CREA Backs Your Local Co-op to Serve Members Better

By Derrill Holly and Amy Higgins

The true power of locally-owned electric cooperatives is the consumer-members living and working in the communities they serve, and when those co-ops are connected, their collective energy gives them statewide reach.

That’s the role that the Colorado Rural Electric Association and other electric cooperative statewide associations play in supporting the goal of ensuring that co-op consumer-members always have safe, affordable, reliable energy.

“Our main objective is to complement what Colorado’s electric co-ops do at the local level,” said CREA Executive Director Kent Singer. “We aggregate all of their great work so we can talk about it collectively to all of the interested parties in the state who potentially have an impact on co-op consumers through laws, regulations or public policy.”

At the direction of its affiliated electric cooperatives, CREA is regularly involved in education and training, legislative affairs, tax and regulatory matters and regional planning. It also provides a framework for coordination of many activities that provide more meaningful results when addressed through collective action.

Capitol Concerns
It’s not unusual for Colorado’s lawmakers to deal with hundreds of bills with thousands of amendments during a legislative session — many never advance beyond committees or face numerous revisions during hearing and review processes. Keeping track of even major changes is no small feat.

Besides members of state legislatures or general assemblies, there are also regulatory commissions, typically made up of appointees who may be more familiar with major investor-owned utilities than they are with member-owned electric cooperatives.

“It’s all about making policy-makers aware of who we are, what we do and why we do it,” said CREA Director of Government Relations Geoff Hier. “We need to do whatever we can to help them understand who we are and, most importantly, that we’re all reaching for the same goal: providing safe, reliable, environmentally-friendly electric service at the lowest possible cost.”

Leveraged Learning
When it comes to safety, operating efficiency and governance, skills and training can help an electric cooperative run more successfully and serve its members better. But when co-op employees are spread across several locations and committed to maintaining 24/7 operations, getting true value for training dollars can be challenging.

CREA offers training in multiple locations across the state, so participants don’t always have to travel to Denver. In 2018, CREA’s education department had 272 people in the eight director courses it offered. For employees, 28 classes were offered ranging from courses on leadership skills to work orders, line design and staking, as well as training for different work groups such as the mechanics and human resource managers. More than 500 employees participated in these classes.

Education opportunities abound for those who participate in CREA’s annual meeting, the Energy Innovations Summit and the Fall Meeting. The Energy Innovations Summit is open to guests outside the co-op program and is an opportunity to mix with other industry leaders, adding additional value to the program.

CREA provides safety training for all 22 distribution cooperatives in Colorado. With three job training and safety instructors, each cooperative receives five weeks of training per year. The safety training is generated around Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements.

The department also offers mutual aid assistance to members and to other states requesting assistance during times of need. The cooperatives participate in a National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Federated Insurance program called the Rural Electric Safety Achievement Program, or RESAP, which is managed by CREA’s safety and loss control department. Once every three years, each cooperative is extensively examined by volunteers from other cooperatives.

Engaging Future Co-op Members
Electric cooperative statewide associations also take a leadership role in many of the youth outreach programs supported by local electric cooperatives. CREA and other statewide associations coordinate the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour, sending about 1,900 high school students from 46 states to Washington, D.C., every June.

“As cooperatives, we understand that our student leaders of today are our community leaders of tomorrow,” said CREA Director of Member Services and Education Liz Fiddes. “What better time to teach these students about the cooperative business model and co-op careers than through our youth programs?

“Colorado has taken students to Washington, D.C., for 25 years and to the Cooperative Youth Leadership Camp for 42 years,” Fiddes added.

For many Youth Tour participants, the co-op sponsored trips are the farthest they have ever ventured from their home communities without their families. They also provide exposure to state and federal government operations, and opportunities to learn and practice skills that will serve them for a lifetime.

“We promote the life skills that today’s generation value, like building relationships, developing leadership skills and enhancing their resumes,” Fiddes said.

Participants develop strong relationships with their sponsoring electric co-op that often include speaking or volunteering at annual meetings and other co-op events. The results are meaningful community service hours and experiences that often inspire college application essays or can lead to technical or member services career opportunities after graduation.

These are just a few ways that statewide associations like CREA support electric cooperatives. Everything they do is aimed at one goal: bettering the communities they serve.

Derrill Holly writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Amy Higgins is a contract writer covering Colorado’s electric co-ops.

How Net Metering Impacts Electric Cooperatives

By Paul Wesslund

One of the most controversial and least understood energy issues today is net metering.

At its most basic, net metering is a state law requiring utilities, including electric cooperatives, to purchase the excess electricity produced by consumers who have rooftop solar panels. But that’s where the simplicity ends.

States and electric utilities have established net metering programs to encourage clean energy generation. Nearly every state has some kind of net metering rule and they’re changing all the time. In the first nine months of 2018, states took more than 400 actions to change how they compensate small energy producers, according to the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, which collects net metering information from around the country. Some of those actions strengthened net metering laws, others weakened them.

In Colorado, electric cooperatives’ net metering requirements are governed by state statutes and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) interconnection standards. The statute requires all electric cooperatives to allow interconnection of a net metered generator of a renewable resource up to 10 kilowatts for residential accounts and 25 kW for nonresidential accounts, provided the installation complies with the interconnection standards adopted by the PUC.

Colorado co-ops may choose to have policies to allow installation of larger projects, but must interconnect at the 10 and 25kW minimum levels if the interconnection standards are met. If a cooperative denies an interconnection, the cooperative must provide the applicant with a written explanation for the denial.

Here are some additional explanations about net metering:

What is net metering?
Net metering is a way of measuring and valuing the electricity output of privately-owned solar panels. Net metering requires utilities, including electric cooperatives, to buy excess electricity back from consumers who have some way of generating electricity themselves. Net metering typically means that the consumer’s meter rolls forward when the consumer uses power and rolls backward when the consumer sends excess electricity back to the electric grid.

