Batteries are Booming

From EVs to solar energy, innovations in energy storage are changing the game

By Paul Wesslund and Amy Higgins

If your smartphone battery has become a large share of your daily thoughts, just wait — the battery market is booming.

Innovators are now developing washable and bendable batteries to heat your gloves or be sewn into athletic wear to help track your exercise routine.

Electric utilities are using batteries for slightly more practical reasons — to make electricity more reliable and more compatible with renewable energy sources. Also, the booming electric vehicle market is made possible by dramatic advancements in battery technology.

Analysts estimate the world battery market value at more than $100 billion and project it will grow more than 10% annually over the next five years. People need batteries for their phones, laptops, power tools, watches, EVs and more, and they want them to last longer. They want them smaller. They want them cheaper. And researchers and entrepreneurs are busy meeting those demands.

EVs Elevated
EVs, which run on large, rechargeable batteries, are a leading example of the trend. Ten years ago there were hardly any EVs on the road, but in 2020 EV sales hit 3 million and now there are 10 million on the road worldwide. That growth is expected to continue.

Manufacturers around the world plan to spend more than half a trillion dollars on electric vehicles and batteries in the next eight years. The Kansas City Assembly Plant shown here is Ford’s first U.S. plant to assemble both batteries and EVs. Photo Source: Ford

Six of this year’s February Super Bowl ads featured EVs, and manufacturers around the world plan to spend more than half a trillion dollars on EVs and batteries in the next eight years. In the U.S. alone, 13 EV battery manufacturing plants are expected to open in the next five years.

The battery bandwagon brings strong incentives for investments to make batteries even stronger so EVs can go farther and phones can hold more apps and feature fancier cameras. This cycle of innovation is cutting battery costs, too. The price of the most popular type of rechargeable battery is down more than 90% from what it was 10 years ago.

Taking EVs to a new level is La Plata Electric Association in Durango, which revealed Colorado’s first vehicle-to-grid EV school bus in December 2021. The electric-powered bus houses a battery that can travel up to 200 miles on a full charge, but the battery can also store energy that in turn can be used for LPEA to draw power from during peak energy hours.

“When fully charged, the bus stores enough electricity to power 30 average single-family homes, or 100 energy-efficient homes, for a few hours,” according to an LPEA press release.

Batteries Aid Renewable Energy Use
Utility use of large batteries is adding efficiency and reliability to the nation’s electric grid. In 2019, the number of large-scale battery systems in the U.S. increased 28%.

Utility use of large battery systems, such as the Tesla Megapack shown here, is adding efficiency and reliability to the nation’s electric grid. Photo Source: Tesla

For Colorado’s electric cooperatives, large-scale batteries started in 2018. With peak shaving and innovation in mind, Brighton-based United Power went live with its Tesla battery storage facility, which, the co-op touts, can store enough energy to power up to 700 homes simultaneously.

Utilities, including electric cooperatives, use these batteries in several ways. They can smooth out voltage and frequency differences that damage equipment and affect power quality. Batteries can also make better use of the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources. By storing excess solar energy produced during the day when electric demand is low, batteries can make that sun power available for use at night when electric demand is high.

Utility-scale battery capacity tripled in the past five years, including 35% in 2020 alone. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports electric utilities will have 10 times the battery capacity in 2023 that they had in 2019.

Much of that increase, the EIA says, comes from battery systems located near large solar projects, making it easier to store electricity produced by solar panels.

One especially innovative use of batteries came in 2020 when a heat wave strained California’s electric supply. The state’s energy manager asked businesses and homeowners with batteries to supply emergency power. More than 30,000 responded, including backup power owners and EV charging providers.

With the assistance of its 140-kilowatt, 446-kilowatt-hour Tesla Powerpack battery, Fort Collins-based Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association’s Red Feather Lakes microgrid can provide electricity to its consumer-members for up to 8 hours during power interruptions.

Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs is working on a solar and battery energy storage project with Ameresco, an organization that specializes in energy efficiency and renewable energy, to install 4.5 megawatts of solar power and 15 megawatt-hours of battery energy storage. This clean technology will be housed at Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley Campus leased by Ameresco, which will then sell the power generated to HCE, assisting HCE with its goal of 100% renewable energy resources by 2030.

Homeowners can even supplement their electric service with their own backup batteries. Tesla and other companies make suitcase-sized batteries designed to hang on a wall for reserve power in case of a storm or to pair with rooftop solar panels to store sun power for later use. United Power offers this service to its consumer-members, allowing them to connect their personal battery storage system to the electric co-op’s distribution system.

Innovators are also working on new types of batteries for everyday use. Low-cost, flexible power sources could be part of clothing or wristbands. Wearable electronics are a hot market, and innovators and investors see the potential.

Whether used for making electricity more reliable or to create some fun new gadget, battery technology will continue to boom.


Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Amy Higgins writes electric co-op news for CREA.

Capturing Carbon

By Katherine Loving

Providing reliable, affordable electricity is the top priority for Colorado’s electric cooperatives. Co-ops and other electric utilities continue to incorporate additional energy generated from renewable sources, but until these technologies fully mature, fossil fuels remain a part of our overall generation mix to ensure power reliability.

