Batteries are Changing How You Receive Electricity

By Paul Wesslund

Batteries will soon be part of a huge change in how you will receive electricity from your electric cooperative.

Utilities are currently running into electricity supply challenges, and batteries are stepping up with solutions. Here’s what electric utilities are currently facing:

• High-tech equipment can fail during a power interruption of even a few milliseconds.

• Interest in renewable energy is increasing, but solar power won’t work when the sun doesn’t shine and wind turbines won’t spin when the wind doesn’t blow.

• Consumers want electric service to be restored more effectively after outages. Even if a storm leaves a large number of homes and businesses without power for several days, consumers want plans in place to quickly restore power to essential services, like gas stations and pharmacies.

A solution for these dilemmas lies in the emerging technology of battery storage, which could provide additional power when the demand for electricity is high. Currently, these large batteries are extremely expensive.

But the demand for better smartphones, laptop computers and electric cars fueled a frantic race for batteries that are lighter, smaller, longer lasting and less expensive. These demands are being met through research into technical improvements and by the economics of mass production.

The lithium-ion battery breakthrough
What’s behind all these developments is the 40-year-old lithium-ion battery technology, named for the lightweight metal lithium it’s made of, and ions, which are pieces of atoms that move back and forth inside the battery to produce and store electricity.

“One of the breakthroughs has been the adoption of the lithium-ion battery for vehicles as well as consumer products,” says Andrew Cotter, a program manager for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s business and technology strategies group. “A lot more lithium-ion batteries are being produced so there are a lot of companies able to package them much more cheaply. And that has spurred more companies to start investigating and investing in research.”

According to a 2016 report titled “Welcome to the Lithium Age” from Germany-based international financing giant Deutsche Bank, “Lithium-ion battery costs are falling rapidly as global battery producers expand manufacturing facilities, unlocking economies of scale.”

The next step for the battery industry, says Tom Lovas, a technical liaison and consultant with NRECA, is scaling up for applications in the electric utility industry.

Working through the hype curve
Right now only a handful of utilities are making significant use of batteries, but one industry research group predicts that number will grow eight times by 2020, for a market value of $2.5 billion. That kind of potential leads to some bold claims as battery companies compete for their share.

“There’s a lot of hype out there,” Lovas says, as marketers tout batteries as the linchpin of putting together the smart grid to modernize the flow of electricity.

“The technology is available, people are interested but no one knows the flaws yet,” Cotter says. “As utilities gain experience using batteries in routine operations, they will learn the imperfections and start figuring out what are the most conventional uses. Vendors, in turn, will start developing batteries for those specific applications.”

For example, one of the most likely of those applications will be to resolve the problem of intermittent power flows created by renewable energy. Since solar and wind power can be generated during times when people don’t need it, batteries could store the excess energy for future use. While beneficial in theory, in practice it is not clear whether there is a broad economic case for this. Each utility will have unique factors that will play into this decision.

Another use of batteries could be to smooth out power fluctuations from renewable energy. Solar and wind energy can come from a variety sources: independent vendors and even homeowners selling power back to the utility from their relatively small sets of solar panels or wind turbines in ways that are hard for the utility to predict. The result can affect the quality of power and even damage equipment as transmission and distribution lines are used in ways they weren’t designed for. But again, the economics of such an application are unique to each utility.

In time, utilities will become familiar with the best uses of the technology. Storage applications will become commonplace, and vendors will sell optimized products for them. Until then, NRECA’s business technology and strategies group is using cases that provide methodologies for a storage assessment.

Like all things in the energy industry, it is not all economics. Some state governments are getting into the act, passing laws requiring utilities to use batteries in their operations to encourage renewable energy and provide immediate power to essential businesses after storm outages.

This new utility world holds great promise and could start taking shape in as soon as one to three years, Cotter says. But first, he says, the utility battery industry needs to mature and show the effectiveness of the products.

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Free Energy Resources for Colorado’s Rural Schools

Outdated lighting, heating and cooling can cost rural schools, on average, 30 percent more on their energy bills, according to a recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. To combat this problem, the Colorado Energy Office’s Energy Savings for Schools program is under way and able to support up to 12 more schools this year.

“The ESS program builds off many years of the CEO’s programmatic work in the K-12 area,” Michael Turner, CEO’s energy efficiency programs manager, explains. Schools across Colorado saved energy and money through a variety of offerings, and now they are part of this program to bring all available resources to bear on those schools with the greatest needs.” It’s a great opportunity for schools looking to improve their learning environment through more efficient operations.”

Through the program, schools receive:
• On-site energy and water audits from an energy engineer
• Evaluation of renewable energy opportunities
• Technical support and energy coaching
• Implementation support and help identifying existing funding and financing options for completing projects
• Recognition for a school’s efforts and opportunities to engage students
• Connections with peer schools and a platform for sharing ideas and knowledge

When a new school joins the program, the ESS team works with the school to collect and review building utility data (electricity, natural gas and water) before the site visit. “Reviewing utility data before a site visit gives us insight into how a building is performing and highlights potential areas of concern,” ESS energy efficiency engineer John Butler says. “Concerns expressed by school staff are used along with insights gained from the historic utility data to help focus the site visit and assessment on problem areas and to customize our approach for each unique facility.”

