The Super Grid: The Path to Wealth on Renewables?

By Reed Karaim

Holy Cross Energy has an ambitious goal: 100% renewable energy sources by 2030. It’s a tall order, complicated by the central Colorado co-op’s mountainous service territory, which isn’t well-suited to wind or solar power generation.

But just 100 miles or so to the east of the co-op’s Glenwood Springs headquarters, the Front Range and eastern plains offer ample wind resources. And the states to its south are among the nation’s solar power leaders.

It’s the lack of transmission that keeps the region’s renewable power from reaching the Western Slope, says Bryan Hannegan, Holy Cross Energy president and CEO.

“Our transmission access is our biggest worry” for meeting the 100% goal, he says.

Hannegan, who served as associate director at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory before joining Holy Cross, sees a solution in the creation of a “super grid.”

The concept, also known as the macro grid, entails uniting the nation’s regional transmission systems with high-voltage, direct current (DC) interties. In particular, it would bridge the seam that runs along the eastern borders of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico between the western and eastern grids and would also tie ERCOT, the wind-rich Texas grid, into a national system.

While at NREL, Hannegan oversaw a study that found a super grid could help reduce costs for consumers by allowing a “balancing of power supply over much larger regions,” he says, “allowing us to harness the resource diversity we have in this country.”

In particular, it would enable greater use of wind and solar power, says Tracy Warren, director of the Macro Grid Initiative at the American Council on Renewable Energy.

“Much of our vast renewable resources are located in remote regions far away from where the power is needed in population-dense areas,” she says.

Being able to move solar and wind power to those areas could increase the utility of renewable generation. One scenario outlined in a study showed a hypothetical heat wave in August causing air conditioners to drive up demand. As the sun moved across the United States, solar plants in the West sent power eastward, limiting the need for expensive peak-load, fossil fuel generation. As the sun moved west and began to set, midwestern wind farms — today in the eastern grid — sent power westward to relieve pressure on the coast’s coal- and gas-fired generation.

Worth the cost?
The price tag for building the DC transmission necessary to create a coast-to-coast super grid would be eye-popping: The NREL study estimated it could cost at least $80 billion, but it could return economic benefits of twice that amount.

“By every measure, a more interconnected grid delivered better outcomes — lower carbon emissions, lower cost to consumers, better reliability,” says Hannegan, along with job creation and other economic benefits in the parts of the country where more renewable energy generation would be built.

But a super grid would also face significant challenges.

“Any transmission beyond a local, minimal addition to an existing line is going to be met with huge amounts of opposition,” says National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Chief Engineer Paul McCurley. “Not just technical, geographic, economic and environmental challenges but many not-in-my-backyard battles.”

Patti Metro, senior grid operations and reliability director at NRECA, says DC interties and converter stations for the three alternating current (AC) grids, which are not synchronous, would be complicated and expensive but would not require new technology.

Much of the recent focus in the industry has been on reducing, not expanding, the distance power travels, turning to more localized, distributed generation that integrates renewables sources like solar and tends to reduce the need for new transmission facilities, Metro says.

Another issue is the allocation of costs. Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a co-op power supplier based in North Dakota, operates coal, gas and wind generation to serve 140 member systems, including Colorado’s Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which serves 17 of the state’s 22 electric co-ops. As the demand for power grows, “new transmission development is probably going to be essential, and if there’s a transition to more renewable energy, that’s only going to add to the demand,” says Tom Christensen, Basin’s senior vice president for transmission.

But, he adds, the construction cost of a super grid raises concerns, even if it eventually saves money.

“Regardless of who funds it — banks, utilities, whoever — the point would be that, ultimately, some set of retail customers will have to pay. It will show up in customer bills,” he says.

Rural, sparsely populated areas like the Great Plains, where wind generation is expanding, should not be asked to bear costs that exceed the benefits to their region if the transmission is largely carrying the power elsewhere, Christensen says.

He notes the super grid would require unprecedented coordination on a national scale to make sure the connections were cost effective, a task that’s generally handled by regional transmission organizations (RTOs).

“In general, when it’s transmission planned by an RTO, you really get a cost-effective solution, and you hopefully get an equitable distribution of cost to consumers,” he says, but a macro grid would cross RTOs, complicating planning.