As the U.S. moves forward with carbon reduction goals, electric cooperatives are also looking for ways to provide clean energy and offset the carbon that’s generated during power production. Capturing carbon emissions at their creation source is one of those approaches.

The federal government is making carbon capture a funding priority in 2022. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021 provides $927 million for large, commercial-scale pilot projects as well as $3.5 billion for six demonstration projects at coal and natural gas plants.

Carbon capture involves a series of steps to remove carbon dioxide from its original source to prevent it from reaching the Earth’s atmosphere. During the capture step, CO2 is removed either before or after combustion.

Post-combustion capture is the most common method used at existing power plants. After electricity is generated, the CO2 is removed from the gas mixture found in a plant’s flue.

In pre-combustion capture, the fuel sources are heated with pure oxygen (or steam and oxygen) to release CO2.

Once captured, the CO2 is transported to its next destination. Typically, CO2 moves as compressed gas in pipelines but can also be transported by tanker trucks or ships.

Captured CO2 can be injected into geological formations or recycled for other uses.

One appeal of carbon capture is the abundance of underground natural storage locations, such as deep aquifers, porous rock and unproductive coal mines. The U.S. Geological Service estimates the U.S. has the potential to store 3,000 metric gigatons of CO2, the equivalent of centuries worth of emissions.

Research on how to recycle CO2 is ongoing, but established practices include using the gas in enhanced oil recovery, growing fish food from lab-grown bacteria that feed on CO2 and creating carbon-negative concrete or other carbon-based materials.

As promising as carbon capture sounds, the costs and risks limit the technology’s ability to be implemented on a larger scale. Post-combustion capture often requires expensive retrofitting of power plants. Pre-combustion capture, while more effective than post-combustion, has been limited due to high costs of equipment and pure oxygen.

In addition to these costs, the processes require a large amount of energy. Transportation of the gas increases in cost for longer distances between the source and destination, making plants located far away from sequestration locations less feasible. Sequestration also carries the concern of CO2 leaks, which would negate the effort to remove it from the atmosphere.

Despite these hurdles, carbon capture is seen as an important technology in reducing emissions.

In 2015, XPRIZE, a technological development competition, kicked off with the goal of awarding $20 million to develop new and emerging technologies that utilize CO2. The competition was based on how much CO2 was converted and the economic feasibility of the project.

XPRIZE concluded in 2021, and the winning project was a carbon-negative concrete created by a team of UCLA researchers called CarbonBuilt. The research team conducted tests at Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Integrated Test Center in Wyoming to turn flue gases and fly ash into carbon-negative concrete. The process reduces the carbon emissions of concrete production and traps additional carbon long-term within the final product.

There will be more emphasis from the federal government in 2022 on carbon capture and storage. In addition to the demonstration projects from the infrastructure bill, the Slowing CO2 and Lowering Emissions (SCALE) Act was introduced in 2021 to provide funding to overcome expansion barriers. The SCALE Act aims to reduce costs by financing scaling projects for pipeline infrastructure, creating regional storage infrastructure, and providing grants for creating products derived from large-scale capture.

Capturing carbon is an important tool in reducing CO2 emissions generated from fossil fuel use. When this emerging technology can be deployed on a larger scale, the future of carbon capture will look much more promising.


Katherine Loving writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

 

Three Interesting Facts About Electricity

Electricity turns dark into light, makes hot foods cold and cold foods hot, washes the dishes and searches the internet. It is essential to our everyday lives, so much so that we rarely think about it. But behind the scenes, interesting things are happening.

Here are three interesting facts about electricity that cause even some experts to scratch and shake their heads.

1. Electricity must be used or stored after it’s generated.

A rechargeable battery stores electricity — more on that later. But the kind of electricity you use in your home needs to be used after it’s generated.

It’s true. Electricity produced from power plants, solar panels, wind turbines and hydro dams in the U.S. needs to be perfectly timed for when you decide to cook dinner, wash clothes or watch TV. The national grid, made up of power generators, wires and substations, is an incredibly complex network that makes electricity flow smoothly.

A vast and intricate system of devices controls that power flow in a precisely balanced way so that when you flip a switch calling for additional electricity, somewhere else a power source ramps up to provide the additional electricity you require.

It’s one reason utility operators must be strategic when adding renewable energy to the nation’s fuel mix — a coal or natural gas plant can ramp generation up or down fairly quickly to meet changing energy demand. Solar energy and wind power depend more on the whims of Mother Nature, which adds an extra challenge to power management. However, technology advances are making this challenge easier to deal with and more large-scale battery storage is also helping.

Big batteries offer another way for electric utilities to better balance the flow and timing of electricity and large-scale battery storage technology is improving rapidly. A few of Colorado’s electric cooperatives have incorporated battery storage into their distribution systems and more storage is being planned. Wider use of large utility-scale batteries will make it much easier to add more solar and wind energy to the grid, allowing electric co-ops and others to store energy that’s generated when it’s breezy and sunny for use at night and during calm weather.