After the site visit, the energy engineer prepares a customized report with recommendations for the school. “We understand how limited resources — especially staff and financial resources — can be for these rural schools, so we prepare our reports with the aim to help each school prioritize strategies and next steps,” Butler says. “And the report is only the first step. We work closely with school staff to identify what projects make the most sense and help navigate the process of getting projects done. Many times, this means helping schools identify funding or soliciting and reviewing bids from contractors.”

To help fund recommended projects, ESS staff identify other applicable CEO programs, local utility rebates and other state and local programs for schools to leverage. “There are no direct monetary costs for a school to participate in the ESS program. The only costs are associated with staff time to interact with the ESS team and any costs to implement after all external funding sources have been exhausted,” Turner says. “The ESS program supports, and, in turn, is supported by a number of CEO and other related programs, including the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency for Schools loan program, Supplemental Environmental Projects, High Performing School Program, Energy Performance Contracting and the Renew Our Schools Program.”

To date, 23 schools received their energy reports and began implementing projects. The graphic to the left outlines the collective potential savings identified for these schools.

Legacy Academy, a tuition free, K-8 charter school in Elizabeth, is one of these schools. “As an administrator who is not an expert in energy savings projects, it was incredibly valuable to have the support from this team when receiving project bids,” explains Legacy Academy’s principal Kurt Naber. “The comprehensive energy audit, combined with guidance and input from the ESS team, helped me to feel confident and well-informed when presenting options to Legacy’s board of directors.”

Legacy Academy is poised to save $13,420 annually as a result of lighting upgrades, ceiling fans and water fixture upgrades installed this year.

“We have been pleased and impressed with the knowledge and assistance that the ESS program has brought to our school,” Naber says. “The representatives from ESS have been a great resource for us as we have evaluated bids and moved forward with several energy-saving projects. Their input gave us assurance that we are making well-informed decisions.”

In addition, with support from the ESS program, Legacy Academy applied for and was awarded Energy Star building certification in November as a result of its efforts to improve efficiency. Energy Star certified buildings outperform 75 percent of similar facilities across the country.

Don’t let your local school miss out on ESS resources to optimize energy performance and save money. CEO is actively recruiting schools from Colorado’s rural and low-income areas to participate in the program’s second year.

If you know a school that might benefit from the program, share this information with a school representative or contact the program manager, Susan Blythe, at or 970-207-0058 ext. 310. More information is available at

Leadership in a Purple State

By Kent Singer, CREA executive director

If you are in a certain age group and attempted to learn the guitar as a teenager, I bet you mastered as least one riff: the opening notes to the 1972 Deep Purple hit “Smoke on the Water.” (You know it: bump, bump, bum…bump, bump, da-dum…bump, bump, bum…bump-bum.) And while the English bandmates who formed Deep Purple probably didn’t have Colorado in mind (despite the name of their biggest hit), the band’s name aptly describes the current balance of political power in Colorado.

At both the state and federal level, we have an equal mix of Republicans and Democrats in control of our legislative and executive branches. In fact, voter registration in Colorado is split fairly evenly among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. So where some states are reliably blue (Democrat) or red (Republican), when it comes to political majorities, Colorado is reliably purple.

Purple state
Colorado has one Republican U.S. senator and one Democrat U.S. senator. In the 2016 election, Democrat incumbent Michael Bennet defeated Republican Darryl Glenn in a race that turned out much closer than the polls predicted. Even though Bennet raised and spent much more money than Glenn, his margin of victory was only 3 percentage points.

Republican incumbent Cory Gardner was elected in 2014 when he defeated the favored Democrat incumbent Mark Udall. The results of that race seemed to put on hold on what appeared to be a trend toward a Democrat-leaning electorate in Colorado.

The same purple theme applies to our congressional delegation. Of Colorado’s seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives, four are Republicans and three are Democrats. The three Democrats (Reps. Diana DeGette, Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter) represent primarily Denver and the suburbs near Denver, while the four Republicans (Reps. Ken Buck, Mike Coffman, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton) represent the rural areas of the state, as well as urban counties farther from Denver.

At the state legislative level, the purple theme continues. The state senate has a narrow (18-17) Republican majority, while the Democrat majority in the House of Representatives expanded to 37-28 after the 2016 general election. This balance of power means that only legislation that has bipartisan support will pass during the next two sessions of the Colorado General Assembly.

Since the political activities of the Colorado Rural Electric Association are focused at the state level, the composition of the General Assembly and CREA’s relationship with its members is critical to the success of CREA initiatives. CREA’s legislative team is devoted to informing and educating state legislators about the cooperative difference and how legislation can impact the consumer at the end of the line. The CREA team also works hard to share with legislators and other stakeholders the extraordinary work being done by Colorado electric co-ops to respond to the changing demands of electric consumers.