That excess electricity could be produced by solar panels, a windmill or a micro hydropower project. By far, the main source of this extra electricity comes from homeowners who installed solar panels on their property. Whenever their solar system generates more electricity than their home is using, under net metering, the electric utility must compensate the homeowner for the excess electricity.

The PUC interconnection standards are intended to protect the safety of the consumers, employees and owners of the net metered account by requiring approved equipment and availability on the circuit to be interconnected. Cooperatives may deny an interconnection if the equipment isn’t up to standards or if there is not sufficient available capacity on the circuit to accommodate additional net metered accounts.

How do electric utilities compensate consumers for the excess electricity?
Some net metering programs require the utility to buy back or credit the consumer’s bill for that electricity at the same retail rate the utility charges for selling electricity. Other programs allow the utility to credit the consumer at the wholesale cost, which is what the utility pays for power. Some utilities require that these consumers (with privately-owned generation) be metered separately. Under these net billing programs, the consumer receives a bill with the credit for the excess electricity subtracted from the total amount due.

All Colorado electric cooperatives are required to adopt policies to compensate net metered consumers for excess generation and to determine the annual “true up” date. However, there is no statutory formula for compensation. Therefore, each cooperative has discretion regarding the amount and timing of compensation for excess generation.

Is net metering new?
Net metering programs have been around nationally since 1983. Since then, 38 states and the District of Columbia put their policies and requirements into law. Additionally, states started passing other laws, such as renewable portfolio standards, that require electric utilities to have certain amounts of their power generated by renewable energy resources, to encourage solar, wind and other forms of alternative energy.

What makes net metering challenging?
The basic challenge with net metering is that sometimes the policies require electric utilities to pay high costs for what is often “low-value power.”

The reason it’s low-value power is you can’t count on it. There’s no solar energy at night and no electricity from wind during calm weather. Renewable energy advocates argue that net metering rates are a great way to support green power, but utilities say it’s not fair for them to have to buy electricity from a rooftop solar owner at a rate that covers round-the-clock service when that’s not what the homeowner is providing.

The results of that imbalance are where the net metering issue gets complicated. One result is that the economics of net metering create a subsidy for rooftop solar owners paid for by those who don’t have solar panels.

The cost difference between buying wholesale electricity at retail rates didn’t matter so much at first, but solar energy is booming, potentially reshaping the effect net metering could have on the energy industry. The number of rooftop solar installations grew 63 percent from 2012 to 2015, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. As a result of that kind of growth in potential net metering use, many states started rethinking their net metering rules.

Another result affects the ability of the utility to plan for its basic job of supplying reliable and affordable electricity. The engineers and accountants who run an electric utility that provides power 24/7 need to place a higher value on dependable electricity, like from a natural gas or coal power plant, than from several homeowners who may or may not be generating electricity when it’s needed.

Net metering payments also don’t cover the costs of setting up a billing system, paying taxes or any of the utility’s other fixed costs.

What alternatives are there to net metering?
Net metering programs that set the price at wholesale cost are more likely to ensure appropriate levels of compensation for both utilities and consumers who are generating electricity. Also, net billing programs provide a more equitable compensation to the net metered consumer without leaning on other consumers who don’t have solar panels or other ways to generate power at home. Additionally, NRECA suggests other policies for supporting renewable energy without implementing net metering. Those could include tax credits for installing renewable energy systems and dedicated research funds aimed at lowering costs for alternative energy.

How are electric co-ops supporting renewable energy programs that benefit all consumer-members?
Electric cooperatives are leaders in community solar programs that offer their members the opportunity to participate in renewable energy programs that are more affordable and reliable than privately-owned solar panels. Community solar arrays can be sized and priced to fit consumer demand, reducing risks of cross subsidization. With the help of NRECA, co-ops are also working to minimize costs of large solar projects.

As the energy industry continues to undergo major changes, whether to technology, renewable energy use or other emerging trends, electric cooperatives continue working with all co-op members to ensure the delivery of the safe, affordable, reliable and environmentally-sustainable energy our communities depend on.

The Colorado Rural Electric Association expects legislation in the 2019 session to encourage the development of renewable resources, potentially including net metering. There have been discussions regarding increasing or eliminating the 10 and 25 kW minimum interconnection levels. CREA and Colorado’s electric cooperatives supported the legislation to create the current laws regarding net metering and believe they are still appropriate. The law established reasonable thresholds for net metering and allow individual cooperatives flexibility to be as expansive and creative as their consumer-members want to encourage the development of net metering.

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

Reasons You May or May Not Want an EV for Christmas

By Paul Wesslund

Wondering if an electric vehicle is a good gift idea for you or your significant other this Christmas? The answer could depend on where you live.

Electric vehicles account for just 1.2 percent of the U.S. vehicle market, but sales are booming, growing 25 percent last year. And they’re getting better and cheaper as researchers improve the batteries that power them. Here’s a guide to help you decide if an electric car is for you — or if you just want to be smarter about one of the next big things in energy.

The first thing to realize about electric cars is they can drive more than enough miles for you on a single charge, even if you live out in the wide-open countryside.

Try keeping track of your actual daily use, advises Brian Sloboda, a program and product manager at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“If you’re an insurance salesman, you’re logging a lot of miles, so an electric car’s not going to be for you,” he says, noting that a typical range for an electric car today is more than 100 miles, and ranges of 150 to 250 miles are becoming common. “But if you look at how many miles you drive in a day, for most people in the United States, even in rural areas, that number is under 40 miles per day. So if your car has a range of 120 miles, that’s a lot of wiggle room.”