2. Power out? Blame a squirrel.

While severe weather causes most outages, if it’s nice out and your electricity goes off, it could be caused by a squirrel.

We all know to play it safe around electricity, but squirrels don’t. They scamper and chew around transformers, substations and utility poles where they can disrupt high-voltage equipment, shutting down power for you and your neighbors.

We all know to play it safe around electricity, but squirrels don’t. They scamper and chew around transformers, substations and utility poles where they can disrupt high-voltage equipment, shutting down power for you and your neighbors.

But it’s not just squirrels. Snakes, birds and other critters can find their way into dangerous places. There’s no official record-keeping of wildlife-caused power outages, but estimates run as high as 20%.

Electric utilities are constantly devising new ways to keep wildlife away from dangerous electrical equipment—the resulting power disruptions are inconvenient for us energy consumers, and almost always fatal for the animal.

3. Highways could charge electric vehicles in the future.

If researchers have their way, electric vehicles wouldn’t need to plug in — they could charge while they’re being driven.

“Wireless dynamic charging” projects are underway around the world. The idea is similar to wireless chargers you can buy for your home electronics, the kind you can set near a charger rather than actually plugging in the smartphone or other device.

Wireless dynamic charging projects are underway around the world. Photo from Pixabay contributor Leon Wallis. *Image edited in Canva to show dynamic charging lane.

Charging cars while they’re driving along the freeway is of course a lot more ambitious. But some developers predict that within five years, in addition to today’s special high-occupancy-vehicle lanes for rush-hour traffic in large cities, there could be stretches of vehicle-charging lanes.

Futurists expect electric trucks as the most likely users of wireless charging lanes. Most electric cars, after all, can charge overnight in a residential garage. Wireless dynamic truck charging could keep the deliveries rolling rather than having drivers sitting and drinking coffee for the several hours it could take a conventional plug-in to get trucks back to full power.

Electricity is such a basic part of our everyday life, so it’s easy to forget about it. But every now and then it’s good to think about all its benefits and mysteries. That awareness can help make sure we pay attention to safety precautions, but sometimes it’s good just to be amazed.


Paul Wesslund writes for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association for the nation’s electric cooperatives.

Driving EVs in Winter Weather

The woes (and whoas!) of driving electric in cold temperatures
By Amy Higgins

Weather conditions in Colorado are diverse and, depending on where you hang your hat at the end of the day, you could be dealing with intermittent ice and snow when getting around town or perhaps hazardous conditions are often part of your everyday life all winter.

Whether gas-powered, electric or a combination of the two, cold weather affects your vehicle’s performance, according to fueleconomy.gov. This official U.S. government source for fuel economy information reports that the fuel economy for gas-powered vehicles can drop as much as 24% in cold temperatures; up to 34% for hybrids; and 39% for electric vehicles.

A GCEA consumer-member drives to the slopes with the co-op’s Chevy Bolt.

Gunnison County Electric Association, with offices in Gunnison and Crested Butte, is in an area of Colorado where temperatures can reach below negative 20 degrees. The electric co-op has a Chevy Bolt and a Tesla Model 3 in its fleet of EVs and tested the vehicles at subzero temperatures.

“We noticed that when you have subzero temperatures, the battery loses up to 37% efficiency compared to the warmer temperatures,” says GCEA Member Relations Supervisor Alliy Sahagun.

These tests, Sahagun says, have helped educate GCEA consumer-members about what they can expect with an EV. For example, road trips could be arduous if EV owners are not mindful of this expected decrease in productivity, the weather conditions and their vehicle’s current charge status.

On the flip side, EVs perform well, if not very well on shorter trips. This is the third winter Chris Michalowski’s family has owned its Chevy Bolt — his wife’s preferred vehicle when driving around town during the week. A single charge provides more than 200 miles of range, so on short trips, she doesn’t have to charge again until later that evening during their electric co-op’s off-peak hours. Now outfitted with snow tires and ski racks, the Bolt is their go-to when heading to the ski resort. “It’s small so it can sneak into tight parking spaces at the ski resort, and you don’t have to wait for it to warm up,” says the Granby-based Mountain Parks Electric power use advisor. “I have a pickup truck as well, but I’d much rather take our EV to the ski resort.”

Sahagun says she frequently gets questions about how GCEA’s Bolt and Tesla handle in the snow and on ice. She says they perform “really well.” Because of the battery’s weight, EVs have a low center of gravity which helps the vehicle hug the road, preventing it from sliding. However, this low center of gravity doesn’t provide a lot of clearance, which can be precarious around higher snowdrifts and unplowed roads.

“If the roads are plowed, I’ve not had any problems with them — they do great,” Sahagun says. A GCEA member shared with her an experience when his truck became stuck in the snow: “He hitched his pickup truck to his Tesla Model S and he pulled it out of the snow, so they’re pretty strong, pretty powerful.