Balanced leadership
With Colorado’s term limits, the leadership in both houses of the General Assembly changes frequently. Since the individuals in leadership positions set the agenda for their respective houses, we president of the Senate.

Rep. Crisanta Duran (D-Dist. 5)

For the two years of the 71st General Assembly (the 2017 and 2018 sessions), the speaker of the House will be Rep. Crisanta Duran. Rep. Duran will serve her fourth term in the legislature representing House District 5 in central Denver. Rep. Duran served as the chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee in 2014, and she served as the majority leader in the 2015 and 2016 sessions. She sponsored a variety of legislative initiatives, including efforts to spur economic development, extend unemployment benefits for Coloradans learning new workforce skills and increase the renewable energy requirements applicable to Colorado’s electric co-ops.

Speaker-designate Duran has a particular interest in rural economic development: “One of my priorities has been to make sure that small businesses thrive and folks have good jobs in rural Colorado. That’s why I passed a bill to provide tax benefits to new businesses through creating ‘jump-start zones’ in rural areas of the state. I’m going to continue to make sure we don’t take anyone in Colorado for granted and leave no one behind.”

Although Rep. Duran does not have any electric co-op service territory in her legislative district, she is familiar with Colorado’s electric co-ops. She joined in support of recent legislation revising the co-op requirements under Colorado’s renewable portfolio law, as well as adjustments to the co-op election law.

During the 2013 legislative session, Rep. Duran was the prime house sponsor of S.B. 13-252, the bill that increased the renewable energy requirements for the co-ops. Since the passage of that bill, the work done by Colorado’s electric co-ops to integrate additional renewable energy into their power supply portfolios has not gone unnoticed by Rep. Duran: “I applaud efforts by local co-ops to generate more electricity from renewable sources. It’s really inspiring to see folks in Colorado taking the lead to make sure we can tap our wind, water and sun to create the energy we need and keep it in our communities.”

Sen Kevin Grantham (R-Dist. 2)

The Senate president for the 71st General Assembly will be Sen. Kevin Grantham, a two-term state senator from Cañon City. Sen. Grantham represents Senate District 2, a district that includes Fremont, Teller, Park, Clear Creek and parts of El Paso counties. Sen. Grantham was raised in a farming community in Crowley County and currently works as a real estate appraiser at Grantham Appraisal Service in Cañon City. He is also a member of the Joint Budget Committee, a position he will relinquish when he assumes his role as Senate president on January 11.

Sen. Grantham has long been a supporter of Colorado’s electric co-ops, and he was the prime Senate sponsor of several bills recently initiated by CREA. During the 2015 legislative session, Sen. Grantham sponsored a bill that allowed co-ops to use purchases from community solar gardens to comply with the requirements of Colorado’s renewable energy law. S.B. 15-046 also authorized electric co-ops to subtract their sales of electricity to industrial loads for purposes of calculating their “retail” distributed generation obligation. These changes made compliance with the renewable portfolio law more economic for co-op consumers.

In the 2016 session, Sen. Grantham sponsored CREA’s bill to make sure that all ballots are counted in co-op board elections and to reduce the costs of those elections. He also co-sponsored a bill that clarifies that sales of electricity for residential purposes are not subject to the state sales tax.

Sen. Grantham believes strongly in the idea that electric co-ops are successful because they are owned and governed by their members, and maintaining this independence is important: “Colorado’s electric co-ops have done a great job providing safe, reliable and affordable electricity to rural Colorado for over 75 years. The co-op business model and local control works, and we’ll oppose any proposed interference with that local control.”

Sen. Grantham’s take on renewable energy is somewhat different than Speaker-designate Duran’s view. “Our caucus tends to believe that market forces should determine which energy sources are used by Colorado’s citizens,” he says. “Although we support all forms of energy, including renewable energy, we don’t support mandates that increase costs to rural consumers.”

Working together
So, will a Senate president- designate from rural Colorado and a House speaker-designate from Denver be able to work together to solve Colorado’s problems and move the state forward? The answer from both is a resounding “yes.” Says Rep. Duran: “I look forward to working with Sen. Grantham, and across the aisle, to move Colorado forward in areas where I know we have common ground, including education, transportation and infrastructure. We have more in common than divides us, and I know we can work together to have a productive legislative session.”

Sen. Grantham concurs: “We won’t always agree with bills passed by the House and they won’t always agree with bills passed by the Senate. But I think we can still work together to balance the budget and find ways to spur economic development in rural Colorado.”

The band Deep Purple continues to tour, with different members, decades after its founding. And it looks like Colorado’s purple politics will also share the stage for the foreseeable future… bump, bump, bum…bump, bump, da-dum…bump, bump, bum…bump-bum.

How an Electric Utility’s Transformers Work

By Tom Tate
300x250-industryIf you were asked to describe your electric cooperative’s system, you might say, “Poles, wires and those round gray things.” Round gray things? That is often the description given for transformers, the pieces of equipment crucial in converting electricity to a voltage that is safe for use in homes and businesses. So, how do they work?