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average American drives 25 miles per day, and for rural areas that average is 34 miles a day.

Sloboda says another reason it’s worth thinking realistically about your daily mileage comes from the most likely way an electric car would be refueled. When an electric car is done driving for the day, you can plug it in to recharge overnight. Essentially, you’re topping off the gas tank while you sleep, giving you a fully-charged battery every morning.

There are three ways to charge an electric car:
Level 1 — The simplest charging technique is to plug the car into a standard home outlet. That will charge the battery at a rate that will add two to five miles to its range each hour. That’s pretty slow, but Sloboda notes the battery might start the charging session already partly charged, depending on how far it is driven that day.

Level 2 — Faster charging will require a professional installer to upgrade the home’s voltage for a unit that will add between 10 and 25 miles of range for each hour of charging — a rate that would fully charge the battery overnight. Sloboda says installing a Level 2 charger in a house or garage would run $500 to $800 for the equipment, plus at least that much for the labor. Timers can also be used to charge the vehicle in the middle of the night when electric consumption is typically lower.

Level 3 — DC (direct current) fast charge requires specialized equipment more suited to public charging stations and will bring a car battery up to 80 percent of capacity in 30 minutes. Sloboda warns this high-speed technique should only be used for special long-distance driving, since it can degrade the battery over time. That’s also why DC chargers shouldn’t be used to bring the battery up to 100 percent.

What you pay to charge your electric car could also depend on where you live, Sloboda says. He advises checking to see whether your local electric co-op offers a lower rate to charge an electric vehicle overnight, when the utility has a lower demand for electricity.

“It’s different depending on where you are in the country,” Sloboda says. Some local co-ops have fairly stable electric demand throughout a typical day, so they may not offer a special electric vehicle rate. He says there are areas of the country where the on-peak, off-peak difference in price is extreme, so it might make financial sense for the utility to offer an overnight charging rate.

Another factor affecting the economics of an electric car is, of course, the cost of the vehicle.

“These cars are really in the luxury and performance car categories,” Sloboda says. As electric cars improve, projections put their cost coming down to match conventional vehicles by about the year 2025. But today, the average electric car costs close to $40,000, compared with less than $30,000 for several internal combustion engine vehicles.

For many people, one of the biggest selling points for electric cars is their effect on the environment, and that can also depend on where you live.

The sources of electricity for a local utility vary across the country — some areas depend heavily on coal-fired power plants, others use larger shares of solar or wind energy. One major environmental group analyzed all those local electric utility fuel mixes and determined that, for most of the country, electric vehicles have much less of an effect on the environment than conventional vehicles. That study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that in the middle part of the country, driving an electric vehicle has the equivalent environmental benefits of driving a gasoline-powered car that gets 41 to 50 miles per gallon. For much of the rest of the country, it’s like driving a car that gets well over 50 miles per gallon.

“Seventy-five percent of people now live in places where driving on electricity is cleaner than a 50 mpg gasoline car,” the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists states.

Other local factors that will affect an electric car’s performance include climate and geography, Sloboda says. The range of the vehicle will be affected by whether you regularly drive up and down mountains or make a lot of use of the heater or air conditioner.

Sloboda concedes that electric vehicles are not for everybody. One limit to their growth is that no major carmaker currently offers an especially popular choice: a pickup truck. Although, the development of electric pickups is under way at Atlis Motor Vehicles and Workhorse group, and discussions show Tesla is considering developing an electric pickup as well.

Sloboda suggests possible advantages of an electric pickup: a heavy battery in the bottom would lower the center of gravity for better handling, and at a remote work site the battery could run power tools.

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

Co-op Solar Projects Start and Succeed with SUNDA Project

By Derrill Holly and Amy Higgins

Electric cooperatives are committed to providing safe, reliable, affordable energy to their consumer-members, and in many parts of the country that includes increasing the availability of solar power.

“Co-ops are big supporters of an ‘all sources’ national energy policy,” said Debra Roepke of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s business and technology strategies group. “Our challenge is finding ways to get sustainable value out of investments that not only help meet the needs of co-op members today, but also control their costs in the future.”

Roepke spent more than four years as NRECA’s liaison and co-project manager of the Solar Utility Network Deployment Acceleration (SUNDA) project, an initiative launched by NRECA with partial funding from a Department of Energy Sunshot Initiative grant. In that role, she worked with generation and transmission cooperatives, electric cooperatives and other organizations involved in planning, developing and assessing the value of various approaches to solar projects.

Colorado Solar Projects
Between 2013 and 2018, total solar capacity owned or contracted by electric co-ops grew from 94 megawatts to 868 MW. Electric coops host more than two-thirds of all utility-sponsored community solar projects.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission, based in Westminster, has three projects totaling 85 MW of utility-scale solar in place. According to NRECA, Tri-State is the top solar G&T in the nation.

Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association, based in Fort Collins, utilizes community solar energy from six sites throughout northern Colorado and owns 2.7 MW.

“We have had a demand for a community solar option since we decided to build our first solar farm in 2012; the farm sold out before it was even built,” said David White, PVREA vice president of member relations. “Members continually requested a solar offering so we constructed a second solar farm that is five times bigger than our first solar farm, which sold out just a few months after construction was complete.

“An important part of our mission is to provide exceptional service to our members and, if meeting their energy needs includes a solar component, we need to be prepared to deliver,” White explained. “SUNDA provided resources at our fingertips that would have taken considerably more time to research on our own.”

SUNDA Provides Research
Solar projects, regardless of size or structure, help to build a knowledge base accessible to all electric co-ops.

PVREA’s first community solar project was Highlands Community Solar, followed by the Willox Community Solar Farm. Both thrived but were Power Purchase Agreement projects, which means the farms are owned and operated by a separate entity that PVREA purchases the energy from.