One clear advantage of an EV when compared to a gas-powered vehicle is its ability to provide heat almost instantaneously. “I tell people it’s like a hair dryer. Boom. The warm air starts coming out,” Michalowski explains. “For those short trips to the grocery store in the winter, by the time you get there and back, the car is finally starting to warm up [in a gas-powered vehicle]. It’s not the case with electric vehicles because the heating system is electric. It’s pretty much warm air right from the get-go.”

Although there is a decrease in range during winter temperatures, EVs are highly efficient when navigating around town or driving to and from work. And the amount of “fuel” remaining in your EV isn’t as important at the end of the day as with a gas-powered vehicle. “If you go home with 40 miles of range left or 100 miles of range, it’s all the same,” Michalowski explains. “It’s kind of like your cellphone — you don’t really care what the battery life is like as long as it works and you’re able to plug it in and it charges again.”

Analyze before you finalize
The catchphrase “range anxiety” — the fear of being stranded without a charge when needed — still has some potential EV buyers reeling, but this concern is swiftly dwindling. President Joseph Biden’s American Jobs Plan proposes a national network of 500,000 charging stations by 2030, up from the Department of Energy’s current count of around 50,000.

EVs come with a 120-volt, Level 1 charger, which can be plugged into any outlet, but they can take 16 hours or more to fully charge. Upgrade to a Level 2 charger, set it to charge when you go to bed (yes, you can program your charger), and wake up to a full charge the next day. And fast chargers — 34 Colorado locations and growing — can boost your battery 80% in 30 minutes.

“When I bought my Bolt, there wasn’t a single fast charger in the county and here we are two years later and now there are four fast chargers in all four corners of the county,” Michalowski says. “It seems all the time new public chargers are getting installed. It just gets better and better as far as what’s available.”

Watch for Ride and Drive events hosted by your local electric co-op, like this one sponsored by MPE.

Educate yourself about EVs and take a test drive or keep an eye out for EV Ride and Drive events in your area. “From our own experience, just getting people behind the wheel is a huge game changer,” Michalowski says about MPE’s Ride and Drive events.

Consider your budget, your lifestyle and your daily commute to and from work, the grocery store or anywhere else you visit routinely. Not thrilled about the selection? The soon-to-be-released electric Ford F-150 as well as new all-wheel-drive options may sway you to make the switch. In the end, whether or not to drive an EV is a matter of preference.


Amy Higgins is a freelance writer for Colorado Country Life. For a decade she has been reporting on energy-related issues for Colorado’s electric cooperatives.

Co-ops Add Microgrids to Improve Resiliency

By Sarah Smith

Access to reliable electricity is top-of-mind for CREA and its member electric cooperatives. But natural disasters such as wildfires and winter storms can affect that reliability by taking down electric infrastructure and isolating rural areas (sometimes for long periods of time).

Two projects exemplify how Colorado’s co-ops are implementing microgrids, which are autonomous energy systems that serve specific areas and provide backup electricity with common-sense solutions when needed in emergencies. Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association in Fort Collins went live with a microgrid in Red Feather Lakes in October. Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs is moving forward with another microgrid project on the Western Slope.

Poudre Valley REA wors with Red Feather Lakes representatives to install battery storage for its microgrid.

Red Feather Lakes is 60 miles away from PVREA’s headquarters. Historically, it has been prone to disasters that have major impacts on its single transmission line bringing electricity to the town. High elevation, heavy snowfall, dangerous winter driving conditions, fallen trees, wildfires and even tornadoes put this mountain town at risk for losing power.

PVREA leaders decided to create a microgrid after the local library won a grant to install solar panels and a battery to improve resiliency and cut electricity costs. The microgrid was installed at the local fire station, which has diesel generators and is located across the street from the library. PVREA controls the microgrid and owns the 140-kilowatt/448-kilowatt-hour battery. Now in place, the microgrid will provide secondary power for several hours if a disaster occurs.

“This project is rooted in community, which is a huge part of who we are as a cooperative. The Red Feather Lakes community came together to solve a need and approached us with the project. As we learn more about this microgrid, we can share that information with other cooperatives across the nation so that we all may better serve our members,” said Sam Taggart, strategic communications director for PVREA.

The small community in northern Colorado gets its electricity delivered by a single transmission line and will benefit from its new microgrid if that line goes down.

The project also would not be possible without the assistance of PVREA’s partners. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association led the initiative in Red Feather Lakes, which is one of four microgrid projects involving five co-ops nationwide. NRECA connected the co-ops with a U.S. Department of Energy project, which provided $1.3 million in energy storage grants. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories are also partners in the project. In addition, PVREA’s board of directors provided matching funding for its microgrid.

“The partners we had on this project were extremely important to us. We could not have completed this microgrid without our local, regional and national partners,” Taggart said.

HCE is also making headway with the creation of a microgrid system. The electric co-op is working on a feasibility study with Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to determine the practicality of a microgrid connecting a cluster of public facilities near the airport. The microgrid would be powered by renewable energy, independent from the larger electric grid. These facilities, which include the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, the county’s public works facility, and RFTA’s bus barn, also would be protected from outages if service to the rest of the area is temporarily compromised by an outage. The feasibility study is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

With most of the research completed, HCE is looking ahead and fully anticipating making the microgrid a reality.