First, transformers are nothing like those creations of the silver screen. They don’t transform from vehicles to incredible combat robots. Instead, they transform the voltage of the electricity that passes through them.

Here’s how they work: Electricity loses voltage as it is transmitted due to the resistance in wires and other components. As a result, higher voltages are used to offset these “line losses,” as electric utilities call them. It all starts at the power plant. There, generators produce electricity at high voltages and use transformers to step up this voltage. For example, in Colorado, Tri-State Generation and Transmission — the power supplier for 43 not-for-profit electric cooperatives and public power districts in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming — sometimes steps electricity it generates up to 345,000 volts. Since the power plants are far away, these voltages are necessary to survive the trip over the system to where it is needed.

Transmission lines connect to substations full of transformers and other control gear. Here is where the transformers step down the voltage to safer, more manageable levels. Depending upon the distance involved to the farthest member and the amount of load served, distribution voltages can range from 7,200 to 24,900 volts. A couple more step-downs and the electricity arrives at your home at 120/240 volts. This is quite different from the original voltage.

Regardless of the shape and size of the transformer, they all work in the same manner. Transformers have two sides, a high-voltage side and a low-voltage side. In normal operation, electricity flows into the transformer on the high-voltage side where it goes into a coil of wire, usually wound around an iron core. As the electricity flows through this coil, it creates a magnetic field that “induces” a voltage in the other coil. Here is where the magic (aka physics) of transformation takes place. Each coil has a different number of turns. The greater the number of turns, the higher the voltage. The coil on the high side will have more turns than the one on the low side. As a result, the voltage induced on the low side is less. Then transformation occurs.

Transformers aren’t just limited to utility use. They can be found everywhere in our daily lives, even if not so obvious as those on your electric cooperative’s system. The best example is the charger that all cell phones and many other electrical devices come with. These small cousins of utility transformers basically perform the same function. Charging your cell phone with 120 volts will fry it instantly. So, the charger converts the voltage to a more tolerable direct current. Take a moment to look around your home and see just how many of these miniature transformers you have. You might be surprised.

It is important to note that transformers work in both directions. Electricity flowing in on the low side is stepped up to the voltage of the high side. This is why electric co-ops educate members on proper connection of home generators. A generator feeding 240 volts into a residential transformer will produce whatever voltage the transformer is rated for on the other side, creating a deadly risk for line crews and your neighbors, which is why your co-op asks you to connect your generators according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. It’s always best to be safe.

Tom Tate writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Co-ops Care About Veterans in the Workforce

By Justin LaBerge

Most military bases are located in rural areas, and the power systems at some bases are operated by electric cooperatives. A disproportionately large percentage of our nation’s troops — some estimates suggest as high as 40 percent — come from rural America. Even the organization responsible for representing electric cooperatives in Washington, D.C., the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, was once led by a retired Army general.

Last year, America’s electric cooperatives began a new chapter in their long history of support for the military with the launch of Serve Our Co-ops, Serve Our Country, a nationwide initiative to honor and hire military veterans and their spouses.

The program was developed to help electric cooperatives address a generational turnover in their workforce. Over the next five years, NRECA estimates electric co-ops will need to hire approximately 15,000 new employees to replace retiring baby boomers.

Those new workers will fill roles in every department, from lineworkers climbing poles to member service representatives answering questions to engineering and industrial technology experts designing and managing a smarter electric grid.

In addition to the technical skills these jobs require, electric cooperative employees must be hard working, disciplined, loyal, safety conscious and team oriented — qualities that are common among military veterans.

This summer, Serve Our Co-ops, Serve Our Country celebrated a major milestone when former Air Force Capt. Jeremiah Sloan became the first veteran officially hired through the program.

The story of how Sloan landed his new job as an electrical engineer at Craighead Electric Cooperative in Jonesboro, Arkansas, reads like the plot of a Hollywood movie.

Brian Duncan, CEO of Craighead Electric in Arkansas, hired the first veteran at the nation's co-ops.

Brian Duncan, CEO of Craighead Electric in Arkansas, hired the first veteran at the nation’s co-ops.

For several months, Craighead Electric CEO Brian Duncan worked to fill the position. Duncan advertised the opening in local papers and national job sites and attracted a number of highly qualified candidates.

Sloan’s application was among those strong candidates, but he wouldn’t be available to start for six months when his Air Force service ended.

Duncan, hoping to fill the position sooner than that, made offers to two other well-qualified applicants, but was unable to come to terms with either.

Shortly after the second candidate fell through, Duncan attended a national conference for electric cooperative CEOs.

One of the sessions featured two fellow co-op CEOs, one of whom was a 25-year Air Force veteran, discussing the newly launched veteran hiring initiative.

“The whole time they’re talking I’m thinking about Jeremiah; we probably need to look at this guy. For these guys coming out of the military, what better way to say ‘thank you’ than to give them a job,” Duncan said.

Jeremiah Sloan on the job.

Jeremiah Sloan on the job.