He could see starting a buildout of regional grid interties on a smaller scale: “a more measured approach, going through the RTOs, trying to be very careful determining what’s economically justified.”

Warren acknowledges the macro grid will require large-scale planning but reiterates that transmission investments will pay dividends. She points to a study that shows increased transmission development at the “seams” between regions could save consumers up to $47 billion annually and return more than $2.50 for every dollar invested.

She sees the macro grid working in concert with more localized generation to help the country reach the ambitious clean energy goals states are setting and the Biden administration has promised at the national level.

To meet goals like those, “it’s all hands on deck,” Warren says. “It’s a large-scale challenge that demands a large-scale solution.”

This article was reprinted with permission from the April issue of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s RE Magazine.

Electric Co-op Fiber Subsidiary Partners with School District

Steamboat Springs-based electric cooperative Yampa Valley Electric Association and its fiber internet subsidiary, Luminate, recently announced a project partnership with South Routt School District.

Luminate will help bring internet access and services to students, teachers and other district staff who currently lack stable and reliable internet for virtual learning. The district applied for and was awarded funds through the Connecting Colorado Students Grant Program that will assist in the buildout costs. Nearly 1,200 homes and district campuses will be set up with access to gigabit fiber. Service is expected to begin at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, serving the Oak Creek, Phippsburg and Yampa communities in northwestern Colorado.

District superintendent Rim Watson stated that the district is fortunate to have a partnership with Luminate and YVEA, as both entities understand the role of quality internet service in the success of students, some of whom had no internet access at all when school went remote in 2020.

Luminate is grateful to partner with the district for this necessary service, YVEA General Manager and CEO Steve Johnson said in a February press release.

Electric Co-op Brings EV Infrastructure to Southern Colorado

In February, Durango-based electric cooperative La Plata Electric Association announced exciting electric vehicle news for two communities it serves.

The town of Bayfield and LPEA joined together to bring 24/7 access to a free Level II EV charging station located in Bayfield’s town hall parking lot. A grant from the Colorado Energy Office’s Charge Ahead Program and LPEA funding made the charging station possible.

Located one-half mile from Highway 160 — one of the EV charging corridors identified by the CEO — the station brings charging access to regional travelers as well as local residents. It has spots for two vehicles to charge at the same time and can deliver a full charge in about 4 hours. The station will have zero fees until Labor Day 2021.

And to the west in nearby Durango, the city’s first-ever EV DC fast-charging station was approved for construction and is expected to be energized by June 2021. The station will be located in the Durango Transit Center parking lot, next to the two existing Level II charging stations. The DC fast chargers will deliver a full charge in approximately 20 minutes, compared to the 4 hours that it takes a Level II charger.

LPEA is certain these two innovative EV charging infrastructure updates to its communities will encourage people to make the switch to EVs.

First EV Fast Charger Energized in Montrose

Delta-Montrose Electric Association connected Montrose’s first DC electric vehicle fast-charging station in January.

The electric co-op owns and operates the two ChargePoint Dual Platform fast chargers that were made possible with help from a grant from the Colorado Energy Office’s Charge Ahead program. DMEA donated in-kind labor to bring the electric service to the EV chargers, while the Charge Ahead grant funded approximately 80% of the construction costs. A partnership with the city of Montrose brought about the public parking space and lot maintenance where the chargers are located.

The charging fee at DMEA’s Montrose ChargePoint Fast Charger is 20 cents per kilowatt hour, plus a 25 cent per minute parking fee. EV travelers will enjoy their stop in downtown Montrose for a quick charge, and, while waiting, drivers will be able to support nearby businesses and restaurants.

This is not the first charging station in DMEA’s service territory. Montrose’s new fast charger brings the count of public EV chargers to 31, spread across the communities of Delta, Cedaredge, Paonia, Montrose and near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Co-op Women in Power

By Sharon Sullivan

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

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

Jessica Matlock

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

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

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

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

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

Ginny Buczek

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

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

Barbara Walz

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

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

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

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

Sylvia Spangler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YVEA Unveils New EV Fast Charger

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

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

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

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