The urgency to create a microgrid in HCE territory emerged after the Lake Christine Fire in July 2018, which scorched more than 12,500 acres. The wildfire shut down power to the Upper Roaring Fork Valley, which includes the towns of Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt, with a year-round population of around 18,000. Three out of the four transmission lines running into Aspen were disabled and if the fourth line had gone down, it could have led to days or even weeks without electric service. This is not a possibility HCE is willing to face again for its members.

With the research phase of the microgrid project nearly complete, HCE is busy planning the next steps and the next phase of the project. Several grant opportunities are in the approval process, including one from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. HCE will also cost-share part of the project, with funding going toward staffing needs and a protection plan to ensure the main grid is still being protected.

“Microgrids are really good on ‘black sky days’ and serve as a secondary source of power during a crisis. But there is also a great benefit to the grid on ‘blue sky days,’ and there is value in adding these batteries,” said Chris Bilby, research engineer for HCE.

“By installing a microgrid, we are actually going back to the old days. Many mines and train stations used to operate on microgrids, but because of the pollution, these transmission factories were moved farther away from populated areas, so people didn’t have to breathe that bad air in. With a clear path to clean energy in the near future, we can now move these microgrids back to communities,” Bilby continued.

In the face of a crisis, and especially when it threatens the resilience of the electric system, CREA and its electric cooperatives are working with their communities and other partners to find solutions. PVREA and HCE are examples of what it means to lead and overcome challenges to make reliable electricity readily available, despite any circumstance. Microgrids were the way of the past and now are an important step toward the future.


Sarah Smith is a freelance writer with a fondness for Colorado’s electric co-ops and the rural areas they serve.

Enabling the Future Grid

New devices change one-way grid to multi-directional network
By Reed Karaim and Mona Neeley

It wasn’t long ago that the U.S. power grid resembled a relatively simple one-way street, with power flowing from central generating plants through transmission lines to distribution systems and, finally, to the customer.

But this is no longer the case.

Central-station power continues to play a vital role, but it’s increasingly complemented by distributed energy resources (DER). DER refers to often-smaller generation units that are located on the consumer’s side of the meter. Some examples of DER are: rooftop solar photovoltaic units, wind-generating units and home battery banks. It is these types of DERs that are turning the grid into not just a two-way street, but more of a neighborhood of two-way streets, with electricity moving in and out from locations big and small throughout the day. And let’s not stop there. Microgrids, capable of operating independently, are also part of the mix too.

“It’s all leading to a grid that’s a mesh rather than a single hierarchal entity,” says Craig Miller, former National Rural Electric Cooperative Association chief scientist.

The unstoppable evolution of the U.S. power grid is compelling electric cooperatives to examine which technologies and strategies will help ensure that their systems keep pace.

Most experts agree that central-station generation—fueled by coal, natural gas, hydro, nuclear or utility-scale solar and wind—will remain the core of the system for the foreseeable future. However, DER is expanding rapidly.

Whether it’s behind-the-meter or utility-scale solar and wind, renewable energy is the fastest growing segment of the United States’ electric portfolio. The Energy Information Administration foresees it trailing only natural gas in total electricity output by 2026.

Demand response and energy storage technologies are expected to play a significant role. Energy storage deployments in the U.S. grew by 232% from 2018 to 2019 alone, according to an analysis by Wood Mackenzie, with nearly half coming from the energy user’s side of the meter, including business and home battery systems and electric vehicles.

“As the grid has evolved, our generation is moving to small chunks, and so the grid itself isn’t as inherently stable,” Miller says. “It has to be increasingly actively managed.”

Managing the grid, both at the transmission and the distribution level, in the midst of this change requires rapid two-way communication, a massive increase in data analytical capability, and sophisticated solid-state control technology.

“The challenge is now to pull all of the information together: what the state of the grid is, what controls we can implement, what decisions are optimum,” Miller says. “It’s about deriving value from the new control technology. It’s the synchronization, utilization and coordination of everything that’s happening to get the best of this new agile grid.”

There are several new technologies that will enable this future grid. Here are seven of them available now that will be important in expanding a multi-directional grid and in helping electric co-ops meet shifting consumer expectations in this future energy landscape.

1. Advanced Inverters
If any DER is to feed electricity to a home, business or the grid, that power must first be converted from DC to AC. This is the task of standard inverters, which are relatively simple devices that for decades have been used to integrate solar arrays and batteries.

“Advanced” inverters, which are included on most new DER installations, go even further by providing benefits such as communication capabilities, sophisticated monitoring and control functions, and autonomous operation.

2. Broadband
Electric cooperatives recognize that two-way communications are fundamental to making use of smart grid technologies. Faster and higher-capacity backbone networks will be needed more than ever in the future.

Higher-bandwidth, lower-latency communications systems allow broader and deeper use of existing smart-grid components, enabling both the movement of large amounts of data and more precise control over downline devices. New grid functions will also be increasingly dependent on the highest-quality communication platforms.