“With the success of two solar farms under our belt, we decided to build our third solar farm: the Coyote Ridge Community Solar Farm,” White said. With this project, PVREA wanted to take a different approach where the cooperative would own and operate the solar array, eliminating the need for a third party to maintain the farm. However, the co-op did not yet have the experience to do it on its own.

“SUNDA was a great resource for PVREA, providing information on engineering, procurement and construction. We found their financial analysis tool to be instrumental in evaluating options,” White explained.

Materials provided by SUNDA help electric cooperatives with everything they need to know about the process of attaining solar power, from conceptualization to planning and execution, as well as communication with the co-ops’ memberships. White explained that SUNDA’s resources helped cut the amount of time it would have taken otherwise to build Coyote Ridge, which sits at 74 percent subscribed today.

“SUNDA has supported cooperatives across the country,” said Lee Boughey, senior manager of communications at Tri-State. “The sharing of knowledge helps co-ops understand the opportunities with solar and reduce risks, which leads to successful projects”

Declining Costs
Several SUNDA participants contend that declining prices helped move solar from a demonstration or educational technology to a competitive asset within wholesale generation portfolios in many areas of the United States.

Solar products and components are improving, and the manufacturing and vendor base continues to expand. That led to substantial declines in the cost for deployed solar. According to NRECA, the per-watt costs declined from $4.50 for the first research project in 2013 to less than $1.40 per watt in 2018.

“The ultimate economics of solar lends itself to serious consideration as a daytime resource,” said Todd Bartling, vice president of renewables development for the National Renewables Cooperative Organization.

With an average of 300 days of sunshine annually, Colorado electric cooperatives are primed to benefit from this renewable energy resource, given their membership’s support.

“With clear skies and bright sunshine across the West, decreasing costs and federal tax incentives, solar power is an attractive resource for both Tri-State and our members.” Boughey said. “We are able to blend solar power and other renewables with our owned and contracted resources to keep power reliable and costs down for our members.”

“The industry is working to reduce the costs of the underlying equipment, installation and financing,” Bartling said. “Those improvements will help ensure the technology’s commercial viability when or if tax incentives designed to hold down costs are phased out.”

Shared Insights
Thanks to the SUNDA project, all of this information is available to electric co-ops. Shared experiences and open discussion are among the greatest strengths of the electric co-op movement.

Derrill Holly writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Amy Higgins is a freelance writer for Colorado Country Life magazine.

DOE Study of Modern Electricity

By Paul Wesslund

Today’s energy landscape is dynamic. October is Co-op Month and this year’s theme is “Cooperatives See the Future.” Colorado’s electric co-ops are a diverse group, but our overall focus boils down to our biggest concern: achieving our member-consumer’s energy needs, now and in the years to come.

Coal-fired power plants are closing. Homeowners with rooftop solar panels are selling unused electricity back to their utility. Wind farms are springing up across Colorado’s eastern plains. Fracking and other drilling techniques have cut the cost of natural gas by more than half since 2002, and doubled the amount of electricity generated by natural gas.

What does all this mean for the nation’s network of wires and power plants, otherwise known as the electric grid? The answer lies within a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy, says Pam Silberstein, senior director of power supply for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“It’s incredibly well-written, well-researched, very thorough, very comprehensive,” Silberstein says. “It’s a well-put-together compilation of the state of the grid.”

DOE’s August 2017 Staff Report to the Secretary on Electric Markets and Reliability describes the complex state of the electric grid and goes into great detail on how utility trends might affect the price and availability of electricity. It highlights the importance of retraining coal and nuclear power workers, and the effects that renewable energy has on the stability and reliability of the existing electric utility system.

Better reliability
Another way to describe the report: If someone decided that every high school student should understand how the nation’s system of electric wires and power plants works, this study would make a good textbook.

Silberstein sees the grid study as a report that puts in one place all the changes affecting utilities and what those changes might mean. She says, “We’re asking our utility systems to meet a lot of demands they haven’t been asked to do before.”

The study was a quick-turnaround response to an earlier memo from DOE Secretary Rick Perry to DOE’s chief of staff to “explore critical issues central to protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid.”

Many things changed for electric utilities over the past 20 years, and this DOE study describes that new landscape with enough detail to satisfy the most hard-core energy nerd:

• About 15 percent of the nation’s power plants have been retired since 2002, mainly coal and nuclear plants. That trend is expected to continue due to low natural gas prices, slower growth in demand for electricity, environmental regulations and more solar and wind power. While new generating capacity from sources including natural gas and renewable energy, has amounted to about three times the plant retirements, that radical change in the energy mix requires new ways of managing the flow of electricity from the power plants where it is made to the homes and businesses where it is used.

• People are demanding better reliability in their electricity, enough that utilities have supplemented their goals of reliability with a newer term, “resilience.” Basically this means getting the lights back on faster after a natural disaster. That has utilities experimenting with things like utility-scale storage batteries and more precise targeting of which customers should get power restored first.

• A lot of states are passing renewable portfolio standards that mandate levels of green energy, creating a patchwork of requirements in the national grid.

• New and growing additions to the electric grid are changing the way it needs to be managed. Those new power sources include rooftop solar panels that sell electricity back to the utility; natural gas plants that require new pipelines; solar and wind farms in remote areas that need to be connected with new transmission lines; and “demand response programs” in which utilities can turn off home water heaters and air conditioners for short periods during times of peak demand.

Recommendations from the study include:
• Updating the pricing arrangements that govern the buying and selling of electricity.
• Improving disaster preparedness.
• Reviewing regulations that limit the growth of power generation, especially for coal, nuclear and hydroelectricity.
• Focusing on workforce development as energy workers face a changing energy marketplace.
• Modernizing the software that manages electricity transmission.
• Coordinating with Canada and Mexico to enhance electric reliability across all of North America.

