Small Hydro Pioneers Create Big Waves

In Western Colorado, there is a group of small-hydro pioneers working with their local electric cooperatives. These individuals re-contextualized a very old and well known concept and are truly transforming the regional and national opportunities for hydropower generation. To successfully develop a small hydro generating system it takes vision, persistence and risk. Three of these pioneers are members of San Miguel Power Association:

Project One: Owned by the city of Ouray and built off an abandoned 6-inch water line that ran through town, this hydro facility is the product of a visionary citizen and former mayor of Ouray, Bob Risch. Up against funding, engineering and construction challenges, Risch’s vision became a community-building, energy-harnessing, money-saving reality.

Project Two: The San Juan Historical Society Mayflower Mill hydro-plant in Silverton. In order to become a legally established generator, small hydro plants such as this one had to tackle onerous federal regulations originally developed for projects like the Hoover Dam. Usually, such regulations become deal breakers for such small systems. But because of the influence and persistence of Mayflower Mill developers like Beverly Rich and Kurt Johnson, federal regulations were drastically improved to make licensing for small hydro projects attainable. New regulations for this and other small hydro projects were established because of their persistence.

Project Three: Located in Nucla and single-handedly developed by Terry Boekhout, this hydro facility came to be despite the risky environment that shrouds nearly every aspect of hydro-electricity generation. Unknown project costs, elusive government and utility incentives, tricky National Electric Code requirements and the utility net metering policy were all obstacles in the development of this small-hydro facility. Boekhout was the glue that kept the construction of the project, including the penstock, the inlet and outlet, the generator house, the overall design of the site, and all the other unknowns, from flying out of control.

While the challenges are many, each project has been made possible through the efforts of these passionate individuals and the cooperation of their local electric cooperative. Each hydro project is vastly unique, but each is also driven by individuals who are willing to transcend the risk move ahead with their vision. This is the true mark of a pioneer.

Special Programs Promote Energy Efficiency

Gunnison County Electric Association, based in Gunnison, offers several options to its member-owners to help them become more energy efficient. GCEA and the town of Crested Butte installed a community solar garden where members can lease a 250-watt solar panel. Each panel is expected to produce 1.3 kWh per day. In addition, the electric cooperative offers:
• Free home energy audits
• Rebates on LED lights
• Rebates on energy efficient appliances
• Assistance with efficient lighting in commercial buildings
• A Prepay Program

GCEA members can also go green by participating in its Green Power Program. The program gives members the choice of powering their homes with clean energy. GCEA purchases green power at a premium from its power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and passes the cost of green power to participating members.

Electric Co-ops Excited to Bring More Energy Efficiency to Dairy Farmers

Electric co-ops in Colorado will be partnering with the Colorado Energy Office, which recently announced a $1.1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture award to help finance energy efficiency improvements for Colorado farmers.

The award comes through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program and is matched through a $1.3 million cash and in-kind combined contribution from CEO, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and utility and industry partners such as Colorado’s electric cooperatives. The funds will help finance energy and water saving projects identified through CEO’s Colorado Dairy and Irrigation Efficiency Program.

Over the two-year grant period, the efficiency improvements are expected to achieve more than 5,250 megawatt-hours of electricity savings and 524,000 gallons of water savings annually.

“Over the last two years the Colorado Energy Office laid the foundation and identified significant opportunities for cost-effective energy savings in Colorado’s agriculture industry. Having USDA on-board as a funding partner helps overcome the upfront investment barrier so farmers can affordably build out projects that can provide long-term savings,” said CEO Director Jeff Ackermann.

The electric co-ops were an integral part of the program when it was launched in 2015 in territory served by Morgan County Rural Electric Association and Highline Electric Association. Its purpose was to provide agricultural producers free energy audits and technical assistance designed to select and implement cost-effective improvements that will reduce energy, water and operating costs.

So far, 63 producers have participated and 2,800 MWh of potential electricity savings have been identified through the audits. The program will expand to 200 producers during the next two years and is expected to generate more than $4.5 million in potential savings in only five years.

“This grant will enable the implementation of cost-effective projects identified through Colorado’s statewide program, while meeting NRCS’s goal to integrate energy conservation into agricultural practices,” said Clint Evans, state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Colorado’s agriculture industry faces direct energy expenses of more than $400 million annually that account for 7 percent of the industry’s overall expenses, according to CEO’s 2013 Agricultural Energy Market Research Report. The report identifies 90,000 MWh of potential electricity savings annually and identifies dairies and irrigators as the most energy intense sectors with the greatest opportunity for savings.

