By Derrill Holly and Kylee Coleman
Keeping essential parts flowing is getting more challenging and expensive for Colorado’s distribution cooperatives pursuing their seasonal workplans or rebuilding their systems after major outages. But logistics and supply co-ops in Colorado and across the United States are finding creative solutions to help control costs and meet demand, even as they warn that stability in the supply chain could be many months away.
“The supply chain supporting the electric utility industry has been put to the test over the past 24 months with an array of events,” Brighton-based Western United Electric Supply CEO Greg Mordini said. WUE, owned by electric cooperatives, serves co-ops in the states of Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
WUE is one of nine members of the Electric Utility Distribution Association. EUDA members are noting shortages of key items such as transformers, conductors, sectionalized three-phase cabinets used on distribution systems and meter sockets required to install new service.
Fort Morgan-based electric cooperative Morgan County Rural Electric Association has been feeling the increasing impacts of supply chain issues.
“Two of the most challenging products to get are currently meter sockets and transformers, many of which are over a year out on delivery,” MCREA Manager of Member Services Rob Baranowski said. “Also, some of the materials used to connect lines and equipment, and also secure lines to poles have become completely unavailable.”
The current transformer shortage is perpetuated by inadequate global manufacturing capacity and stalled delivery of raw materials. Mordini noted that steel used in transformer cores has limited annual production. Overhead and underground conductor producers initially had product available but were unable to ship due to shortages in wood and the reels they use to transport the supplies. “Furthermore, the February 2021 freeze and power grid failure in Texas paralyzed the plastics market and triggered a global shortage,” Mordini said.
However, proactive measures by WUE have helped provide its member cooperatives with good equipment and supply levels during these challenging times. Beginning in early 2020, WUE made a conscious effort to increase inventory and, even with the supply chain disruptions, has grown inventory by 55% as of this past February.
Distribution co-ops planned ahead, too. MCREA’s pole yard is currently fully stocked. “Just as WUE has increased inventory over the last year and a half, MCREA has been ordering ahead and increasing inventory ever since shortages were first noticed,” Baranowski reported. “This keeps the co-op’s material inventory up and the co-op remains ready to meet any rebuilding demands.”
Across the country, other EUDA members responded similarly to the way WUE did to supply challenges by broadening their vendor bases, turning to more manufacturers and encouraging others to expand their product lines. “We are getting letters from manufacturers and their representatives about lead time extensions, price increases, shipping delays and production curtailments,” said Bret Curry, manager of sales for Little Rock-based Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc.
AECI is another member of EUDA noting spot shortages of key items such as transformers, fiberglass cross arms and three-phase cabinets and meter sockets.
“You wouldn’t think that something so simple as a piece of bent metal with a socket to hold a meter would be that difficult [to locate], but there is definitely a shortage of those,” Curry said. “Challenges to this industry right now certainly give opportunities for those that are creative to get in the game.”
WUE chose to curtail sales to new customers and reserve material for its historical customer base. “Many of our manufacturing partners have followed suit, working only with established clients,” Mordini said. “This has led to a normalization in our market, not due to production increases or decreased demand, but rather manufacturers and distributors being focused on their core business partners.”
Current supply chain problems across the electric industry as a whole are the worst many industry veterans have seen in their careers. They compare them to temporary disruptions from previous major weather events that produced widespread damage across multiple regions.
Despite these challenges, creative solutions and product substitutions can help electric distribution co-ops maintain, build and expand their systems, Baranowski said, “For projects where meter socket orders would create delays, crews now often install underground wire to a ground-mounted meter pedestal.” He explained that’s not the only thing the co-op has recently modified. “We have also received requests for design changes allowing co-op consumer-members to buy their own transformer.”
While EUDA members don’t think supply and delivery challenges will last forever, most agree that is for the foreseeable future, continued planning may help co-op limit disruptions to their members. “MCREA consumer-members have remained understanding during these supply-chain challenges,” Baranowski said. “Our engineering department communicates directly with members requesting new services about expected project time frames, current delays and potential material substitutions.”
“Western United’s strong partnership with manufacturers throughout the industry and our commitment to placing the highest priority on our membership ensures we are in the best position to support our cooperative members throughout this challenging period,” Mordini concluded.
Derrill Holly writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association. Kylee Coleman is the Editorial/Administrative Assistant for Colorado Country Life magazine and writes about Colorado electric co-op news for CREA.
Digital communication can often be sporadic and interrupted in Colorado’s rugged, mountainous high country. Gunnison-based electric co-op, GCEA, was concerned that interruptions in its digital communication with its advanced meters was affecting the accuracy of the readings.
Looking for solutions and verification of the data received from its advanced meters, GCEA ran an innovative pilot program last fall and winter. Called Peak Time Perks, the program tested GCEA’s Meter Data Management system. (The MDM system recognizes readings that are missing, flags them and runs estimations on the missing readings to fill in the correct data. The estimations are based on data industry-accepted validation processes established by the North American Energy Standards Board and the Edison Electric Institute.)