The study also notes the importance of cybersecurity to the electric grid, but reported that would be addressed in an upcoming joint report from the DOE and the Department of Homeland Security.

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

A New Solution for Greenhouse Gas

By Paul Wesslund

Later this year, five teams of scientists and engineers from around the world will start packing up and relocating their laboratories to a patchwork of gravel lots next to a coal-fired power plant in northeast Wyoming. Their mission: nothing less than finding beneficial ways to reuse greenhouse gas that’s released into the Earth’s atmosphere.

They aim to grab the carbon dioxide gas from the burning coal before it can contribute to climate change and turn it into something that might be part of everyday life, like concrete, plastic or liquid fuel.

Dan Walsh, the senior power supply and generation director for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, sees value in the Wyoming research, even beyond reducing the environmental effects of coal plants. He says it would be great if we stopped thinking of the carbon in carbon dioxide as nothing more than waste.

“We see a need to take carbon dioxide and turn it into a useful product,” Walsh says. That won’t only reduce waste at coal power plants, he says, but also for users of other carbon-based fuels like natural gas and gasoline.

“The electric power industry is no longer the largest generator of carbon. The transportation industry now owns that title,” Walsh says. “We have to do something, not just for power, but for the planet to come up with a way to utilize carbon dioxide in a beneficial way.”

A breakthrough for humanity

XPRIZE finalists are building labs at this Wyoming power plant where they will test beneficial uses of carbon dioxide.

The Wyoming launching pad for that high-flying goal brings together far-flung partners, including Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which supplies electricity to 18 of Colorado’s 22 electric cooperatives. Other partners include Wyoming’s governor, local electric co-ops and a group that awards multi-million dollar prizes “to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

Two years ago, the XPRIZE, a private innovation group based in California, announced $20 million in prizes “for transformational approaches to converting (carbon dioxide) emissions into valuable products.” The final prizes will be awarded in 2020.

In May of this year, XPRIZE narrowed the applicants to 10. Five of those will set up shop later this year on the Wyoming test site. The other five will operate out of Alberta, Canada.

Electric co-ops have a special stake in the Wyoming test site: the power plant is owned by Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which is based in North Dakota; and financial support comes from Colorado’s Tri-State Generation and Transmission, as well as NRECA.

The XPRIZE finalists that will be building their labs at the Wyoming site are:
BREATHE — from India, working to produce methanol, which can be used as a liquid fuel.
C4X — from China, developing new ways to produce plastics.
Carbon Capture Machine — from Scotland, producing building materials.
CarbonCure — from Canada, specializing in cement and concrete processes and products.
Carbon Upcycling UCLA — from California, making a substitute for concrete.

During the next six months, those teams will be setting up “mini-factories” at the Wyoming test site, says Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, which oversees the site, whose formal name is the Wyoming Integrated Test Center.

Begger says the teams will set up to access the ductwork and piping providing flue gas from the power plant, which contains about 12 percent carbon dioxide. They’ll develop the technology to separate and convert the carbon dioxide from the flue gas and show that their projects can turn waste carbon into useful products.

The test center project started with a state government initiative to plan for the future of the region’s coal resources, and has quickly connected to the larger worldwide effort to capture and use carbon dioxide. In June, the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority formally partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Carbon Capture Center, a testing site in Alabama established about nine years ago. That agreement will mean closer cooperation with the Carbon Capture Center’s experience and its network of experts.

Connecting with other researchers

The DOE’s Carbon Capture Program Manager John Litynski explains how the agreement benefits the Carbon Capture Center as well: “We can only test up to 1.5 megawatts, which we call small pilot scale. The Wyoming test center has the capability to test up to 18 megawatts … which we would call large pilot.”

For years, the DOE has explored ways to remove the carbon dioxide from power plant emissions. The basic problem they’re trying to solve is the costliness of the process and the huge share of electricity produced by the power plant that it uses up. One of the longstanding ideas for managing greenhouse gases has been to remove the carbon dioxide from the power plant emissions, then inject into underground rock formations, an idea called carbon capture and storage.

But the XPRIZE and the Wyoming test center take a different approach of finding something more useful to do with the carbon dioxide than storing it permanently underground.

The DOE recently added the quest for new uses of carbon dioxide to its research. The main focus of the DOE effort is to search for better ways to remove the carbon dioxide from power plant emissions. Litynski says that this year the department is spending $90 million to research carbon capture. Its spending about $12 million on carbon utilization, up from about $1 million three years ago. This summer the DOE issued a $13 million request for research projects on “novel methods for making products from carbon dioxide or coal.”

While headlines about coal and climate change are generating controversy around the globe, the Wyoming test center is heading in a different direction. Walsh credits the center’s international collaboration of government, private groups and electric co-ops with “a great vision” for rethinking one of the world’s biggest energy dilemmas.

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

Colorado Co-ops Share About Recovering from Fires

By Amy Higgins

Fires have been burning all over Colorado this summer and, while most fires seem to be contained as of press time, several Colorado towns in electric co-op territory are still feeling the burn — environmentally and economically. Three co-op communities have particularly felt the impact of this year’s wildfires.

Helping hands through diversity
In San Isabel Electric Association’s territory in southern Colorado, the Spring Creek Fire, more frequently referred to as the Spring Fire, began on June 27, 5 miles northeast of Fort Garland, according to the U.S. Forest Service Incident Information System on InciWeb. As of July 13, the Spring Fire was 91 percent contained. At 108,045 acres burned, this fire is said to be the third largest fire in Colorado history and its area was declared a disaster zone by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

SIEA worked closely with the Rocky Mountain Blue and Rocky Mountain Black incident management teams, as well as the staff at the emergency operation center in Huerfano County. During the fire, the Blue and Black teams instructed SIEA crews where and when to de-energize lines and electrical equipment for the safety of firefighters and public at large.

