Co-op Communities Caring for Neighbors through Energy Program

Did you know that nearly one in four Colorado households can’t afford to pay their home energy bills without skimping on other basic necessities like food or prescriptions? Fortunately, many of Colorado’s electric cooperatives and other supporters make it possible for Energy Outreach Colorado to provide year-round energy bill payment assistance in all 64 Colorado counties for senior citizens, families with young children, veterans and individuals with special needs.

This year, EOC is providing nearly $7 million to help pay overdue home energy bills for low-income Coloradans. EOC distributes the funds through its statewide network of 95 community assistance partners that include senior support agencies, county human service offices, faith-based organizations and veteran support groups. These local partners accept energy assistance applications, determine eligibility and approve direct payments to utility or fuel companies to help struggling households catch up on their energy bills.

“Federally-funded programs for low-income Americans are increasingly at risk, so local nonprofits like Energy Outreach are more important than ever to support our most vulnerable neighbors and communities,” EOC Executive Director Skip Arnold said. “When we can stabilize a family by making sure they have the basic necessities of heat and light, everyone in the community benefits.”

A history of lending a hand

EOC was established in 1989 by state lawmakers who wanted to ensure that Coloradans could remain warm and safe in their homes, regardless of decreasing funding for federal programs such as the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP). Since then, EOC has worked with community organizations, energy companies, policymakers and individual supporters to deliver nationally-recognized programs to help low-income Coloradans afford home energy. To date, EOC has invested more than $255 million in affordable energy programs for low-income Coloradans.

In addition to bill payment assistance, EOC manages programs to repair and replace nonworking home heating systems; manage weatherization projects to lower costs in single-family homes and apartments, affordable housing communities and nonprofit buildings; and educate residents about smart energy usage. EOC is also an active participant at local, state and national levels in the planning and implementation of affordable and equitable energy policies.

Linda D.

One Coloradan who was helped through EOC is disabled senior Linda D., a long-time resident of Silverton in San Juan County. Because of a severe lung condition, she needs oxygen and weekly home intravenous treatments. Last winter she was diagnosed with cancer and spent several months undergoing radiation therapy and traveling to consult with doctors in Denver and Durango. She couldn’t afford to keep up with her home energy bill and was on the brink of losing her lights and heat, during which snowfall totals surpassed 200 inches. She was thankful and relieved when EOC paid the balance of her energy bill. Linda has since made a full recovery from the cancer.

“Without utilities I can’t live,” she said. “My biggest fear is that I won’t be self-sufficient anymore and I’ll have to move in with one of my kids and become a burden.”

Co-op communities keep program healthy

To continue to do this important work and help Coloradans like Linda, EOC has a monthly donor program called HEAT HEROES, which enables caring Coloradans to easily make monthly contributions on their energy bill or credit card. The HEAT HEROES are 10,000 special supporters who provide nearly $1 million each year for neighbors facing dangerous living conditions as they struggle to afford home energy. Monthly HEAT HEROES provide consistent help to keep a neighbor in need safe at home.

The 2017 Powering the Plains bicycle team.

EOC thanks Holy Cross Energy, Intermountain Rural Electric Association and Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association for being corporate supporters. Thanks to generous matching support from IREA and Empire Electric Association, their members’ donations to EOC are doubled to help more struggling neighbors in their own communities.

In addition, the Powering the Plains bicycle team sponsored by Touchstone Energy Cooperatives pedaled thousands of miles to ride on behalf of EOC during the past six Pedal the Plains bike tours. With continued support from rural electric association partners, Energy Outreach Colorado can help Coloradans remain warm and safe in their homes this winter.

You can become a HEAT HERO by making a warm-hearted monthly donation to EOC on your energy bill. For more information go to or call 303-226-5057. EOC has received 14 consecutive top ratings from Charity Navigator and is a Platinum-level participant of GuideStar.

For Information about energy bill payment assistance, go to or call toll-free 1-866-HEAT-HELP (1-866-432-8435).


Enjoy the Internet without Hackers

By Paul Wesslund

This month, electric cooperatives across the country are joining forces to raise awareness about cybersecurity. We hope you will join us in taking action and recognizing October as National Cybersecurity Awareness Month.

Electric co-ops protect the private information of members and ensure hackers don’t tamper with the reliability of the electric grid, but consumers have a lot at stake, too. Think about losing all the photos on your smartphone or having bank or credit card information stolen from your computer.

