utility-drones-at-electric-cop-ops

Utility Drones at Electric Co-ops

Co-ops ready for utility drones to expand their reach

By Reed Karaim and Mona Neeley

Imagine a drone flight at an electric cooperative in the not-too-distant future. Cool technologies, including utility drones at electric co-ops, are legitimately part of the conversation.

No longer limited to staying within the line of sight of its on-the-ground operator, it travels much, much farther down the power lines, using an array of visual, thermal and LIDAR sensors, which use lasers, to accomplish miles of inspection in a single flight.

Flying higher than today’s drones with an optical sensor on board, this future drone scans the sky for dangers, busily feeding data to an onboard artificial-intelligence-powered computer, which is linked to the flight computer. Sensing a private plane in its airspace, the drone automatically executes an avoidance maneuver, dropping rapidly in altitude and banking to avoid any chance of collision.

Miles away, at a control station, the co-op’s drone pilot sees the maneuver and could take control if necessary. But knowing the drone is designed to adjust its flight path more quickly than humanly possible, the pilot decides to allow the unmanned vehicle to fly itself to safety.

Danger averted, the drone resumes its mission down 50 miles of line or more, saving the cooperative untold hours of physical inspection by ground or helicopter.

“There is no question that that (beyond-line-of-sight rules) will have a huge impact on how we’re able to use and grow this technology,” said Bill Havonec, GIS lead for Sangre de Cristo Electric in Buena Vista, in an interview with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s RE Magazine.

This future is already here for a small number of electric utilities that have received Federal Aviation Administration waivers allowing beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights. But utility drones at electric co-ops is coming for more organizations as the FAA moves toward issuing regulations that could make BVLOS operations typical for those that meet the requirements.

An FAA advisory committee published recommendations establishing a roadmap to meet that goal, which could arrive within the next couple of years. The proposed changes also would give expanded right-of-way access and airspace rights to BVLOS drones that meet standards for avoidance and control capabilities.

“This is a huge deal,” said Stan McHann, senior research engineer and chief drone pilot for NRECA. “You’re going to see a massive improvement in what you can get done in a day.”
Josh Dellinger, general manager of Empire Electric Association in Cortez, agrees. The additional distance that drones will be able to fly will be especially valuable in hard-to-reach places. “We have quite a bit of that where lines go through areas adjacent to the road or forest service or BLM land,” he says.

“A trainload of data”
BVLOS is a key part of an evolution in drone capabilities that could transform inspection and maintenance for electric utilities in the coming years. McHann also foresees smaller drones strategically placed throughout a distribution system, able to respond to a SCADA event by taking to the air and quickly checking a trouble spot, sending images and other data back to operations, and giving the co-op a clearer idea of what is going on and what response is needed before sending a crew.

Expanded use of drones will help co-ops inspect power lines in hard to reach places.

As utility drones at electric co-ops become commonplace in co-op fleets, other innovative uses are likely to surface. Even with today’s limitations on flight range, drones are being used by co-ops for regular inspections, vegetation management, placing bird diverters on lines and pulling lead lines across rugged terrain to run new transmission lines.

“At SDCEA, we’re discovering a variety of uses for drone technology. It started with inspections and getting data into the GIS/ mapping and work order systems,” said Havonec.
“In addition to our routine maintenance inspections, we’re prioritizing flight plans with historical outage data and using that as a tool for system improvement,” he said. “Additionally, we’re inspecting new construction rights-of-way and vegetation management areas for inventory, monitoring and quality assurance.”

“Colorado’s co-ops each have between 1,000 and 10,000 miles of line to cover,” said Curt Graham, a job training and safety instructor with CREA who visits many of those co-ops regularly. “When you can get an uncrewed aircraft doing line inspection for you, looking at things on a schedule and reliable enough where you don’t need to have an operator actively supervising it all the time — that’s got real potential,” he said. “And it’s coming.”

Advanced sensors will provide a new level of granular detail on the condition of system hardware. Infrared sensors, for example, can look for hot or arcing connections, transformers and other components, spotting current or future problems hidden from the human eye.

Taking full advantage of these capabilities will require the ability to effectively manage the data they can provide.