The 416 Fire began on June 1, 13 miles north of Durango. At press time it was 50 percent contained and 54,129 acres were burned, according to InciWeb.

The day-to-day operations of electric co-op crews quickly adjusted to help keep their community safe. “We are constantly shifting guys around to be on call 24/7 to assist the fire team,” said Justin Talbot, operations manager at La Plata Electric Association, based in Durango.

A view of the 416 Fire from Cottonwood Pond. Photo by Jennifer Wheeling.

While the wildfires raged, cooperative crews’ daily projects were slowed to ensure someone was available to assist the local incident management teams around the clock. “We also have to be very conscious of keeping our guys rested,” Talbot said. “This is an adrenaline rush to them just like any other first responder. These guys get that same feeling as the fire team — they are wanting to help and will do whatever it takes to get it done.”

The Lake Christine Fire began on July 3 at approximately 6:15 p.m., just 1 mile northwest of Basalt. At press time it was 55 percent contained with 6,693 acres burned.

Holy Cross crews making repairs during Lake Christine Fire.

“The Roaring Fork Valley is a pretty narrow valley with Independence Pass at the southern end. Therefore, our lines are often closer together than you typically place them if you were working to ensure redundancy of the system,” explained Jenna Weatherred, vice president of member and community relations at Holy Cross Energy, the co-op headquartered in Glenwood Springs. “We lost the transmission line from Gypsum to Basalt and were then left with one line serving Basalt, Snowmass and Aspen. Unfortunately, this line was also in the fire’s path, and we were very concerned about losing it. If we had lost this line, those communities would have been without power for up to 72 hours.”

“The lineworkers really deserve a lot of credit,” said SIEA Communications Manager Paris Elliot. “They’re working 16-hour days nonstop in the heat, and they love it because they know they’re making a difference in helping people.”

As one of the newer employees at SIEA, Elliot was amazed by the can-do attitude of her fellow employees. “We started ordering poles and transformers as soon as the fire began and we’re ready to rebuild,” she said. “These are just pieces of equipment and they’ll be replaced. The victims of the fire, the sacrifices they’ve made don’t compare — these homes are priceless.”

Economy, concern for co-op members
As firefighters contained the blazes, thousands of Coloradans were without power or evacuated from their homes altogether.

“The (Lake Christine) Fire, which destroyed three homes, resulted in the evacuation of 1,793 residents from 664 homes by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, with some residents being kept from their homes for almost a week, Weatherred explained.

The U.S. Forest Service has not yet reported the exact number of evacuees and damaged structures from the Spring Fire, but news outlets recently reported more than 140 homes destroyed in the fire.

The residual from these wildfires is not only ash and debris, but also job loss and tourism decline.

“The area where we’re talking about (with the Spring Fire), these are some of the poorest counties in the state of Colorado; they’re already facing tremendous economic hardship,” Elliot said, pointing out that the smoke has cleared and most roads are now open, including Highway 160, the main highway through the area. “The majority of access to the area is open. There’s still tons of beautiful mountains, lakes and streams to fish and play in.”

Smoke fills the air as a wildfire spreads through hard-to-reach places. Photo by LPEA member Jennifer Wheeling.

“The smoke has been horrid and our tourism economy has suffered, so everybody is doing what we can to tell folks that Durango is open for business,” added Indiana Reed, LPEA public information officer.

Fire restrictions led to tourism cancellations as well as local shopping decline, so Durango businesses are doing what they can to summon people back to the area with special events like Fab Fridays, concerts, demonstrations and tours.

LPEA customer service representatives decorated a new “Power of Giving Tree” at the Durango office, encouraging the community “to give a little to help a lot, and assist their friends and neighbors economically impacted by the 416 Fire,” according to an LPEA press release.

This is all that is left at this home site devastated by the Spring Fire.

“The big takeaway for me is that there isn’t one member in Huerfano County and Costilla County who hasn’t been affected by this fire. If they weren’t evacuated themselves, they have a family member or friend who was evacuated,” Elliot said. “There was livestock that was unable to escape the fire or be evacuated. There’s land that was lost. The economy changed. There’s literally not one thing that isn’t going to be affected by this fire.”

In light of the damage and economic downturn in Colorado’s burn areas, folks are mindful of the dangerous work that was — and still is — being performed by emergency crews. Locals go out of their way to show their gratitude to firefighters and the many others who put their lives on the line to keep them safe.

“The first responders and firefighters that fought and are still fighting this fire are so brave and courageous,” Weatherred said. “They worked so hard to save homes, keep people safe and protect our power lines. The firefighters are the true reason we’ve been able to keep the power on during this emergency, and we are so thankful for their efforts.”

Amy Higgins is a freelance writer who lived in Denver and knows these areas devastated by the fires.

The Value of New Appliance Features Depends on the Buyer

By Paul Wesslund

The Sloboda family needed a new refrigerator so Brian volunteered to do the shopping. After all, he’s a national expert on electric appliances.

He came home frustrated. There were too many choices, even for the guy whose job title is “program and product line manager for energy utilization, delivery, and energy efficiency” at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “Just buy whatever you want,” he told his wife.

Sloboda finally used his in-depth knowledge when he looked over the model that his wife Sami Jo brought home. “Why didn’t you get the version that has a camera inside, so you can use your smartphone in the grocery store to see if we need more milk?” he asked.

“Because it costs $500 more,” she said. That, Sloboda said, was a good reason. That’s the kind of reasoning we’re all going to be using as we grapple with the newest trend in appliances: connection to the internet.