GCEA found that in actuality few communication outages prevented readings from reporting to co-op headquarters. And when outages did occur, the missing readings were estimated correctly by the MDM system.
All of this is important because co-op members who utilize the co-op’s time-of-use rate depend on accurate digital records as they control their usage to take advantage of lower rates at certain times. So, during the Peak Time Perks pilot program, GCEA also included a test of its time-of-use rate with members interested in seeing if the rate would provide them with actual savings on their electric bill.
The co-op and it participating members were pleased to see cost savings on the TOU rate compared to the standard residential rate.
Earlier this year, United Power announced that it signed a letter of intent with Transitional Energy, a geothermal development company, to develop a dispatchable energy pilot program. This innovative program will focus on geothermal resources from oil and gas operations located in the Brighton-based electric cooperative’s service territory.
United Power provides electric service to multiple oil and gas operations in Colorado’s DJ Oil Basin, many of which use traditional electric service to power drilling rigs and other equipment. The partnership between United Power and Transitional Energy will provide a unique solution that can convert oil and gas operations using traditional electric service to facilities powered by up to 100% geothermal resources. It’s anticipated that owner-operators of wells in the United Power service territory will work directly with Transitional Energy to utilize the technology to offset their energy purchases while reducing their greenhouse gas footprint.
“United Power is excited to work on this innovative pilot project,” United Power’s Chief Energy Resources Officer Dean Hubbuck said in a press release. “Utilizing clean, economical geothermal energy to provide local power that can be dispatched when needed is a critical component of our growing energy portfolio. Geothermal energy represents a huge untapped renewable resource that can reduce our reliance on power from other traditional sources.”
From turtles to AMI, electric co-ops lead the way
By Paul Wesslund and Amy Higgins
An amazing gizmo hiding in plain sight just outside your home is innovating your electric service with quicker responses to power outages and more effective use of renewable energy sources. It’s your electric meter, your digitally advanced meter.
Advanced meters make up more than half the electric meters in the country, and electric cooperatives are leading the way. A total of 73% of co-op consumer-members nationwide are using advanced meters compared to only 58% of utility customers in general. In Colorado, 100% of the state’s 22 electric distribution co-ops utilize advanced meters and have for years.
Southeast Colorado Power Association, headquartered in La Junta, has been using automated meter reading for roughly 20 years. Those first meters seem somewhat archaic when you compare them to today’s meters. Nicknamed “turtles” for their super- slow readings — 27 hours, according to SECPA CEO Kevin Brandon — turtles were still a step up for electric co-ops at the time because they limited the number of trips needed to physically obtain readings.
“When Empire Electric Association switched to AMI [advanced metering infrastructure] meters in 2018, I was surprised at the number of calls we received concerning what will happen to our meter readers,” says EEA Member Engagement Manager Andy Carter. “EEA [based in Cortez] had been using an automated meter-reading system since the late 1990s, the last time we employed people to walk/drive around and read meters by looking at the dials.”
Two features make advanced meters different. One is the ability to monitor energy use with the kind of detail that can give both the co-op and its members information to make more efficient use of electricity. The other is the ability to instantly send information back to the co-op either through low-power radio signals or through power lines.
Those two capabilities have created entirely new ways to improve your electric service:
• Outages can be detected and repaired faster. Advanced meters can let the co-op know of an interruption, pinpointing the location, without waiting for someone to report it. This is especially beneficial to electric cooperatives based in rural areas with larger swaths of land and hard-to-reach meters. “SECPA’s system collects 15-minute interval data on all meters, and you can do on-demand reads for things like kWh (kilowatt-hours), voltage, current, power factor, and other values, and have those reads within just a few seconds,” Brandon explains. “This system also allows us to remotely connect and disconnect meters, which saves on truck rolls. The meters also automatically send in many types of alarm conditions like power fail, brown out, meter tamper and over current.”
• Electricity can be used more efficiently. Advanced meters can report unusual energy use, showing appliances that might be faulty or could be replaced with a more efficient version. SmartHub has become a popular application for many electric cooperatives as it is a win-win for both the consumer and the co-op. Consumers can see their usage data, which gives them insight into information such as spike periods, so they can adjust how and when they use energy to save money.
• Alternative energy can be better integrated into the electric grid. Advanced meters can help cure one of the headaches of renewable energy when solar energy disappears at night or wind power stops in calm weather. Data from advanced meters can be instantly analyzed by computers and coordinated with power plants, rooftop solar panels and wind turbines.