“Software is key here,” McHann noted. “One flight will create a trainload of data, and it’s essential that you be able to process it and see that it’s integrated into your system in ways that get the information where you need it.”

NRECA is already working with local electric co-ops on flight management and data analysis software integration.

Training and certification
BVLOS will require a new level of training and certification for drone operators. Today, a Level 107 certification from the FAA, which entails passing a written test, is all that is necessary for basic, within-visual-line-of-sight drone operations at a co-op or other electric utility.

The FAA advisory committee’s recommendations include a new pilot certification for BVLOS flight, although physical piloting skills combined with aviation safety best practices will remain important.

The human factor
Operating today with a drone and operator out in the field, McHann said, a co-op can cover to 80 to 120 assets a day, maybe only 70 to 80 in rougher terrain. Taking advantage of the longer range, flying time and speed at which BVLOS drones can operate, a greater-than-tenfold increase becomes possible, with a drone able to cover nearly 1,400 assets in a day.

“Your SAIDI-CAIDI (outage measurement) numbers are going to come down. That’s real money,” McHann noted.

“And as the price of the cameras and sensors and other equipment come down as well, it will effectively bring everyone into this space,” said Havonec.

While the newest hardware often gets the most attention, the unmanned vehicle technology is just a piece of the program. The parts that really tie everything together will be the training and regulatory requirements necessary to fly the drone.

Meeting those standards to take full advantage of BVLOS and other advancements down the road will be essential to economically meeting the demands of maintaining the grid, according to co-op managers.

The rewards will be increased efficiency, system reliability and personnel safety through reducing hazardous tasks such as pole climbing, and these can outweigh the costs.


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

Charging Ahead in Colorado

Coaches, new funding, bring EVs, charging stations to rural areas

By Laurie E. Dickson

You may have heard the buzz about electric vehicles and charging stations in Colorado. Maybe you have seen charging stations at your corner store, the local electric co-op or your workplace. Charging stations and EVs are becoming more common, popping up all around the state.

There is an ongoing effort across Colorado to reduce emissions and provide options for clean transportation. In 2019, Colorado became the first state in the central U.S. to adopt Zero Emission Vehicle standards for cars and trucks, ensuring a reduction in harmful emissions and providing economic benefits for its citizens. Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order supporting a transition to zero emissions and accelerating the electrification of cars, buses, trucks and other vehicles with a goal of achieving 940,000 EVs on the road by 2030.

What’s being done to increase the adoption of EVs and meet the goals in Colorado? One way is through the ReCharge Colorado program, started in 2014 through the Colorado Energy Office.

The original goal was to encourage alternative and clean transportation. ReCharge Colorado has evolved to be the program that advances the adoption of EVs and installation of charging infrastructure across the state.

“The state of Colorado has set ambitious goals for EVs,” says Matt Mines, senior program manager in transportation fuels and technology at the Colorado Energy Office.

“ReCharge Colorado coaches provide a critical link to local communities to connect our EV programs with local needs,” he notes. “Direct education and outreach, such as that provided by the ReCharge coaches, are a crucial aspect to ensuring the benefits of transportation electrification are understood and materialize throughout the state.”

There are five ReCharge regions in the state, each with a ReCharge coach who provides free, impartial advice; EV education; offers community workshops and grant writing assistance; promotes EV adoption through group buys; and supports auto dealerships with education and opportunities. Every county in the state is represented by a ReCharge coach.

Coaches know their territories and can provide the best solutions for the communities where they serve. By working with Colorado communities, ReCharge coaches help create an ecosystem of broad support along with the education necessary for a successful transition to EVs.

“Working as a ReCharge coach allows me to better get to know the communities where I live and play — and to talk to local business owners, employers, and property managers about how they can provide a public benefit in the form of EV charging stations,” says Sonja Meintsma, the ReCharge coach for Denver Metro Clean Cities and the Colorado Springs region.

“As Colorado’s EV ownership grows and we work toward reaching the statewide goal of getting 940,000 EVs on the road by 2030, access to public chargers across the state, including in rural, underserved and high emission areas, will be essential. As a coach, I feel I am making a tangible impact on our state’s ability to improve local air quality, reduce climate-altering emissions, and meet the needs of EV drivers in the state,” she adds.