“The number one problem for homeowners is trying to determine which of the things actually present value,” Sloboda said. “There are infinite possibilities. They sound nice when you first hear about them, but you have to remember you are paying more for those features.”

Web-connected appliances could also offer online diagnostics. There might not be strong, everyday reasons for a washing machine to be hooked into cyberspace, but if it broke, the manufacturer could log in to figure out what’s wrong. That could help decide the best way to repair or replace the equipment. But is it worth the extra cost?

If you’re longing for lower-tech help in decision-making, look to the yellow and black U.S. Department of Energy’s EnergyGuide label on each appliance. “It’s one of the single greatest pieces of information that you can find when you buy an appliance,” Sloboda said. The most useful info is the big dollar figure right in the middle of the label, showing what it will cost to use that appliance for a year.

Sloboda cautioned that the number doesn’t tell you exactly what you will pay because it doesn’t use your local utility’s kilowatt-hour rate, but it’s a perfect way to compare appliances because every appliance’s label is based on the same national average electric rate.

“You can stand in that aisle looking at all the washing machines and you can scan the entire row and narrow your options down from a dozen,” he said, “down to the three or four that use the least amount of money.”

Other especially useful parts of the label, he said, include the lower right corner — if you see an Energy Star logo, it means the appliance will use less energy than one without such a label. Sloboda also singles out the upper right corner that lists the manufacturer and model number, which you can use for more detailed comparisons with other models.

Pay attention to the age of the major energy-using appliances you have at home. New motors added dramatic energy efficiency advances over the past several years, and older motors started degrading in refrigerators and in heating and air-conditioning systems. Consider upgrading air conditioners and heat pumps older than 10 years and refrigerators older than eight years.

The Department of Energy offers a handy way to check whether it’s time to replace your refrigerator — visit the website and in the search box type “flip your fridge calculator.” You’ll find a link to a page where you can enter your type of refrigerator and its age to calculate how much you could save buying a new one.

All these options mean more decisions for consumers, but help is on the way. Sloboda said electric co-ops are working with two national laboratories to study the most useful ways to connect appliances with the internet and with the utilities that provide the electricity. He said over the next two years the study will report on how consumers can more easily make decisions on how to use appliances and even how to enhance cyber security for the growing number of internet-connected devices in the home.

The aim of the study is to understand what the value of internet-connected devices is to the consumer. “Then the manufacturers can start to build products that the consumer wants,” he said. The study will also look for futuristic-sounding ways co-op members can sign up for optional utility programs to help them decide how they want to use electricity.

“The appliances would be networked and they would talk to one another,” he said. “In a very advanced scenario, the home could actually reconfigure the way appliances are being used depending on occupancy of the home at the moment and the weather conditions.”

That setup could even let homeowners decide if they want to save as much energy and money as possible or if they rather the house be warmer or cooler.

“They won’t have to figure out if they want to set the thermostat back,” Sloboda said. “The homeowner would tell the system whether they wanted to maximize comfort or maximize savings, then the home would communicate to the utility. That way it won’t be the utility controlling the system, it won’t be the appliance manufacturer but it will be the occupant of the house who is making the decisions.”

It doesn’t sound like shopping for appliances is going to be any easier in the future, so do your homework, study your options and then select what works best for you and your budget.

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

Colorado Co-ops Researching Battery Storage Technology

By Amy Higgins

Electric cooperatives are faced with the challenge of meeting the energy needs of their member-owners while meeting legislators’ expectations of increased renewable energy options. But “going 100 percent renewable” — a common statement in recent years — is an unrealistic undertaking without the appropriate tools.

One possible solution to these expectations is a new generation of large batteries that could capture energy when it’s plentiful and release that energy later when demand is high. Batteries are a hot topic for meeting those new demands, and some experts predict that utility-scale use of batteries could grow by eight times in the next three years.


This sonnenBatterie Eco Compact 10 kilowatt-hour system is currently in Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association’s community room.

Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association in Fort Collins is presently exploring the benefits of battery storage with a sonnenBatterie Eco Compact 10 kilowatt-hour system in its community room. The battery charges during the day from the solar array located right outside the co-op’s doors.

“Using control software, we discharge that energy for use in our building,” says PVREA’s vice president of member relations, David White. “This energy is particularly beneficial to discharge at a peak time in the day — when the cost of energy is the highest.”

This battery system was made possible with a Regional Center Grant PVREA received from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to research technology that is groundbreaking. According to White, this technology could potentially offer new, beneficial products and services for co-op member-owners.

“Utilizing the battery in our co-op headquarters has enabled us to start learning how battery storage technology helps us manage our energy use, thus how similar battery technology could help PVREA members manage their energy use,” White explains. “It’s another way we’re striving to be our members’ trusted energy advisor by understanding, embracing and exploring technology that is changing our industry and how members receive service from us.”

PVREA is just starting its research on battery storage technology. This energy storage technology is still in its infancy and there is more to learn and develop.

“The method for how battery technology integrates into the already existing local grid with the local distribution utility, and with the generation and transmission utility as well, is still being researched and determined,” White adds.

Another Colorado electric co-op, United Power in Brighton, is also starting to research battery storage. It is looking at a largescale battery storage system that would store excess solar energy generated during the day to be released at night. This could help solar and wind energy continue to gain ground in the renewable sector with energy generated when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing that could be utilized later when it is needed.

According to United Power’s new business director, Jerry Marizza, plans are in the works to have SoCore Energy install a Tesla lithium ion battery storage system to help offset United Power’s capacity charges with its wholesale power provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission. The capacity component of a wholesale power bill recognizes peak usage over a period of time, which can increase the bill.

