focused on three keys: awareness, expectation and accountability.”

Commitment to Zero Contacts comes with a slate of resources to help electric co-ops get started, including implementation guides, placards, videos and promotional materials. Federated even created an app: S.A.F.E.

An acronym for Stop And Focus Everyday, the S.A.F.E. app is a job-planning tool to help workers avoid missing crucial steps at every job site, especially the most routine jobs where oversight and injuries are most common.

“The intention is just trying to get everybody to do their best every day, and if you see somebody in harm’s way, prevent it before it happens,” Kishbaugh said.

Rolling out the initiative
“We’ve done the groundbreaking with the ‘speak up, listen up’ training,” Kishbaugh said. “We’re just continually going out to support our co-ops and making an effort to get everybody to make that commitment that they’re going to go home the same way they came to work every day.”

Many electric cooperatives already have a safety program established and use the Commitment to Zero Contacts program to enhance it, which is highly encouraged. Fort Collins-based Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association and Mountain View Electric Association, with offices in Falcon, Limon and Monument, are two Colorado cooperatives doing just that.

“When I heard about the program, rather than just jump on it right away, I came back and I talked with our safety team to get their ideas,” said Jeff Wadsworth, president and chief executive officer at PVREA. Wadsworth handed it off to a team of employees, which consisted of linemen, equipment operators, tree trimmers and even office employees who also face work hazards every day.

The PVREA team took the Commitment to Zero Contacts initiative, integrated it into their current safety program and began promoting it with specially-made hard hats, stickers and signs. They even created a video called “This is My Why,” featuring PVREA families who remind their loved ones to be safe on the job, saying: “We want our loved ones home at night,” “So we can grow old together” and “So we can play LEGO games.”

Based on employee feedback, MVEA rolled Commitment to Zero Contacts into its “Commitment to Safety” program that targets three groups within the co-op: leadership, qualified employees and employees who do not work with high voltage. Those in each group were asked to sign a “Commitment to Safety” pledge.

“When employees get hurt, or worse, it affects everyone and changes everyone forever,” said Todd Thomas, safety compliance administrator at MVEA. “This effort is intended to remind us to slow down, be safe and watch out for each other. We do this for ourselves, our families, our friends and our co-workers.”

MVEA’s “Commitment to Safety” logo can be found on all internal memos, the monthly safety posters, in the monthly employee newsletter and on employee wallet cards that highlight MVEA’s Safety Improvement Plan Priorities as well as important RESAP (Rural Electric Safety Achievement Program) information.

As of late February, 14 of those in Colorado’s electric co-op community had made the Commitment to Zero Contacts; 530 co-ops nationwide made the pledge.

“The commitment we ask for is not about people admitting they’re doing anything wrong or that there’s any finger pointing, or blame pointing,” Branham explained. “It has nothing to do with liability. In fact, we hope that the commitment will reduce the exposure, and the co-ops are aware across the country so that we have our people go home safe at night. Basically, that’s the bottom line.”

Amy Higgins is a freelance writer for Colorado Country Life.

Colorado Co-ops Tour Utility-Connected Home

Colorado electric co-op directors and managers have just returned from a national meeting where they had a chance to learn about hundreds of innovative technologies and products that can help their co-op stay current and offer more energy efficiency to consumer-members.

At the TechAdvantage Lab, co-op leaders toured a utility-connected home. The Lab featured tech products that covers the home from the outside in: Doorbell cameras, smart door locks, smart thermostats, smart lights and dimmers, connected garage door openers, a SmartHub voice assistant and, of course, an electric vehicle and home 10kW EV charger.

TechAdvantage also included breakout sessions with speakers talking about the latest and greatest innovations that have the ability to connect consumer-members and co-ops through smart apps, a home hub and home appliances such as water heaters that connect to the grid. These all have the potential to talk to the co-ops directly and maximize energy efficiency.

Sangre de Cristo Electric Association Solar Project Begins Operations

The Trout Creek Solar array went online January 31 and is fully operational. As reported in a late-2018 edition of the Energy Innovations newsletter, the project was approved for construction at the end of August 2018 when Sangre de Cristo Electric Association signed a 36-year site license agreement.

In an innovative partnership with the Colorado Department of Corrections, the site sits on the Buena Vista Correctional Complex property south of Buena Vista.

Trout Creek Solar has 7,952 panels on a sun-tracking system which maximizes production. The array will generate about 5,752 megawatt hours of energy and will generate approximately 4.7 percent of the co-op’s annual energy usage. SDCEA will celebrate the opening of the facility when the weather warms up.

San Isabel Electric Offers EV Rebates

Pueblo-based San Isabel Electric, a not-for-profit electric cooperative serving portions of southern Colorado, is rolling out generous EV rebates for its consumer-members.

In addition to electric vehicle-related rebates of up to $5,000, SIEA offers a discounted rate to consumer-members who wish to charge their EV at home. Residents enrolled in the time-of-day rate can expect to pay as low as 59 cents per equivalent gallon of gas, depending on the time of day they charge their electric vehicle at their residence.

SIEA offers a $500 rebate for the purchase of an eligible EV and up to a $1,000 rebate for the purchase and installation of an EV charging station. It’s also partnered with Nissan to offer a $3,500 rebate to consumer-members who purchase a new Nissan Leaf from participating dealers before April 1.

For more information about San Isabel Electric’s rebates and the Nissan rebate, visit

Empire Electric Holds Popular Recycling Event

For 12 years, Cortez-based Empire Electric Association has held a refrigerator/freezer recycling event for members to turn in up to two inefficient units to receive a $60 credit on their electric account. EEA pays the recycling costs at Montezuma County Landfill, Bob’s Place and the Dove Creek Transfer Station where certified recyclers remove the Freon from the units and dispose of the remaining materials.

Bobbe Jones with Empire Electric states that “The total units recycled to date over the life of the program is 2,813, with a total refund to consumer-members of $139,280.” Empire averages 234 units recycled each year.

Through this innovative program, the electric co-op helps members get rid of old, inefficient units in a safe and environmentally-friendly manner. Many of these units are replaced with new, more efficient appliances that save energy —as well as money — for the members.

It has been a successful program for EEA and has been replicated by other Colorado electric co-ops.

NRECA’s Essence Tool Guarding Grid

By Cathy Cash, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.

Tri-State Hydro Projects Play Central Role in Energy Mix

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

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

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

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

Potential Solar Array for San Miguel Power Association

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

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

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

Mountain Parks Electric Rebates for Green Power

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

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

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

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

For more information about the rebate program, visit

Grand Valley Power Sets Clean Energy Goal

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

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

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

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