Co-ops Vote Initiative is Devoted to Rural Issues

By Justin LaBerge

In two months, Americans will go to the polls and cast votes for a president, 34 senators, 435 members of Congress, 12 governors, 5,920 state legislators and countless other local races.

While the presidential race is at the top of most voters’ minds, it is the state and local races that have a more direct and immediate impact on the “kitchen table” issues that matter most to families. For rural America, the stakes in this election are especially high.

An annual snapshot prepared by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported, “rural employment in mid-2015 was still 3.2 percent below its prerecession peak in 2007.”

That same report found that rural America continues to experience population decline driven by migration of residents to larger urban areas.

The trends underlying much of this migration — issues such as globalization, technology advances and the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-and knowledge-based economy — are largely beyond the control of any community, state or even country.

If rural America is to enjoy a prosperous future, it will be thanks to the ingenuity, self-reliance and determination of its people.

The rural electrification movement is a prime example of this.

When for-profit utilities based in urban areas declined to build electric lines in sparsely populated rural areas, the residents of those communities banded together to form cooperatives and build their own systems with the help of government loans.

Today, America’s electric cooperatives are finding new ways to support and promote the interests of the communities they serve.

One program that is particularly relevant today is the Co-ops Vote initiative. This nonpartisan, nationwide program is designed to promote civic engagement and voter participation in communities served by electric cooperatives.

Co-op members can go to to gather information on the voter registration process in their state, dates of elections, information on the candidates running in those elections and explanations of key issues affecting rural America.

Visitors to the website can also take a pledge to be a co-op voter. By taking this pledge, they can send a message to candidates at all levels of government that electric cooperative members will be showing up at the polls in force and are paying close attention to the issues that impact the quality of life in their communities.

Mil Duncan, a noted scholar on rural economic development issues, said in a recent essay, “Far and away the biggest challenge rural development practitioners face is the need for greater human capital — for more leaders, more entrepreneurs… .”

To answer the call for more rural leaders, America’s electric cooperatives created the Washington, D.C., Youth Tour program.

Each year, approximately 1,700 high school students representing electric cooperatives from across the nation converge in Washington, D.C., for a weeklong, all-expense paid leadership development experience.

Several previous Youth Tour participants became university presidents, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and members of Congress. Many more returned home to serve in the many underappreciated leadership roles — coaches, small-business owners, church deacons, county commissioners — that form the backbone of our communities.

Members of cooperatives are empowered to explore different approaches to solving problems and figure out what solutions are best for their community. This applies to the energy sources they use to generate electricity, the technologies they use to operate the system and the policies and procedures they adopt. What works for co-op members in Colorado might not be right for co-op members in Oregon.

The same holds true for rural economic development, according to Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy & Competitiveness.

In its list of six key steps for boosting rural economies, Harvard researchers said, “Rural economic development should focus on the unique strengths of each area rather than concentrating on ameliorating generic weaknesses.”

While many rural communities face similar challenges driven by similar factors, the best way to address those issues can vary widely from community to community.

When electric cooperatives brought electricity to rural America, the playing field leveled and small towns experienced a renaissance. A similar trend is unfolding as broadband access makes its way to more rural communities.

One recent high-profile example involves Christopher Ingraham, a data journalist at The Washington Post.

In 2015, he wrote a short article based on a data set from the USDA that ranked American communities on qualities that are often indicators of desirable places to live. The community with the lowest score in the USDA ranking was Red Lake County in Minnesota.

His story generated a lot of comments, including many from the people of Red Lake County who encouraged him to come out for a visit. He did, and was struck by the kindness of the residents and beauty of the landscape.

As a journalist who writes about data, Ingraham isn’t tied to any particular location. As long as he has a reliable high-speed internet connection, he can download the government data sets he needs to do his job and email his editor the finished stories.

In March of this year, he announced in another story that Red Lake County won him over, and he planned to move there with his wife and young children.

He can make this move because of high-speed broadband.

The shift to a knowledge-based economy might be hurting some traditional rural industries, but as more and more companies embrace “teleworking,” employees who were forced to move to large cities to work in certain industries can keep their jobs while working remotely from rural communities.

Expanding access to broadband in rural areas is one of the key issues addressed by the Co-ops Vote program, and Ingraham’s story is just one example why.

The challenges facing rural America will not be solved by one person, one idea or one action. But on November 8, we will determine which leaders we trust to enact policies that will help small communities help themselves.

Study the issues that are critical to the future of your community, look at the positions and backgrounds of every candidate running for every race from president to county road commissioner, decide which ones are best qualified to address these issues and then join millions of fellow electric cooperative members at the polls.

Justin LaBerge writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

New Community Solar Project Helps Income-Qualified Households

Households in Colorado with income less than 80 percent of the area median, also known as income-qualified households, may face utility bills up to 15 percent of their net household income, depending on the season, reports show. In comparison, non income-qualified households typically pay less than 4 percent for their utility bills.