“That’s what gives [United Power] the revenue stream to offset the cost of the battery. That’s our primary purpose for putting this battery in — it’s really to lower our wholesale power bill,” Marizza says. “Secondarily, we feel that operating and getting experience with this technology is critical in the future.”

This energy storage image represents what United Power’s battery storage project may look like.

This battery storage system could be significant for a specific group of members: commercial and industrial (C&I) customers. There are 2,500 small solar systems in United Power’s territory; 10 of those systems are used by C&I customers. These customers are billed on a demand and energy rate, but their peak demand is mostly when the sun isn’t shining or it’s a cloudy day.

“Even though you have a system at your commercial site or you’re participating in a community solar model, you cannot offset any portion of the demand component on your commercial and industrial bill,” Marizza explains. “That can be as high as 50 percent of your entire bill. It becomes a part of your bill the solar is not affecting at all. That’s been a problem.”

Which is why many C&I members don’t participate in solar. With these members in mind, United Power is beginning to explore options. Using the community solar concept that offsets energy, United Power representatives are thinking about layering a program on top of the battery to create a “community battery” that C&I customers can buy into.

“Instead of offsetting the energy portion of their rate like solar, it offsets the demand and capacity component of their utility rate, which, up until now, nobody has been able to touch,” Marizza says. “That could have a very big benefit for our C&I customers.”

Because residential customers are on a flat energy rate, they don’t need to participate in the community battery because they don’t have a demand component on their bill to offset like C&I customers.

Just like community solar, a community battery program would be owned, operated and managed by United Power. C & I customers would be invited to participate and buy into the program, and then United Power would provide credit on the capacity component of their utility bills.

With the push from legislators for utilities to move toward 100 percent renewable energy, United Power is investigating how — or if — it can realistically reach that goal. “Batteries are one of the technologies that are going to need to develop further to even come close to trying to get some of those goals,” Marizza says. “From an operational point of view, that can’t happen today. We need to develop some of these other technologies and get experience operating them to be able to even come close.

“We feel, on a secondary level, that getting experience with battery storage and how it actually operates is very important,” Marizza continues. “We feel that ultimately that this experience is what’s going to allow us to integrate more renewables onto the grid.”

United Power wants to help pioneer this new renewable energy option just as it did in 2009 with its community solar farm, which was the first electric utility solar farm in the country. The battery storage project is expected to break ground later this year. Initially, United Power will use this battery to offset the capacity component of its wholesale power bill. Once the research and understanding of the technology is determined, the community battery program could become reality.

And, then, electric co-ops will have another tool to use as they continue to bring more renewable energy into their systems.

Amy Higgins writes for Colorado’s electric cooperatives.

Energy Efficiency Program Saves Schools Cash

By Katie Kershman

Colorado schools are saving $102,000 annually through the Colorado Energy Office’s Energy Savings for Schools (ESS) program.

Energy costs are the second highest operating costs K-12 schools face today. It’s estimated that more than $2 billion could be saved nationwide by improving energy efficiency, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Thanks to CEO’s ESS program, local schools are becoming more energy efficient and accessing that savings.

This map shows schools that have participated in the Energy Savings for Schools program

To date, CEO has provided 46 schools with an energy audit or technical support, and those schools are implementing priority efficiency projects.

Through the program, schools receive free on-site energy and water audits from an energy engineer; technical support and energy coaching; an evaluation of renewable energy opportunities; implementation support and help identifying existing funding and financing options for completing projects; connections with peer schools and a platform for sharing ideas and knowledge; recognition for the school’s efforts and opportunities to engage students; and (on a case-by-case basis) an energy monitoring device to measure electricity use and access to real-time data on a web-based dashboard.

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 for improved efficiency. Concerns expressed by school staff are used along with insights gained from the historic utility data to help customize our approach for each unique facility,” energy efficiency engineer John Butler said.

Often, students shadow the audit and learn about recommendations for improved efficiency. They also are encouraged to get more involved in how their schools use and can conserve energy to create lasting impacts.

After the site visit, the energy engineer prepares a customized report with recommendations for the school.

Energy efficiency engineer John Butler engages students during their school audit

“We understand how limited resources — especially time and financial resources — can be for these rural and low-income schools, so we prepare our reports with the aim to help each school prioritize strategies and next steps,” Butler said. “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 identifies 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,” said Michael Turner, CEO’s energy efficiency program manager. “The ESS program supports and, in turn, is supported by a number of CEO and other related programs, including the Supplemental Environmental Projects, High Performing School Program, Energy Performance Contracting and Renew Our Schools Program.”

Moffat County High School in rural Craig is one of these schools. “Moffat County School District is committed to using the community’s resources in an efficient and effective manner. This includes looking for every opportunity to save on utility costs,” explained Moffat County School District Superintendent Dave Ulrich. “We found the ESS program to be a great partner in helping us identify areas within which we could save.”

Through the ESS program, Moffat County High School partnered with a local Steamboat Springs firm to design a new capacitor bank to correct its electrical power factor. The project had an initial cost of $17,000 but will save the school over $3,800 annually.

“The most important aspect of the program is that it gave us specific, actionable feedback that could be implemented immediately,” Ulrich said. “We’re looking forward to reviewing the utility data once the capacitor is installed.”
The school also installed an energy monitoring device (e-Gauge) that measures electricity use and provides access to real-time data. The e-Gauges are provided free of charge to eligible schools participating in the ESS program and help school staff and students better understand the real-time impacts of energy use.

Local schools are invited to access ESS resources to optimize performance, save money and begin to develop a culture of conservation among students and staff. CEO is recruiting schools from Colorado’s rural and low-income areas to participate in the program. Schools interested in the program should contact program manager Susan Blythe at 970-207-0058, ext. 310 or visit

Writer Katie Kershman is with the Brendle Group, an engineering and planning firm.