• Advanced meters can save consumers money on their electric bill. Several electric cooperatives are implementing time-of-use rates, which charges for electric use based on off-peak (when electricity costs less) and on-peak hours (when electricity costs more). AMI provides detailed data so consumers can track their energy usage. “If they dig down into the hourly data, they can get a good idea of when they are using the most energy,” Carter says. “Depending on what was being used, they may be able to shift that energy use from on-peak to off-peak time and save money.”
• Consumers can get the most out of their rooftop solar. AMI shares with the consumer and the cooperative measurements such as net energy used, energy delivered to the consumer and the energy put back on the grid. “This gives the consumer a better understanding of how they use their appliances relative to their rooftop solar system’s generation,” explains Sarah McMahon, chief administrative officer with SDCEA, a Buena Vista-based electric co-op. “If the consumer is on a time-of-day rate, this capability informs the consumer on changes to their use behavior that may result in significant savings on their bill.”
• Co-op members can be involved in a more decentralized electricity system. Rooftop solar panels and electric vehicles make complicated additions to a utility network, but those can be turned into benefits by analyzing the data provided by advanced meters. For example, as EVs become more popular, electric co-ops are exploring special rates to encourage charging at times when energy use is lower.
• Co-op operations can be streamlined. Faulty equipment can be detected before it fails.
Some individual consumer-members have opted out of using these technology-based advanced meters. Concerns include health effects of their radio signals and privacy. The health concerns have been addressed by the American Cancer Society.
“The ACS suggests that because the amount of radio frequency exposure from advanced meters is much less than those from everyday devices, it is very unlikely that they could pose greater health risks,” says Tolu Omotoso, director of energy solutions for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Omotoso cites studies that show the strength of advanced meter transmissions is far below those from a cellphone. They’re even less than a TV’s remote control. Advanced meter signals also weaken with distances of even 1 foot. Omotoso says advanced meters aren’t even on all the time: “They transmit data back to the co-op only a couple times in a day, and each transmission takes milliseconds.”
Other concerns include privacy. However, electric co-ops have a long tradition of protecting the data of their members, Omotoso says.
“Load is load and we do not have the ability to differentiate,” Carter adds. “It can’t hear what you say, it doesn’t have a camera — it’s just a kWh meter that can send data and receive commands to turn itself on and off.”
Electric co-ops adopted digital meters to avoid traveling long distances through rural areas just to read an electric meter, Omotoso says. Co-ops kept up that progress, adding other devices to create a new concept of the electric utility grid from a one-way delivery of electricity to an interactive network of power and data between the co-op and its members.
“In the utility industry of the future, you’re looking at decentralized energy use and generation, digitization and decarbonization of the grid,” Omotoso says. “Advanced meters will help utilities and energy consumers transition into this new future.”
Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Amy Higgins is a freelance writer for Colorado Country Life and CREA.
Glenwood Springs-based electric cooperative Holy Cross Energy is focused on facilitating the adoption of distributed energy resources to assist in meeting its goal of supplying its members with 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
More recently, HCE was looking for an innovative solution to gather real-time data about its members’ electricity patterns to help study grid use and impact. Advanced metering infrastructure does a decent job delivering this information to the co-op, but HCE wanted grid insight that was nearer to real-time.
The co-op turned to Boulder-based Copper Labs, which offers a utility data solution that can deliver the information the co-op was seeking. With Copper, HCE evaluated members’ energy use and used the data to see how people’s electricity usage behavior changed when they saw real-time, personalized insights on the Copper app. HCE members who used Copper were twice as likely to reduce their energy use when prompted by the Copper app — this translated to lower peak time energy use, resulting in lower service costs for the member.
In an effort to coordinate program development for transportation electrification, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association started a network of electric co-ops that make up the Cooperative Approach to Vehicle Electrification. This group is for electric co-ops that implemented or are planning to implement electric transportation programs. CAVE seeks to work with federal agencies, specifically, for programs funded by the 2021 $1 trillion infrastructure act.
Cooperatives’ transportation electrification programs will vary by region, state, local communities and cooperative needs. But overall, the CAVE network has several objectives, which include:
• Building innovative solutions that focus on charging infrastructure in rural and low-income communities.
• Creating education-based programs to inform consumers, dealers and policy makers on the value of electric transportation.
• Exploring options for fleets, transit bus, school bus and medium/heavy duty truck adoption and charging solutions.
• Demonstrating unique programs and best practices that utilize technologies to improve grid reliability.
Currently, three Colorado electric cooperatives are part of CAVE: La Plata Electric Association in Durango; San Isabel Electric Association in Pueblo West; and United Power in Brighton. These three cooperatives have made a significant impact on transportation electrification in Colorado.
SIEA brought EV charging to its service territory, including low income rural areas. LPEA is developing a robust network of charging stations across southern Colorado and assisted its local school district in securing a vehicle-to-grid-capable electric school bus. United Power is expanding its network of charging stations throughout northern Colorado and added a hybrid bucket truck to its fleet.