3. Data Analytics
Electric co-ops have used analytical tools for years, but those tools are growing in capability and are spreading, notes David Pinney, NRECA analytics program manager. Data analytics can help utilities manage DER, forecast and curb peak load, improve power flow planning and reduce line loss, among other functions.

4. Sensors
A new generation of sensors is also transforming the ability of electric cooperatives to detect what is happening on their systems. Intelligent line sensors that can pinpoint faults and provide information on circuit performance can present a more granular view of the distribution grid. Combined with substation sensors and advanced metering infrastructure systems, these ubiquitous devices are adding to the data revolution that’s transforming utility operations.

5. Power Electronics
Power electronics, which can include silicon-chip microprocessors with advanced control capabilities, are already improving the reliability and stability of transmission and distribution systems.

“I like to say that silicon is the new copper,” Miller says. “It’s becoming that important. There’s a lot of silicon out there making decisions on the grid.”

6. Interoperability
The diversity of DER — from solar arrays and gas-fired peaking plants to aggregated water heaters and home battery banks — means an increasing number of resources need to be integrated with utility operations, which cannot happen without seamless communication.

“Having diverse generation sources is a desirable thing, but without the ability to communicate and manage those resources, their value to the grid will be minimal,” says Venkat Banunarayanan, NRECA’s senior director for the integrated grid. “Interoperability is the key that unlocks all the potential of these DER technologies.”

For electric cooperatives, data about an energy resource, which could be located beyond the meter inside a home, and its operation must be readable and actionable by a supervisory control and data acquisition system (SCADA) at the distribution co-op. For behind-the-meter resources, interoperability details will be specified by the electric co-op in an interconnection agreement.

7. Interconnection Standards
Revised standards that the power industry is adopting to help deal with the growth of distributed energy resources on the grid marks a change in outlook and approach to integrating DER into the nation’s grid.

The changes will impact the interconnection of solar, wind and other distributed generation. Some of the most significant changes come in the “minimum trip” settings for DER, which have been loosened to allow a much greater variance in voltage and frequency.

Reed Karaim writes for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Mona Neeley is the editor of Colorado Country Life magazine.

Fueling for the Future

Researchers find potential in two low-carbon options
By Maria Kenevsky and Mona Neeley

When it’s time to fuel up your vehicle, you’re likely heading to the gas station or an electric vehicle charging station like most drivers in the U.S. But those might not be the only options in the future.

Research continues into alternative vehicle fuels, including hydrogen and biodiesel. This shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles comes with several benefits, including improving the country’s energy security and lowering vehicle emissions.

Hydrogen as fuel
One of the alternative ways to power a vehicle is with hydrogen in the form of a fuel cell. This form of fuel is potentially emissions-free and can be produced using domestic resources, according to a panel discussion at CREA’s October Energy Innovation Summit.

Just as with all-electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles use electricity to power an electric motor. However, they use a fuel cell powered by hydrogen to create an electrochemical process to produce electricity. The hydrogen goes through an electrochemical process to produce the electricity, which then powers your car.

The only byproducts of this process are water and heat, emitted in the form of water vapor and warm air. Since the byproducts are clean, vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells produce no tailpipe emissions and are classified as zero-emissions vehicles.

Extracting the hydrogen itself can be a carbon-free process, depending on the way it’s done. One way is to perform electrolysis is using water to extract hydrogen, which requires power from another energy source. Using renewable energy, such as solar or wind energy, to power electrolysis provides a carbon-free process to extract the hydrogen. (There are other hydrogen sources that are less sustainable, such as producing it from natural gas, which emits carbon dioxide as a byproduct.)

Advantages of hydrogen-powered vehicles include fast fueling, long cold-weather range and high cargo capacity. With hydrogen, drivers can refuel a vehicle in under five minutes and gain more than 300 miles of driving range.

However, there are currently only a limited number of hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., and most of these stations are in California. Colorado’s lone public hydrogen fuel station was installed at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in 2020. It is maintained by the CSU Energy Institute at the Powerhouse Energy Campus on North College Avenue.

It generates hydrogen on-site and is used to train students in hydrogen technology and by researchers gathering cost and operational data as they work toward future hydrogen station deployment for commercial operators in Colorado.

Biofuel/Biodiesel
Another form of alternative vehicle fuel is biofuel. Renewable biofuels are produced from biomass, which can be used in conventional gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles. These fuels work in the same way gasoline or diesel does by fueling compression-ignition engines. Almost all diesel vehicles are capable of running on biodiesel blends, although vehicle owners should check their OEM engine warranty to ensure that higher-level blends of this alternative fuel are approved by the manufacturer.

One of the most common biofuels is ethanol, which is produced from sugars in corn or other grains, like sugar cane, sugar beets or rice. Sometimes biofuels can be blended with gasoline or diesel, or they can simply be used in pure form. Almost all gasoline sold in the United States includes 10% ethanol blended into the fuel, mostly from distilled corn. Scientists are currently working to find new ways to expand ethanol production by experimenting with different plants.