To help alleviate a portion of this utility cost burden, Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy is partnering with GRID Alternatives Colorado and the Colorado Energy Office to implement an income-qualified community solar array project.

Currently underway at the Cooley-Mesa campus in the town of Gypsum is the construction of a 145 kilowatt solar photovoltaic array. The estimated cost of the array is $450,000. However, this cost will be reduced by a $205,000 grant awarded to the project. HCE will own, operate and maintain this array. When completed, the array will produce approximately 218,000 kWh/year of clean, environmentally friendly electric energy – enough to meet the needs of 18 to 20 local homes this year.

The project is designed to help establish monthly electric bill credits for eligible income-qualified households that receive service from the electric cooperative for a two-year participation period. On an annual basis, this program is expected to provide a 50 percent reduction in the participant’s electricity bill, resulting in tangible utility savings for income-qualified households.

All eligible participants receive, with no up-front cost, a pro rata share of the generation capacity of the solar array. This percentage is applied to the actual monthly production of the array. Their calculated kilowatt-hour production is then multiplied by a preset energy rate to determine the bill credit. Though bill credit amounts may exceed the actual amount due, a minimum electric bill will be paid monthly by each participant. Any excess bill credit amount will carry forward to the next month.

A unique feature of this project, intended to manage overall costs, is the community “barn-raising” approach for installing the array. There will be several volunteer day opportunities for qualified program participants, elected officials, HCE employees and board of directors, and others to roll up their sleeves and furnish some sweat equity for the benefit of the project.

GRID will be responsible for the administration, coordination and selection of the first group of income-qualified households to participate in the project.

Electric Co-op Adds Additional Solar Farm

A 130-acre solar farm three miles east of downtown Fort Lupton is now producing power. The project began in late 2014 after Brighton-based United Power initiated an effort to incorporate cost-effective renewable energy sources to help meet renewable energy goals.

Partnering with solar developer Silicon Ranch Corporation, Silicon Ranch will own and operate the solar farm, while United Power receives all the energy produced over a 20-year period.

The 13-megawatt farm is expected to produce about 30 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year from approximately 150,000 solar panels – enough to power 3,100 homes. The solar field is a single axis tracker, which means that the panels follow the sun throughout the day. This generates about 25 percent more energy than a traditional fixed panel system.

“Not only does this solar field significantly contribute to United Power’s overall renewable generation portfolio,” said Jerry Marizza, new energy program coordinator at United Power. “But it also makes business sense by helping United Power stabilize future rates to all its members.”

The Fort Lupton solar site, along with other renewable projects, helps United Power meet its statutory legal requirements to have 20 percent of its generation produced with renewable energy. It also generates a margin for United Power which correspondingly helps all its members by stabilizing future rate increases.

Solar Facility Under Construction in Electric Co-op Territory

Another two-megawatts of solar energy is coming to Fort Collins, increasing Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association’s energy portfolio. Through a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement with Silicon Ranch Corporation, over 24,000 more solar panels will be added at the existing Skylark Solar Facility in Weld County.

“With the continuation of added load to our system and the competitive pricing large-scale solar projects offer, adding another source of renewable energy to our members’ local electric grid makes sense,” PVREA CEO Jeff Wadsworth explains.

Dubbed Skylark II, construction recently started and PVREA hopes to see these panels energized by the end of 2016.

Learn more about PVREA’s renewable energy projects at

Group Effort Generates New Solar Garden in Southwest Colorado

Josh Dellinger (foreground) and Clint Rapier measure the framework that will hold the solar panels.

Josh Dellinger (foreground) and Clint Rapier measure the framework that will hold the solar panels.

A collaborative effort between three renewable energy supporters made Empire Electric Association’s Solar Assist Cooperative Garden a reality. The story of the partnership between the Cortez-based electric co-op and GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit from California, started when GRID reached out to EEA through the Colorado Energy Office.

By February 2016 the agreement was in place between EEA and GRID and construction began. The arrays were completed in April, thus making EEA the first system in the state of Colorado to partner with the Colorado Energy Office and GRID.

GRID received $1.2 million in grant money from the Colorado Energy Office to partner with Colorado co-ops and bring community solar to low-income families. GRID made a proposal to EEA for the installation of the 70 solar photovoltaic panels that produces 21.35 kilowatts in these arrays. In addition, GRID promised to be on site to train and lead teams of community volunteers and job trainees installing the solar structure. Through this program, five to 10 qualifying EEA members will see a reduction on their electric bills depending on how much energy the arrays generate.