Cyber criminals all over the world are on the prowl through the internet and they’re getting better at what they do, according to the team of cybersecurity experts at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“The bad guys tend to be a step ahead and we’re always going to be playing catch-up, so you’re never going to be 100 percent secure,” says Barry Lawson, a senior director of regulatory affairs at NRECA. “But it’s not something to be afraid of. There are basic steps people can take to provide good layers of protection.”

Lawson, along with two other NRECA cybersecurity specialists, Cynthia Hsu, cybersecurity program manager, and Bridgette Bourge, senior principal for legislative affairs, recently discussed steps consumers can take to protect themselves and their valuable data.

They suggest thinking of cybersecurity as cyber hygiene. “Just like washing your hands will help keep you from getting bacteria,” Bourge says, “there are simple things you can do to protect yourself online.”

The first step is to make cyber hygiene a habit, Hsu says. She advises people at work and in their homes to incorporate basic security steps into their daily mindset.

Here are the top tips for protecting yourself from internet danger at work and home, as recommended by the NRECA experts:

1. CREATE A STRONG PASSWORD: If it seems difficult to keep up with all the passwords for the different software and applications you use, at least focus on the main passwords that allow the primary internet access, like the ones that open your computer, phone and wireless router. Make it complicated with a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and special characters like “%” or “&.” Remember to change the password at least every six months.

2. KEEP SOFTWARE UPDATED: Notices of updates don’t just add flashy features to your apps, they often add security patches to protect against new security threats. Updates usually come automatically from the software company, whether it’s for the computer, mobile device operating system, one of the many functional apps, like Facebook, or a link to your favorite sports team. But take a level of caution on updates as well. You can check regularly for updates either from your device or by going to the application’s website. Be suspicious of update notices that arrive by email, especially if they claim to require urgent action. Visit the application’s website to make sure the update is legitimate.

3. DON’T CLICK ON ANY LINK OR ATTACHED FILE UNLESS YOU KNOW WHERE IT WILL TAKE YOU: A lot of the computer hacking problems you hear about in the news result from people clicking on links or attached files that infect their computers or mobile devices. An email can even be disguised to look like it’s coming from your best friend, so simple diligence can be extremely beneficial. Take a moment and move your cursor over a link to reveal the full address before clicking it. You’ll see a lot of confusing symbols, but you should also be able to recognize the name of the legitimate source. If you don’t, find another way to verify the link.

4. INSTALL AND USE VIRUS PROTECTION: Buy your antivirus software from one of the major recognized companies and make it a subscription-type service that regularly sends automatic updates.

5. DON’T USE FLASH DRIVES: Those little thumb drives or jump drives you insert into your USB port may be handy ways to share lots of photos or other large documents, but as your mother might say, you don’t know where they’ve been. These portable memory devices are another common way computers get infected with damaging software. Instead, learn to use Dropbox or other software solutions for transferring large files.

6. BACK UP YOUR DEVICES: Make sure you have a current copy of everything on your computer or mobile device. Every few weeks, transfer your contents to an external storage system that you then unplug from your computer. You can buy an external hardware drive or online storage designed just for this purpose. Think of it this way: What if your computer or phone were lost or stolen? Recent computer attacks involve ransomware that locks your computer and threatens to delete or prevent access to everything on it unless you pay a ransom to the hackers. The hackers might not unlock it even after a ransom is paid. If you suffer a ransomware attack, you might need to take your computer to a professional to wipe everything off your hard drive and start over. But with a backup you will be able to restore your most valuable documents.

7. SECURE ALL YOUR INTERNET-CONNECTED DEVICES: Hackers started invading wireless printers and baby monitors that work through the internet. These devices tend to have extremely weak, preset passwords that you probably don’t even notice. Read the instructions carefully, set good passwords, keep the devices updated and make sure any wireless routers in your home are secure as well. Any internet-connected device — smart televisions, cameras, voice-activated speakers, thermostats, video games, fitness bracelets, internet-connected refrigerators and lightbulbs — is vulnerable.

8. PROTECT THE KIDS: Don’t forget that children also need to be aware and practice good cyber hygiene. They should know not to send out such information as birthdates and other ID numbers, as well as details like how long the family will be away on vacation. Learn to use parental control options on your hardware and software.

To learn more about National Cybersecurity Awareness Month and to view additional cybersecurity tips, visit

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

Q&A with Co-op Historian Ted Case

By Paul Wesslund

Ted Case spent the past several years diving deeply into unexplored parts of electric co-op history. He described how co-ops have affected national policy since the 1930s in his first book, Power Plays: The U.S. Presidency, Electric Cooperatives, and the Transformation of Rural America. His second, just-released book title describes itself: Poles, Wires and War: The Remarkable Untold Story of Rural Electrification and the Vietnam War. (***Scroll to the bottom of this page to read more about Case’s new book.***)

Case is executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. He recently talked about what the history of electric co-ops means for co-op member-owners everywhere.