Biodiesel, a different form of biofuel, can be produced from vegetable oil, animal fats or recycled cooking grease, and can be used to power older cars that run on diesel. Since biodiesel is nontoxic and biodegradable, it is much safer than petroleum diesel if it’s released into the environment.

The most common sources for biodiesel production in the U.S. are soybean oil, corn oil and recycled feedstocks. There are several other nonmainstream biodiesel sources that can be manufactured from algae, municipal waste and wood chips. However, these options are much less common. The most common biodiesel blend is B20, which ranges from 6% to 20% biodiesel blended with petroleum diesel.

These alternative vehicle fuel options may not be mainstream yet, but as they come on line they can help lower our reliance on gasoline and diesel. As a bonus, these clean-burning options help to improve air quality and lower greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

There is great potential to see these alternative fuels expand over the years, and additional research efforts may help these fuels reach more individual consumers nationwide.


Maria Kanevsky writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Mona Neeley is the editor of Colorado Country Life magazine.

Working Together to Combat Cyberattacks

By Paul Wesslund

Computer hacking is a top news story these days, and for years electric cooperatives have focused on blocking cyber threats from interfering with the nationwide electric grid of wires and poles that keeps our lights on.

The network of power lines, transformers and substations adds up to an incredibly complex system that reliably brings us the conveniences of modern life. That network is transforming into a “smart grid” these days. It’s adding renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, which call for sophisticated software to keep power flowing at night or when the wind isn’t blowing. Computer algorithms react with the most efficient and reliable operations when forecasts call for storms, wildfires or times of high-power use.

Making such modern miracles happen means joining with another dominant part of today’s world: the internet.

The blink-of-an-eye speed of balancing the generation of electricity with your flip of a light switch relies heavily on the electronically-connected world. The internet is incredibly useful, but also a target of troublemakers — from lone, self-taught experts to international crime rings.

Electric utilities know this and work every day through their own offices and national organizations on cyber safety.

You can take smart steps too, to protect yourself and the electric grid. Because the power grid uses the internet, that means any of your internet-connected devices are also part of the grid: computers, security cameras, printers, smart TVs, health monitors — even cars and lightbulbs can be connected to the internet.

Here are the top ways you can defend against hackers:

Lock the front door.
If you have wireless internet in your home, the traffic comes in through the router. If you take just one step, create a strong password for that router, and set a reminder to change the password regularly.

Use a secret code.
Weak passwords make things easier for hackers. Use combinations of uppercase and lowercase letters, combined with numbers and special symbols like “&” or “!”.

There are apps to help you remember passwords. A simple notebook can also work, as long as you never lose it and no one else has access to it. And be aware that every major internet-connected appliance comes with its own factory-installed password you should change right away.

Stay vigilant.
If you receive an email with an attachment you aren’t expecting, don’t open it. If you get a message with a link you didn’t know was coming, don’t click it. If the message is from a friend, phone and ask if they sent it — hackers can send messages using your friend’s address.

Stay state-of-the-art.
Your computer and other devices regularly offer updates — install them. They often contain security updates to protect against the latest cyber threat, so consistently check emails or messages saying you need to download an update. Go online and check any updates to your device to ensure they are authentic.

October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has titled this year’s theme, “If you connect it, protect it.” That’s good advice for your home — and for the electric grid.

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

Electric Buses Arriving in Rural Colorado

By Sarah Smith

Electric school buses are coming to rural Colorado. Not only do they reduce emissions and provide environmental advantages, but electric buses also provide health benefits to riders. Diesel vehicles emit tailpipe emissions linked to asthma, respiratory illness and cancer. Electric school buses do not emit exhaust, entirely eliminating these health risks. That is an attractive selling point when schools think about the well-being of students.

Representatives from West Grand School District, Mountain Parks Electric and Tri-State Generation and Transmission cut the ribbon for the district’s new all-electric school bus.

Currently, 95% of the state’s school buses run on diesel, but Colorado’s electric cooperatives are on a mission to change that statistic. Currently three Colorado co-ops, Mountain Parks Electric, in Granby, La Plata Electric Association in Durango and Yampa Valley Electric Association in Steamboat Springs, are trailblazers in providing electric school buses to their communities.

The first all-electric school bus in rural Colorado (and second in the state) made its grand entrance in Kremmling this spring with the help of MPE; its power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association; and a grant funded by the Regional Air Quality Council’s ALT Fuels Colorado program. The West Grand School District is now reaping the benefits of switching to an electric school bus. Not only does this mean cleaner and quieter vehicles for students to ride in, but it will also significantly reduce fuel costs.

The small school district already budgeted to replace one of its buses with another diesel bus at a ticket price of $200,000. Although electric buses cost twice that amount — typically ringing in at $400,000 — after qualifying for the RAQC grant and the added contributions from MPE and Tri-State, the district received the bus at no cost. (MPE used capital credits unclaimed by previous members to help fund the new and improved mode of transportation.)

MPE is the first electric co-op in Colorado to help provide an electric school bus to one of its school districts. The electric bus means cleaner air for the entire community. It also saves thousands of dollars a year in maintenance and fuel costs. Currently, the power needed to charge the bus includes more than 30% renewable energy; the amount of renewable energy is projected to grow to 50% by 2024.