They scheduled an interview and it didn’t take long for Duncan to realize the co-op found its next engineer in Sloan.

“He was extremely professional. It was straight down the line. ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘No, sir.’ Very detailed in his answers to all of the questions. Very thoughtful in his answers. It was the perfect interview, you might say,” Duncan said.

Sloan brings more than a strong resumé and professional demeanor to his new position at Craighead Electric. He also brings a love for the community and a desire to return to his roots.

“I grew up in northeast Arkansas,” Sloan said. “My family is a long line of farmers, and they’re actually on Craighead Electric’s lines. The whole reason my wife and I decided to separate from the Air Force was to return home and be close to family.”

Former Air Force Capt. Jeremiah Sloan is the newest engineer on the Craighead Electric Cooperative team. “Sloan brings more than a strong resumé and professional demeanor to his new position, " CEO Brian Duncan said." He also brings a love for the community and a desire to return to his roots.”

Former Air Force Capt. Jeremiah Sloan is the newest engineer on the Craighead Electric Cooperative team. “Sloan brings more than a strong resumé and professional demeanor to his new position, ” CEO Brian Duncan said.” He also brings a love for the community and a desire to return to his roots.”

Though Sloan is the first veteran hired through the initiative, he won’t be the last; several other veterans have already been hired through the program. In addition to nationwide outreach through NRECA, approximately 50 electric cooperatives across the country already took the pledge to join the effort on the local level.

The support of veterans and reservists extends far beyond the scope of the formal Serve Our Co-ops, Serve Our Country program into the routine operation of many electric cooperatives.

Two managers at AECI, a wholesale supplier of electric equipment owned by the electric cooperatives of Arkansas, were recently honored by the U.S. Marine Corps for their support of a Marine reservist working at the cooperative’s warehouse in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In August, Russ Dilley and Eric Creekmore were presented the Patriot Award for giving AECI truck driver Michael Henderson the workplace flexibility he needs to serve in the Marine Corps Reserves.

Serve Our Co-ops, Serve Our Country is another way America’s electric cooperatives can show concern for community while building a next generation workforce that will deliver the exceptional service co-op members expect and deserve.

To learn more about the program and career opportunities for veterans at electric cooperatives, visit Cathy Cash and Denny Gainer contributed to this report.

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

“Pioneering Power” Documentary and Co-op Month Go Hand in Hand

By Mary Peck

For cooperative businesses, October brings more than all things pumpkin and masses of Halloween paraphernalia. October is National Cooperative Month, a 50-year-old tradition and time for co-ops across the country to reflect on their principles and share the value of cooperative membership with others.

This year, it also happens to be the month that the team at Durango-based film production company Inspirit Creative is putting the final touches on “Pioneering Power,” a documentary exploring the birth of electrical power generation in the mountains of southwestern Colorado and the formidable challenges faced by the people who changed history.

Cameraman, Jay Kriss, captures lineman KJ Johnson climbing a pole the way it was done in the early years of the industry.

Cameraman, Jay Kriss, captures lineman KJ Johnson climbing a pole the way it was done in the early years of the industry.

The enthusiasm Executive Producer and Director Jay Kriss of Durango brings to the project and its story of electric power’s western roots is unmistakable. “I find it fascinating that these guys were building wood flumes to shoot water down something that [Nikola] Tesla designed,” he said. “Electricity as we know it started here. No one else can say it. We were the first.”

Immersing himself in his subject is key to the documentary-making process, Kriss explained. When the film industry veteran is seeking a documentary idea, he looks for a major event, individuals to tell about it and a strong archival source to help bring the event to life. Kriss’ award-winning 2012 documentary “Harvesting the High Plains” centers around the story of two men and how their innovative farming practices developed during the Dust Bowl ended up creating one of the nation’s largest wheat-farming operations.

“Documentary films are different; the development process takes some time,” said Kriss. “I spend a lot of time reading and looking at the social implications, particularly in the West.” After a year of planning and research in places like the Washington, D.C., National Archives, Cornell University and the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Kriss and Associate Producer and Co-Director Christina Knickerbocker launched production in August 2015.

The team traveled extensively for months, shooting more than 35 hours of footage at locations that included Idaho, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Some original structures and power lines, built mainly to serve a booming mining industry, that are still in use today made the footage and re-enactments especially compelling. “When you think about our history, it’s so new, it’s almost frightening,” Kriss said.

Alex Shelley of SMPA at the Ames Hydroelectric Plant.

Alex Shelley of SMPA at the Ames Hydroelectric Plant.

In Colorado, the film crew trekked to sites like the historic Ames Hydroelectric Plant outside Ophir, Camp Bird Mine near Ouray, Bridal Veil Falls overlooking Telluride, the wooden flumes at Cascade Creek in LaPlata County and the Tacoma Hydroelectric Plant, which is accessible only via the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

The 80-minute documentary will cover the work of industry heavy-hitters Thomas Alva Edison, George Westinghouse, Tesla and the Nunn brothers; the world’s first commercial alternating current, or AC, power station built in Colorado in 1891; and the monumental change that electric power generation and transmission brought to life in the West. The film’s journey culminates with the authorization of the Rural Electrification Act, which subsequently led to the formation of today’s electric cooperatives.