ReCharge coaches provide consultation for interested businesses and communities regarding the design and technical requirements needed to install charging stations. For example, is the location best suited for Level 2 charging stations or a faster DC Fast Charger? Is there electrical service available at the location and is it sufficient to power an EV charging station? It’s the job of the coaches to know the incentives, federal and state tax credits, as well as the utility member co-op rebates available in their territories that can offset costs.

Kathy Woods, director of economic development for the city of Alamosa, comments, “I’ve had several opportunities to work with our ReCharge coach. From answering questions, to assessing feasibility, to celebrating with us upon completion of projects, the coach is right by your side and very helpful. ReCharge coaches are great partners.”

There is a concerted effort across the state’s ReCharge regions to increase the charging infrastructure along all major highways and byways. Electrifying Colorado’s Scenic Byways is a goal the ReCharge coaches work to attain. There are 26 Scenic and Historic Byways in the state. Electrified Byway designation guarantees that when you drive on our mountain highways, you can make the journey without worrying about the next charging station location.

By now, we’ve all heard about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed in November 2021. The bill includes funding at the federal and state levels for EVs and the charging infrastructure needed to support EV deployment. State and local governments will benefit from $7.7 billion dedicated to the deployment of EVs and related infrastructure.

The bill also dedicated $12.7 billion to the deployment of all types of clean vehicles and fueling infrastructure, including EVs and charging infrastructure and $10.3 billion for grid and battery-related investments.

With gas prices soaring and funding support for investing in EV technology, it’s a great time to invest in the charging infrastructure that makes driving EVs everywhere in Colorado feasible. A ReCharge coach can recommend options for any local community or business and connect you to funding opportunities as you make the transition to zero emission vehicles and the new energy economy.


Laurie Dickson is the executive director of the nonprofit, 4CORE (Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency) and the ReCharge coach for southern Colorado. Visit energyoffice.colorado.gov/zeroemission-vehicles/recharge-colorado to learn more about ReCharge Colorado.

Electric Supply Co-ops Provide Supply Chain Solutions

By Derrill Holly and Kylee Coleman

Keeping essential parts flowing is getting more challenging and expensive for Colorado’s distribution cooperatives pursuing their seasonal workplans or rebuilding their systems after major outages. But logistics and supply co-ops in Colorado and across the United States are finding creative solutions to help control costs and meet demand, even as they warn that stability in the supply chain could be many months away.

A WUE employee unloads recently delivered products in the co-op’s warehouse.

“The supply chain supporting the electric utility industry has been put to the test over the past 24 months with an array of events,” Brighton-based Western United Electric Supply CEO Greg Mordini said. WUE, owned by electric cooperatives, serves co-ops in the states of Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

WUE is one of nine members of the Electric Utility Distribution Association. EUDA members are noting shortages of key items such as transformers, conductors, sectionalized three-phase cabinets used on distribution systems and meter sockets required to install new service.

Fort Morgan-based electric cooperative Morgan County Rural Electric Association has been feeling the increasing impacts of supply chain issues.

“Two of the most challenging products to get are currently meter sockets and transformers, many of which are over a year out on delivery,” MCREA Manager of Member Services Rob Baranowski said. “Also, some of the materials used to connect lines and equipment, and also secure lines to poles have become completely unavailable.”

The current transformer shortage is perpetuated by inadequate global manufacturing capacity and stalled delivery of raw materials. Mordini noted that steel used in transformer cores has limited annual production. Overhead and underground conductor producers initially had product available but were unable to ship due to shortages in wood and the reels they use to transport the supplies. “Furthermore, the February 2021 freeze and power grid failure in Texas paralyzed the plastics market and triggered a global shortage,” Mordini said.

Despite challenges, the yard at WUE in Brighton is filled with inventory for its member electric co-ops.

However, proactive measures by WUE have helped provide its member cooperatives with good equipment and supply levels during these challenging times. Beginning in early 2020, WUE made a conscious effort to increase inventory and, even with the supply chain disruptions, has grown inventory by 55% as of this past February.