EEA General Manager Josh Dellinger said, “The board feels that projects like this that benefit our community are in the best interest of our members as a whole. EEA has a long history of donating to organizations with various needs in our community and is glad to support our members.”

The volunteer solar installers included three Empire Electric employees, including Dellinger, as well as Montezuma-Cortez High School senior students, potential solar subscribers, student trainees from the Navajo Technical University in New Mexico and residents from Cortez.

The preparation for the expansion was completed and ready for the volunteers to finish the project in two days. Upon arrival, the volunteers were issued a hard hat, safety glasses, work gloves and a reflective vest. GRID divided the community volunteers into work teams headed by a GRID team leader. The volunteers got to work and eagerly helped assemble the arrays.

Dellinger volunteered on the first work day, helping install the framework for the solar panels to rest on. Dellinger said it was great to see potential subscribers contributing to the project. “It was also good to see volunteers from the high school participate,” he said. “It is nice when people come together on a project that will benefit members of our community.”

Day two included a dismal forecast of rain and snow. The job for the day was to secure and connect solar panels to the gleaming double tracks that were installed the previous day. Panel cables were attached to the inverters and the panels were secured using special fasteners. Once the cables were attached, a light flashed on the inverter, completing the connection.

Cold, wet and job complete, the volunteers pose for a group photo.

Cold, wet and job complete, the volunteers pose for a group photo.

EEA system engineer Clint Rapier volunteered at the project and was impressed by the preparation GRID Alternatives made: the preassembled tool kits, personal protective equipment, safety plan, briefing and organization. “It was apparent GRID had done this before and had refined the process,” Rapier said.

“Volunteering brings a sense of pride when working on projects for our community,” said EEA communications specialist Denise Moore, who also volunteered on the project. “Even though it was cold and we were soaking wet, everyone was there to get the job done. Working with such positive people made the job go quickly, and it was an inspiration to be involved in this uplifting community project.

The Solar Assist Cooperative Garden is located on EEA’s property in Cortez where it is maintained by the cooperative. Members can lease solar panels for a 20-year period and receive credit for the power generated by their panel.

Green Power Program Still Benefiting Electric Co-op Members

Throughout the U.S., there is an increased demand to further develop sustainable and renewable clean energy sources such as solar power and wind energy to promote Green Power programs. Mountain View Electric Association, with offices in Limon and Falcon, started offering Green Power in 2000 at the cost of $2.50 per 100-kilowatt-hour block. Today, the cost is only 10 cents per 100 kWh block (in addition to the member’s base rate).

Co-op members who choose to participate in MVEA’s Green Power program are purchasing renewable energy credits, known as RECs, which are either purchased on the open market or from Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s own REC portfolio. Tri-State, MVEA’s power supplier, is dedicated to developing renewable sources of energy and incorporating them into its resource planning. Its commitment to ongoing development ensures Green Power is readily available to electric cooperative members.

Tri-State’s renewable energy projects in Colorado include wind farms, small solar farms and small hydropower projects. When members sign-up to participate in MVEA’s Green Power program, they are not only helping to fund these projects but also the creation and expansion of future renewable energy projects for future generations. Members who purchase RECs through MVEA’s Green Power program know that their money is going to support the continued development of renewable energy resources.

For the average residential consumer that uses 1,000 kilo-watt hours per month, opting in to MVEA’s Green Power program would be an additional investment of only $1 a month. For those wanting to contribute more or less, 100-kWh blocks may be purchased for 10 cents each.

Electric Cooperative Investing in Local Solar

Solar energy, generated from locally-based solar panels will soon be powering the homes of United Power members.

Early stages of construction on the 130-acre solar farm.

Early stages of construction on the 130-acre solar farm.

Silicon Ranch will own and operate the facility and United Power will buy and distribute the electricity over a 20-year period.In late 2014, Brighton-based United Power initiated an effort to incorporate cost-effective local renewable energy sources to complement the power it purchased from its power supplier. To help meet its renewable energy goals, United Power partnered with Silicon Ranch Corporation, one of the nation’s leading developers, owners and operators of solar energy facilities. Through that partnership, the local electric cooperative will buy the electricity generation by the 13-megawatt solar farm 3 miles east of downtown Fort Lupton.

“United Power’s staff worked diligently to acquire this project and to set the power purchase agreement into place for Silicon Ranch,” said Ron Asche, United Power CEO. “We are excited that all the production from this project will be used right on our own distribution system and will power nearby homes and businesses. United Power is a strong supporter of renewable energy, and this system will enhance our commitment of these resources.”

Once completed this spring, the 130-acre solar farm will generate 34.2 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year from approximately 160,000 solar panels – enough to power 2,500 households.