Not surprisingly, the cooperative spirit played a role in “Pioneering Power.” Interviews, historic photos, archival film and realistic re-enactments are key elements of the project. When Kriss called on San Miguel Power Association for help, the electric co-op, whose service territory includes Silverton, Telluride and Nucla, was quick to answer. “We’re super excited and it’s a story well-worth telling,” said Alex Shelley, communications executive at SMPA. “This can really shine a light on what happened here.”

KJ Johnson and Tom McLeod of SMPA helped create period scenes.

KJ Johnson and Tom McLeod of SMPA helped create period scenes.

Shelley and several SMPA linemen donned 1930s-era clothes to help create authentic period scenes, including one filmed at the Idarado substation perched at an elevation of 11,000 feet on the top of Red Mountain Pass in Ouray County. The substation’s decades-old wood structure, built to power the Idarado Mine, was an ideal stage. “The fun part was going to these old lines we have,” said K.J. Johnson, a journeyman lineman at SMPA. “We have stuff still in use now that was built in 1926.”

Turns out Johnson is a man of many talents. He is also a boot repairman and helped adapt the linemen’s boots to be historically accurate by putting leather soles on them. He did similar work for Quentin Tarantino’s Western movie “The Hateful Eight,” filmed near Telluride in 2015.

“It was fun working with Jay and Christina. He’s shot a lot of films and she knows a lot of the history,” Johnson said. “They were very organized and ran everything by us to make sure it was possible. I’m really excited for the premier.”

Snowshoes have always been part of a mountain lineman's necessary equipment.

Snowshoes have always been part of a mountain lineman’s necessary equipment.

Along with SMPA, the support of HiLine Utility Supply, the Colorado Rural Electric Association, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Xcel Energy and viewer donations made through Colorado Public Television (CPT12) helped make “Pioneering Power” a reality. In large part, it’s an investment in education.

“Documentaries can be powerful teaching tools,” Kriss said. The project includes a shorter companion film titled “Power Today,” and features discussions with linemen and information on today’s wind, coal, solar and hydroelectric power generation sources. The curriculum will accompany the film as a packet available through the Public Broadcasting Service.

“Pioneering Power” features the diverse talents of 60-75 people overall, an original music score written by composer Rob Pottorf and narration by television host Mike Rowe, best known for his work on the Discovery Channel series “Dirty Jobs.”

It is set to premier in Durango, followed by early showings in other locations that provided assistance. Its television premier will be presented by CPT12 during prime time in upcoming months. It will ultimately be seen nationally on PBS in more than 20 million households, followed by a home DVD release through PBS and will be available later on Amazon, Netflix and other outlets.

Learn more about the project at

Mary Peck is a freelance writer with a history of working with and writing for Colorado’s electric co-ops.

Co-ops Vote Initiative is Devoted to Rural Issues

By Justin LaBerge

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rural electrification movement is a prime example of this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hydropower Makes its Mark on Electric Co-op

By Kevon Storie

The beauty and the challenge of renewable energy is that there is no silver-bullet resource, no one-size-fits-all portfolio, and a utility’s territory may hold more than one overlooked opportunity to add new kilowatts of clean, locally-generated power. Being alert to such opportunities is how San Miguel Power Association built a power portfolio that includes 2.3 percent locally-generated hydropower.

Right place, right time

Small hydropower development is highly dependent on location, and SMPA is lucky that its southwestern Colorado service territory is rich in the resource. “Blessed” is the word marketing and energy services manager Brad Zaporski used, who added that there is more to the utility’s success than water. “We have existing infrastructure from the historic mining industry, so the facilities can be developed with minimal environmental impact,” he said.

Silverton micro hydropower building

Silverton micro hydropower building

The 11-kilowatt Mayflower Mill Hydro in Silverton is another history-making facility, the first small hydropower project in Colorado to be permitted under the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act. Congress passed the law in 2013 to streamline the permitting process for hydropower units smaller than 5 megawatts.
In fact, commercial hydropower plants were generating electricity in the area long before the U.S. Department of Energy was created and earlier than when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act. The Ouray hydropower plant began operating December 6, 1885, making it one of the oldest in the nation. Private developer HydroWest, Inc. bought and renovated the inactive plant in 1992, and today it generates about 4 million kilowatt-hours annually for San Miguel.

Comes in all sizes
In many cases, however, the cooperative simply makes its own feasibility. At 8 MW, the Ridgway Reservoir hydropower plant doesn’t quite qualify under the streamlined hydropower act, but it is the single largest renewable energy project in San Miguel’s service territory. It generates about 24,000 megawatt-hours in an average water year — enough electricity to power 2,500 homes annually — and far more than the co-op is able to purchase on its own.

SMPA worked out an agreement with its wholesale power provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and plant owner Tri-County Water. TriState buys the energy the plant produces between June and September, and SMPA consumes the power. The city of Aspen buys the facility’s output during the other eight months of the year.