Distribution co-ops planned ahead, too. MCREA’s pole yard is currently fully stocked. “Just as WUE has increased inventory over the last year and a half, MCREA has been ordering ahead and increasing inventory ever since shortages were first noticed,” Baranowski reported. “This keeps the co-op’s material inventory up and the co-op remains ready to meet any rebuilding demands.”

Across the country, other EUDA members responded similarly to the way WUE did to supply challenges by broadening their vendor bases, turning to more manufacturers and encouraging others to expand their product lines. “We are getting letters from manufacturers and their representatives about lead time extensions, price increases, shipping delays and production curtailments,” said Bret Curry, manager of sales for Little Rock-based Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc.

AECI is another member of EUDA noting spot shortages of key items such as transformers, fiberglass cross arms and three-phase cabinets and meter sockets.

“You wouldn’t think that something so simple as a piece of bent metal with a socket to hold a meter would be that difficult [to locate], but there is definitely a shortage of those,” Curry said. “Challenges to this industry right now certainly give opportunities for those that are creative to get in the game.”

A WUE truck picks up a trailer filled with spools of conductor bound for a co-op.

WUE chose to curtail sales to new customers and reserve material for its historical customer base. “Many of our manufacturing partners have followed suit, working only with established clients,” Mordini said. “This has led to a normalization in our market, not due to production increases or decreased demand, but rather manufacturers and distributors being focused on their core business partners.”

Current supply chain problems across the electric industry as a whole are the worst many industry veterans have seen in their careers. They compare them to temporary disruptions from previous major weather events that produced widespread damage across multiple regions.

Despite these challenges, creative solutions and product substitutions can help electric distribution co-ops maintain, build and expand their systems, Baranowski said, “For projects where meter socket orders would create delays, crews now often install underground wire to a ground-mounted meter pedestal.” He explained that’s not the only thing the co-op has recently modified. “We have also received requests for design changes allowing co-op consumer-members to buy their own transformer.”

While EUDA members don’t think supply and delivery challenges will last forever, most agree that is for the foreseeable future, continued planning may help co-op limit disruptions to their members. “MCREA consumer-members have remained understanding during these supply-chain challenges,” Baranowski said. “Our engineering department communicates directly with members requesting new services about expected project time frames, current delays and potential material substitutions.”

“Western United’s strong partnership with manufacturers throughout the industry and our commitment to placing the highest priority on our membership ensures we are in the best position to support our cooperative members throughout this challenging period,” Mordini concluded.


Derrill Holly writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association. Kylee Coleman is the Editorial/Administrative Assistant for Colorado Country Life magazine and writes about Colorado electric co-op news for CREA.

Innovation at the Electric Meter

From turtles to AMI, electric co-ops lead the way

By Paul Wesslund and Amy Higgins

An amazing gizmo hiding in plain sight just outside your home is innovating your electric service with quicker responses to power outages and more effective use of renewable energy sources. It’s your electric meter, your digitally advanced meter.

Advanced meters make up more than half the electric meters in the country, and electric cooperatives are leading the way. A total of 73% of co-op consumer-members nationwide are using advanced meters compared to only 58% of utility customers in general. In Colorado, 100% of the state’s 22 electric distribution co-ops utilize advanced meters and have for years.

Southeast Colorado Power Association, headquartered in La Junta, has been using automated meter reading for roughly 20 years. Those first meters seem somewhat archaic when you compare them to today’s meters. Nicknamed “turtles” for their super- slow readings — 27 hours, according to SECPA CEO Kevin Brandon — turtles were still a step up for electric co-ops at the time because they limited the number of trips needed to physically obtain readings.

“When Empire Electric Association switched to AMI [advanced metering infrastructure] meters in 2018, I was surprised at the number of calls we received concerning what will happen to our meter readers,” says EEA Member Engagement Manager Andy Carter. “EEA [based in Cortez] had been using an automated meter-reading system since the late 1990s, the last time we employed people to walk/drive around and read meters by looking at the dials.”

Two features make advanced meters different. One is the ability to monitor energy use with the kind of detail that can give both the co-op and its members information to make more efficient use of electricity. The other is the ability to instantly send information back to the co-op either through low-power radio signals or through power lines.

