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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.

Transmission Project Crosses the Canyon

By Jonah Martin, Manager, MNC Project Management Office

Even by the standards of other major utility construction projects across the nation, the numbers behind Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s recently completed, 230-kilovolt Montrose-Nucla-Cahone (MNC) transmission project are staggering. Throw in a worldwide pandemic during the construction phase and we have a real story to tell.

Two Tri-State Generation and Transmission staff view the process of the Montrose-Nucla-Cahone transmission project. The project cost nearly $105 million and 65,000 labor hours of construction.

The basic facts are impressive for a project built in remote areas of the Rocky Mountain West. The project began in May 2013 and required the approval of nearly a dozen local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

MNC traversed more than 80 miles of often challenging terrain, and the associated severe weather, through portions of Dolores, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties in Colorado, at times reaching elevations of more than 11,000 feet above sea level.

Substation expansions
The MNC included a substation expansion in Montrose, completed in May 2017; the new Maverick substation, which Tri-State energized in April 2020; and improvements at the Cahone substation.

The Maverick substation was to initially operate at 115 kV, while accommodating a future need for 69 kV of service. The decision last year to decommission Tri-State’s Nucla Station power plant and the associated Nucla substation earlier than planned required the Maverick substation build to take place earlier as part of the initial construction phase.

Transmission lines and fiber optics
The transmission line project also included more than 300 miles of access improvements and significant vegetation management along nearly 60 miles of federal land. In total, MNC required 435 wood structures and 131 steel structures; 1.37 million feet of conductor; and nearly 475,000 feet of optical ground wire. The optical ground wire is part of the regional fiber optic communications backbone between Grand Junction and Albuquerque. Even these figures do not begin to tell the whole story.

The crowning achievement of this challenging project included the crossing of the historic Dolores Canyon just east of Dove Creek. The Dolores Canyon, characterized by red Wingate Sandstone, old-growth ponderosa trees and the winding Dolores River, begins in the southern San Juan Mountains and meanders toward the Utah border. The Juan Rivera expedition viewed the Dolores Canyon in 1765 while exploring trade routes in Ute country.

Dolores Canyon a significant crossing
For Tri-State, the crossing of Dolores Canyon presented several unparalleled challenges in the U.S. transmission industry, with the exception of the smaller, original (and still existing) 115 kV wood-frame crossing of the canyon completed in 1958. Even if the Gateway Arch in St. Louis were placed in the 1,100-foot canyon, it would not be visible, except to someone standing on the rim of the canyon.

Tri-State Transmission and Generation uses air support to complete the Montrose-Nucla-Cahone transmission project. This project includes crossing the Dolores Canyon, which spans nearly 6,600 feet between two 85-foot-tall lattice towers, one each on the north and south rims of the canyon.

The Tri-State crossing effort required a span of nearly 6,600 feet between two 85-foot-tall lattice towers on the north and south rim of the canyon. When counting distances from the “dead ends,” which hold the weight of each of the five 20,000 pounds of conductor and optical ground wire tensions, the distance was 8,000 feet. The line dropped some 400 feet between the lattice towers into the canyon.

Tri-State made five crossings of the canyon: three with conductor and two with optical ground wire. A helicopter first pulled a 5/16-inch rope from the south to the north end of the canyon, and then winch equipment pulled back a 3/4-inch rope back to the south. At that point, the rope then pulled the conductor and optical ground wire back from the south to the north rim. This work started during the week of September 28 and was completed by October 10.

To put some of this in perspective, the transmission line over the Dolores Canyon spans about 1.25 miles between lattice towers and more than 1.5 miles between the dead ends. Only three other spans worldwide are known to be longer, although on much larger towers: an 8,714-foot span between the Jintang and Cezi islands in China; the crossing of the Norwegian Sognefjord at 15,082 feet; and the Ameralik Span in Greenland at 17,638 feet.

In fact, the Dolores Canyon segment wasn’t the only significant crossing.

Workers previously crossed Glade Canyon, 2.5 miles north of Dolores Canyon, which was a 2,800-foot crossing, or just over half a mile, and would have been a significant effort for any other transmission line project but now the second largest on MNC.

The Montrose-Nucla-Cahone transmission line project benefits
The MNC transmission line was energized in October and was complete — aside from reclamation work — by the end of 2020. The project cost nearly $105 million and required 65,000 labor hours for construction.

Completion of this project brings a number of immediate benefits to Tri-State and the bulk electric system. Greater reliability and lower maintenance needs, greater operational capacity and flexibility, and the ability to accommodate load growth in the area are just a few of the immediate impacts. MNC also paves the way for future benefits, including the ability to support Tri-State’s Responsible Energy Plan and the growing interest in generation interconnection projects throughout western Colorado.

Numerous departments and dozens of employees throughout Tri-State left their marks on this once-in-a-career project. Without the hard work and dedication of the MNC project team, none of the amazing numbers, accomplishments and benefits could have been achieved.

Jonah Martin is the manager of the Montrose-Nucla-Cahone project management office and an employee of Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Tri-State is a wholesale power supply cooperative, operating on a not-for-profit basis, with 45 members, including 42 utility electric distribution cooperatives and public power district members in four states that together deliver reliable, affordable and responsible power to more than a million electricity consumers across nearly 200,000 square miles of the West. For more information about Tri-State, visit tristate.coop.