The Ouray hydropower plant, which was established in 1886, is believed to be the oldest operating power plant in the United States.

The Ouray hydropower plant, which was established in 1886, is believed to be the oldest operating power plant in the United States.

Though considerably smaller at 320 kW, the generating station at the Pandora Water Treatment Facility in Telluride scores big points for maximum use. Four high lakes above the town send water through the Bridal Veil hydropower plant above town, producing about 2 million kWh annually. The next stop is the Pandora hydropower unit at the treatment facility, and from there to the homes and businesses of Telluride for consumption. The water ends its journey through the city at the Telluride wastewater plant where a large solar array produces 10 percent of the plant’s electricity needs. “And all of these things happen in just 3 miles, largely through the use of existing infrastructure from the mining era,” said Zaporski.

San Miguel also has several micro hydropower units — those that generate less than 100 kW — in its portfolio. The 90-kW Coal Creek hydropower plant just south of Ridgway was the co-op’s first micro hydropower purchase in 2009, and the 22-kW Ouray Hot Springs hydropower plant is one of three net-metered hydropower facilities on SMPA’s system.Though considerably smaller at 320 kW, the generating station at the Pandora Water Treatment Facility in Telluride scores big points for maximum use. Four high lakes above the town send water through the Bridal Veil hydropower plant above town, producing about 2 million kWh annually. The next stop is the Pandora hydropower unit at the treatment facility, and from there to the homes and businesses of Telluride for consumption. The water ends its journey through the city at the Telluride wastewater plant where a large solar array produces 10 percent of the plant’s electricity needs. “And all of these things happen in just 3 miles, largely through the use of existing infrastructure from the mining era,” said Zaporski.

Raising green for green power
Focusing on small and micro hydropower development isn’t the only creative thing about San Miguel’s approach to renewable energy, either. “We do it all on a zero-subsidy basis,” Zaporski stated proudly.

A 22-kW micro hydro project at Ouray’s hot springs powers the pool and out buildings at the city-owned facilities.

A 22-kW micro hydro project at Ouray’s hot springs powers the pool and out buildings at the city-owned facilities.

The co-op offers its members two programs that allow them to fund hydropower and other renewable projects outside of rates. Through the Green Block program, members purchase renewable energy credits from SMPA’s existing renewable generators to offset their energy consumption. These Green Blocks, as the RECs are called, represent 100 kWh of renewable energy and cost $1 per block, per month. All SMPA members may purchase as many blocks as they wish and the cost is added to the monthly bill. Local municipalities looking to offset their energy use also purchase the RECs.

The Green Cents program is another simple and easy way for members to support community renewable energy projects. Members may choose to round up their monthly bill to the nearest dollar, with the extra pennies funding new projects. Participation costs members on average around $7 annually, and they may cancel at any time.

Opportunity keeps knocking
In a news release about the Ridgway Dam project, Colorado Small Hydro Association President Kurt Johnson of Ophir said, “Only about 3 percent of the nation’s dams currently include hydropower. There is an enormous untapped opportunity to generate new clean energy using existing infrastructure.”

Zaporski agreed, noting that San Miguel has two more small hydropower projects in the works. “Partnership is really what makes these projects happen,” he declared.

Originally printed in Western Area Power Administration’s Energy Services Bulletin.

The Next Generation of Lineworkers

By Justin LaBerge

Becoming a lineman involves years of training and experience.

Becoming a lineman involves years of training and experience.

Over the next five years, America’s electric cooperatives expect to hire nearly 15,000 people to fill jobs ranging from information technology specialist to lineworker. Investor-owned utilities, municipal power systems and private power line contractors will also need thousands of skilled workers to keep our nation’s energy grid running safely and reliably.

Despite high demand, good pay, excellent benefits, opportunities to advance and a stable long-term outlook, America is facing a shortage of lineworkers.

To address this looming shortage, energy companies, including America’s electric cooperatives, teamed up to create the Center for Energy Workforce Development. Even celebrities took notice. Mike Rowe, who gained fame as host of the Discovery Channel’s series “Dirty Jobs,” created a foundation to raise awareness of the great career opportunities offered by skilled trades that are too often overlooked by guidance counselors and eager parents.

Trade groups and celebrities can raise awareness of an issue, but it takes more than awareness to keep the lights on. Training programs are the vital link to help motivated individuals become our nation’s next generation of lineworkers.

No “typical” student
In Colorado, we have some notable lineworker training programs, such as Mesa Hotline School and Western Colorado Community College, both in Grand Junction, and Rocky Mountain Lineman School in Trinidad.

Electrical LineworkerAt lineworker school, students learn about safety, underground and overhead procedures, installation, repair, operation of equipment, pole climbing and more important aspects of this skilled profession.

A common thread through these programs is that they attract students from all walks of life. Many are young people who recently graduated from high school. Others are older and have more experience.