Those two capabilities have created entirely new ways to improve your electric service:

• Outages can be detected and repaired faster. Advanced meters can let the co-op know of an interruption, pinpointing the location, without waiting for someone to report it. This is especially beneficial to electric cooperatives based in rural areas with larger swaths of land and hard-to-reach meters. “SECPA’s system collects 15-minute interval data on all meters, and you can do on-demand reads for things like kWh (kilowatt-hours), voltage, current, power factor, and other values, and have those reads within just a few seconds,” Brandon explains. “This system also allows us to remotely connect and disconnect meters, which saves on truck rolls. The meters also automatically send in many types of alarm conditions like power fail, brown out, meter tamper and over current.”

• Electricity can be used more efficiently. Advanced meters can report unusual energy use, showing appliances that might be faulty or could be replaced with a more efficient version. SmartHub has become a popular application for many electric cooperatives as it is a win-win for both the consumer and the co-op. Consumers can see their usage data, which gives them insight into information such as spike periods, so they can adjust how and when they use energy to save money.

• Alternative energy can be better integrated into the electric grid. Advanced meters can help cure one of the headaches of renewable energy when solar energy disappears at night or wind power stops in calm weather. Data from advanced meters can be instantly analyzed by computers and coordinated with power plants, rooftop solar panels and wind turbines.

• Advanced meters can save consumers money on their electric bill. Several electric cooperatives are implementing time-of-use rates, which charges for electric use based on off-peak (when electricity costs less) and on-peak hours (when electricity costs more). AMI provides detailed data so consumers can track their energy usage. “If they dig down into the hourly data, they can get a good idea of when they are using the most energy,” Carter says. “Depending on what was being used, they may be able to shift that energy use from on-peak to off-peak time and save money.”

• Consumers can get the most out of their rooftop solar. AMI shares with the consumer and the cooperative measurements such as net energy used, energy delivered to the consumer and the energy put back on the grid. “This gives the consumer a better understanding of how they use their appliances relative to their rooftop solar system’s generation,” explains Sarah McMahon, chief administrative officer with SDCEA, a Buena Vista-based electric co-op. “If the consumer is on a time-of-day rate, this capability informs the consumer on changes to their use behavior that may result in significant savings on their bill.”

• Co-op members can be involved in a more decentralized electricity system. Rooftop solar panels and electric vehicles make complicated additions to a utility network, but those can be turned into benefits by analyzing the data provided by advanced meters. For example, as EVs become more popular, electric co-ops are exploring special rates to encourage charging at times when energy use is lower.

• Co-op operations can be streamlined. Faulty equipment can be detected before it fails.

Some individual consumer-members have opted out of using these technology-based advanced meters. Concerns include health effects of their radio signals and privacy. The health concerns have been addressed by the American Cancer Society.

“The ACS suggests that because the amount of radio frequency exposure from advanced meters is much less than those from everyday devices, it is very unlikely that they could pose greater health risks,” says Tolu Omotoso, director of energy solutions for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Omotoso cites studies that show the strength of advanced meter transmissions is far below those from a cellphone. They’re even less than a TV’s remote control. Advanced meter signals also weaken with distances of even 1 foot. Omotoso says advanced meters aren’t even on all the time: “They transmit data back to the co-op only a couple times in a day, and each transmission takes milliseconds.”

Other concerns include privacy. However, electric co-ops have a long tradition of protecting the data of their members, Omotoso says.

“Load is load and we do not have the ability to differentiate,” Carter adds. “It can’t hear what you say, it doesn’t have a camera — it’s just a kWh meter that can send data and receive commands to turn itself on and off.”

Electric co-ops adopted digital meters to avoid traveling long distances through rural areas just to read an electric meter, Omotoso says. Co-ops kept up that progress, adding other devices to create a new concept of the electric utility grid from a one-way delivery of electricity to an interactive network of power and data between the co-op and its members.

“In the utility industry of the future, you’re looking at decentralized energy use and generation, digitization and decarbonization of the grid,” Omotoso says. “Advanced meters will help utilities and energy consumers transition into this new future.”


Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Amy Higgins is a freelance writer for Colorado Country Life and CREA.

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.