MPE spearheaded the funding and support of electric school buses, but LPEA and YVEA are not far behind.

LPEA was set to deliver the next electric school bus as the 2021 school year starts. The Durango School District 9-R received a grant also funded by RAQC to kick-start its project. The grant provided the school district $328,803 to purchase and install a fully electric school bus and related charging infrastructure. LPEA contributed an additional $150,000 to complete the project.

The environmental and health benefits, along with the annual cost savings, are all exciting advantages of securing the electric bus. Like the district in Kremmling, Durango was planning to purchase a new diesel bus to replace an old one in its fleet, but with the financial assistance of the grant and LPEA, it is receiving the bus at no cost to the district.

This particular bus will be the first vehicle-to-grid installation in LPEA’s service territory. LPEA will use a technology called bidirectional charging. This allows the bus to pull electricity from the grid during off-peak hours. But LPEA can reverse that flow and pull electricity from the bus onto the grid during critical times. It’s a win-win scenario for the school district and LPEA.

“The payback of installing this vehicle grid is compelling,” said Dominic May, the energy resource program architect at LPEA. “School buses charge very nicely off-peak. The timing works well with school buses because it avoids the evening peaks, and midday charging sessions also get maximum solar. Furthermore, charging these electric buses only uses one-eighth of the cost of diesel. By installing this grid, LPEA will inevitably make money back each year.”

The project is full steam ahead, and LPEA looks forward to unveiling the new electric bus to the Durango school district this fall.

In northern Colorado, the Hayden School District will be making the switch to an electric bus for its students this year. Steamboat Springs has been in the process of making the switch to electric buses in its city bus fleet. The town tested two electric buses to evaluate their mileage, emissions and safety and concluded that the electric vehicles were successful.

“We really see the benefits of electrifying many sectors, and transportation is one of them,” said Megan Moore-Kemp, energy solutions manager at YVEA. “Some of the benefits of electric buses to our citizens is that they do cost less over the long term; they’re less expensive to charge, fuel and maintain than gas-powered vehicles; and they cut emissions.”

When the Hayden School District approached YVEA about its plans to apply for the RAQC grant, YVEA happily wrote a letter of support. The co-op collaborated with the school board from an innovation standpoint, offering specifics on what a fair electric rate would be and exploring what infrastructure costs would look like. “YVEA believes this is a very important project and we were happy to collaborate with our partners to achieve their clean energy goals,” said Carly Davidson, public relations specialist at YVEA.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for electric buses in the state as other electric co-ops work toward bringing electric school buses to their communities. These electric vehicles will provide environmental and financial benefits to Colorado schools. Colorado’s electric co-ops are excited to be leaders in the process.

Sarah Smith is a freelance writer covering topics important to Colorado’s electric cooperatives.

Electric Co-ops Seek Fairness Among All Utilities

By Erin Kelly

Electric cooperatives are not-for-profit entities and therefore do not pay federal income taxes. Usually that is a good thing. It means co-op electric rates are set to only cover co-op costs. There is no incentive to charge more than is needed; any profit (known as a margin in the co-op business model) is returned to consumers as credits.

But when it comes to government incentives to transition to newer, cleaner fuel sources, not paying taxes is a problem. Other utilities have long received federal tax breaks for providing power from solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. Co-ops cannot tap into those programs because they are exempt from those taxes.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association is working to change that. It is urging congressional leaders to provide electric co-ops with direct payments to develop clean energy projects. These would provide incentives comparable to the tax breaks granted to investor-owned utilities such as Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy.

In a letter to top congressional leaders, NRECA, the American Public Power Association and the Large Public Power Council asked for direct payments to member-owned and community-owned utilities to help employ technologies such as battery storage, carbon capture and electric vehicle charging networks.

“Allowing public power utilities and rural electric cooperatives to receive these tax credits in the form of direct payments for building clean energy infrastructure would ensure that all utilities serving all Americans would have equal access to these federal resources,” said the May 14 letter, which was signed by NRECA CEO Jim Matheson, APPA President/CEO Joy Ditto and LPPC President John Di Stasio.

“The direct payments would be used to help offset project costs — increasing the incentive for further investments — and would enable public power utilities and electric cooperatives to own these facilities directly. It would also mean more local projects, with local jobs, under local control,” the letter stated.

The issue is one of NRECA’s top legislative priorities for this session of Congress.

The letter points out that co-ops and community-owned electric utilities together serve nearly 30% of all retail electric customers.

“The president and Congress have ambitious climate goals that cannot be met by leaving nearly 30% of the nation’s electric utility customers without access to incentives and support,” the three association leaders wrote.

President Joe Biden has set a goal of eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 2030 to help slow climate change. Matheson and the other association leaders called that “a daunting challenge” with a hefty price tag that will be borne in part by co-op consumer-members and public power customers.

“As such, we cannot afford inefficient or ineffective policies,” they wrote.

Erin Kelly is a staff writer at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.