The older students tend to be a mix of individuals looking for a better job with advancement opportunities, workers who were laid off from manufacturing jobs and veterans who recently completed their military service. No matter their background, all students in these programs must love the outdoors and have a strong work ethic.

The tuition assistance options for lineworker programs are almost as diverse as the students themselves. For apprentice lineworkers already employed by co-ops, the tuition for these programs is often paid in full by the co-op. Returning veterans can use GI Bill funds, and many states have additional programs to help veterans enter the civilian workforce. Manufacturing workers who lost their jobs to companies overseas might be eligible for job-retraining funds.

In addition to these specialized types of financial assistance, lineworker training programs typically qualify for all the traditional education funding sources, including scholarships, grants and student loans.

Even those who rely on loans and their own funds to pay for their lineworker education will benefit from the much lower costs of community colleges as compared to four-year schools and private, for-profit colleges.

Genuine opportunity
In a September 26, 2015, column published by Education and Career News, Mike Rowe wrote: “Every day, millions of people looking for work fail Electrical Lineworkerto consider a host of genuine opportunities, in part because they don’t appear on our collective list of ‘top jobs.’ Job satisfaction is important, but ultimately, vocational happiness has less to do with what you do than with who you are. In other words, character — like opportunity — won’t be found on a list.”

Few organizations value character as much as America’s not-for-profit, member-owned electric cooperatives, and lineworker is just one of the many “genuine opportunities” they offer.

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

Reliable Electricity is Becoming Even More Reliable

Our electricity is on almost all the time. You know that. But you might not know the amount of time it’s on is getting better every year.

Electricity has become so reliable that the numbers for a typical American home sound crazy. For most people, the total amount of time without power because of an outage is less than two hours a year. That means their electricity is on 99.977169 percent of the time.

“You can’t have 100 percent reliability all the time on something as large as an electric distribution system,” says Tony Thomas, principal engineer at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. And although the U.S. electric service on-time number is just a decimal point from perfect, Thomas says, “Reliability has been getting much better.”

To understand the improvements in electric utility reliability, you need to be introduced to what Thomas says are known as “the three sisters”: the acronyms SAIDI, CAIDI and SAIFI.

Those stand for different ways to measure how power outages affect consumers. Here’s what they mean:

SAIDI shows how long an average customer goes without power during a year. It stands for System Average Interruption Duration Index. It’s calculated by dividing all of a utility’s power interruptions by the number of customers that utility serves. Analysts caution against citing a national SAIDI average because of the huge differences in utilities across the country and how data is collected. But a report from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers puts the typical customer as being without power 115 minutes a year.

SAIDI numbers do not include extremely long or short outages, since they could drastically skew the results among utilities and make the numbers less useful. Extremely long outages, like those caused by a major storm, can sometimes last more than a day. The short outages that are not included in SAIDI are, for example, cases like a utility circuit breaker quickly opening and closing.

SAIFI shows how often the power goes out for each customer. It stands for System Average Interruption Frequency Index. It’s calculated by dividing the number of customer interruptions by the number of customers.

CAIDI shows the average time it takes to restore power after an outage. It stands for Customer Average Interruption Duration Index. It’s calculated by dividing SAIDI by SAIFI.

All three of those reliability measures improved over the past few years, according to IEEE reports. The amount of time a utility customer was without electricity for the year (SAIDI) declined about 20 percent in the most recent four years of figures — from 143 minutes in 2011 to 115 minutes in 2014.

The number of outages per typical consumer in a year (SAIFI) went down from 1.16 to 1.07. And how long each of those outages lasted (CAIDI) declined from 117 minutes in 2011 to 104 minutes in 2014.

Thomas credits advances in utility technology for those improvements.

More and more mechanical electric meters are being replaced with automated meters that do more than just measure the bulk use of electricity coming to the meter at your house. They can also monitor whether electricity is delivered to your house at all, as well as the voltage quality of that electricity.

“With automated meters, utilities can know a consumer is out of power before the consumer knows it,” Thomas says.

Another step toward utilities spotting and solving outages faster is the more widespread adoption of high-tech monitoring systems. These SCADA systems, or Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems, are typically set up as several computer monitors in a control room, each showing a different view of the utility’s service area, including weather maps and detailed schematics of each power line, substation and home or business served.

“Prices have dropped for SCADA systems, just like for all software in the last few years,” Thomas says. “Utility technology has gotten a lot better in the last 10 years.”

Thomas credits electric cooperatives with making special use of technology to overcome the barriers of long distances between members. Outages and other routine changes in power flow can be more quickly and easily addressed remotely, without having to make a long drive to a home or substation.

“Rural electric co-ops have done an amazing job of adopting technology and putting it to use,” Thomas says. “And all this technology just translates into better operation of the electric system.”

Colorado Rural Electric Association Executive Director Kent Singer agrees: “Co-ops have a great track record when it comes to keeping the lights on.”

But what about the future? “Co-ops will be challenged to continue this amazing level of service as more intermittent sources of electricity are integrated into the grid,” Singer said. “That will not be easy.”

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, based in Arlington, Virginia.