Co-ops Support Future Leaders

Electric co-ops fund college scholarships, youth programs

By Sarah Smith

Colorado’s electric cooperatives have awarded more than $2,209,250 in scholarships to 1,637 students over the past five years*. That means hundreds of students have been able to attend college and/or trade school, thanks to the support of their local electric cooperative.

Each of the state’s 22 distribution co-ops provide this support to students in its own way. Some offer a unique set of scholarships, including scholarships provided by power suppliers Basin Electric Power Cooperative and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, as well as scholarships in honor of previous managers and board members. Vocational and technical school scholarships are offered, including opportunities for electric lineworkers. The overall goal is to give students in their co-op territory, regardless of background or finances, a chance at continuing their education after high school.

Each co-op funds its scholarships a little differently, although none of the funding comes from electric rates paid by consumer-members. Most of the funds come from unclaimed capital credits, which must be turned over to the state if they are not used by the co-op for specific purposes. In some cases, co-op board members contribute their own money to fund the co-op’s scholarships. The Basin Electric and Tri-State scholarships are provided by those power suppliers.

Each scholarship recipient through the years have been deserving of the recognition and support. A few students have a lasting impression on their local electric co-op with their stories. These individuals were not only qualified but also led as examples for their peers and future applicants.

Dean VanWinkle of Fruita was the winner of the 2017 Grand Valley Power scholarship.

Dean VanWinkle of Fruita eats, sleeps and breathes cattle ranching. It’s in his blood, passed down from five generations before him. The treatment of the livestock his family raises, while also sustaining the land to provide a nutritional product, is top-of-mind. With that responsibility also comes the importance of higher education to gain more knowledge and understanding about every facet of running and operating his family’s business — which is also their livelihood.

Grand Valley Power Association awarded VanWinkle the GVP scholarship in 2017. He stood out to the scholarship selection committee, which is made up of a group of educators appointed by the board of directors, for his deep passion for cattle ranching and agriculture business and his vast leadership roles.

Notably, he was the 4-H district president and on the state officer team, where he mentored 4-H members to become the next generation of leaders. From a young age, VanWinkle learned the importance of raising and caring for animals and gained a great sense of leadership and responsibility. As a multigenerational rancher in the Grand Valley area, his drive and his dedication to the Western Slope hit home with GVP’s committee.

After graduating from high school, VanWinkle attended Fort Scott Community College and then transferred to Kansas State University. After college, he plans to return to the family ranch to work alongside his parents, Howard and Janie. He is also committed to staying involved with local organizations and associations.

“It is very important to support the communities that have helped me along the way,” VanWinkle said. “The scholarship from GVP allowed me to attend college and focus on gaining new knowledge while seeing different operations and strategies of operation. These scholarship programs are vital and sometimes underappreciated. I was extremely fortunate to receive several scholarships from the community and I am extremely thankful for the organizations that make them available.”

San Miguel Power Association is another cooperative to have remarkable scholarship recipients who encompass the overall goal of the program while expressing individuality and leadership in new ways.

Elizabeth “Beth” Williams was awarded the 2018 San Miguel Power Association Ouray High School scholarship

Former recipient Elizabeth “Beth” Williams was awarded the 2018 SMPA Ouray High School scholarship. Following the recognition, Williams attended a summer internship at the Rodham Institute and George Washington School of Medicine, where she worked with underprivileged patients and assisted the doctors as a Spanish translator. Her internship was designed to focus on health care and social change.

During her six-week program, Williams also gained a unique perspective about the health care system. This opportunity broadened her horizons and opened the possibility to study in other parts of the country.

Kyra Maxfield received the 2020 Silverton High School vocational scholarship for her education toward veterinary school.

Alex Shelley, SMPA’s communications executive, also reflected on a scholarship recipient from last year: Kyra Maxfield. Maxfield received the 2020 Silverton High School vocational scholarship for her strong drive to work in the veterinary field. SMPA’s scholarship helped place her in a college that could advance her goals and provide the support she needed on an individual basis.

“Our youth engagement programs are very important to us,” Shelley said. “These young people are future members, and their goals and attitudes give us a glimpse at what the future of our business and industry will hold. Plus, their enthusiasm is catchy!”

Scholarships are an important way that Colorado’s electric cooperatives support the community.

Another significant way co-ops strengthen and build up young people is through educational programs.

Support for the Washington D.C. Youth Tour, Cooperative Youth Leadership Camp, the Colorado State Fair Junior Livestock Sale, local county fairs and safety programs are other ways that co-ops educate and provide opportunities for students. Unfortunately, gathering and travel restrictions due to COVID-19 postponed some of these beneficial programs, but CREA and its electric cooperatives are hopeful to resume all of them by 2022.

The future of Colorado’s communities shines through in its youth and it is crucial that tools and resources for higher education are provided to students. By working together as one unified voice, CREA’s member co-ops are committed to enhancing and advancing the interests of their consumer-members, including the youngest members the co-ops serve. One day these young people will become the co-ops’ greatest assets and their strongest leaders.

For more information on Youth Tour, camp and other youth programs, visit crea.coop.

*Statistics based on a survey sent out to all 22 Colorado electric cooperatives; 19 out of 22 participated in the survey and are represented in the data listed.

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

The Super Grid: The Path to Wealth on Renewables?

By Reed Karaim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But a super grid would also face significant challenges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Co-op Women in Power

By Sharon Sullivan

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

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

Jessica Matlock

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

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

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

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

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

Ginny Buczek

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

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

Barbara Walz

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

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

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

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

Sylvia Spangler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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