Q: How did you end up writing about electric co-ops in the Vietnam War?

A: It came out of my first book and the chapter on President Lyndon Johnson. In 1965, he received a letter from the general manager of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Clyde Ellis, saying that NRECA could help win the war by putting electric co-ops in Vietnam. I was intrigued by that bold claim. Since Johnson was such an early and strong supporter of rural electrification in Texas, he embraced Ellis’s proposal fully. Learning about that story led me on this quest to track down some of the men and women who had worked on it.

Q: Did NRECA start co-ops in Vietnam?

A: It was a really good effort. Just 20 men went over there in a five-year period. These were the most difficult co-ops to establish in the history of the electric co-op program. The Viet Cong soldiers that were fighting against the South Vietnamese tried to cut down the co-op lines and chop down their poles and blow up their dams, and they did all those things. The people trying to start the co-ops faced rampant corruption and an inability to get poles and other materials. They got three co-ops up and running and brought light to thousands of villagers. But the program ended and they had to leave, and the communists overtook the country.

Q: What lessons did you learn from researching the book?

A: The support the U.S. co-op workers got from the Vietnamese villagers was not unlike the support from the farmers who started electric co-ops in the United States in the 1930s. The Vietnamese villagers wanted a radio. They wanted an iron and lights to read. Toward the end of the war when the communists were rolling through the country in 1975, they came to a town that was one of the co-ops’ headquarters. The militia in the town rose up and fought against the communists in one of the most heroic battles of the war. They were fighting for their electricity. They were fighting for what they had built.

Q: Has researching these books changed your view of electric co-ops?

A: I have a greater appreciation. Our heritage is so much a part of who we are, and there’s not many people who remember when the lights came on anymore, so that’s different. But the core values of what co-ops do are the same as in 1936 when the Rural Electrification Act became law.

Q: What are those values?

A: I think of one particular co-op, about medium-sized and close to an urban area. It has several thousand people who come to the office to pay their bills. They don’t need to do that. It’s a lot easier to just toss the bill in the mail or pay online, but they go in because the co-op has this value beyond just electric service. It really is the center of everything in the town and an economic driver. That sums up how the co-op is not just a power company. It’s the center of their world.

Q: Does that kind of relationship really apply in this increasingly high-tech world in a high-tech industry?

A: As I travel the country, I’m blown away by the technical acumen and the vision and the strategic abilities of co-op leaders to see into the future. Electric co-ops are getting involved in providing broadband internet connections at a time when nobody else will do it. It’s the same innovation that brought electricity to rural areas.

Q: Can a co-op be successful providing technologies as different as electricity and broadband?

A: Co-ops will embrace new technologies when that’s what their members want. Members say they’re interested in solar energy and other utility innovations, like developing advanced batteries that could increase reliability and store renewable energy for times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Co-ops never strayed from that business model that listens and responds to their members, their customers, their owners.

Q: Can’t some of these new ventures be risky?

A: Definitely. And that brings out another strength of member ownership: The control is local. Providing internet and other services won’t make sense for all of the more than 900 co-ops across the country. There are very difficult decisions being made in co-op boardrooms, and history shows there is tremendous wisdom that comes out of the discussions among the local co-ops and their members.

Q: How does that member-owned business model relate to the basic mission of keeping electricity reliable and affordable?

A: Co-ops continue to be very competitive, in rates, service and reliability. And there are so many other things they do for their members. It comes back to that local connection. Members know the folks who work at the co-op. They know the directors. There’s terrific customer service getting the lights back on after an outage. Electric reliability is very important, and co-ops do that as well as anyone.

Q: One characteristic of electric co-ops is their not-for-profit nature. How does that affect the co-op members?

A: A lot. Increasingly, institutions have fallen from grace because everybody believes there’s this profit motive that’s just out to milk you and there’s such a lack of trust in a lot of the large institutions. Being not-for-profit is an attractive feature that means decisions are based on the best interest of the co-op and the consumer.

Q: So what should members know about their electric co-op?

A: That they have the ability to influence their co-op more than they ever imagined. Co-op board members that I know are really interested in hearing from folks and getting feedback. One person can really make a huge difference. When somebody shows up at a co-op annual meeting and has a point to make, the boards take it seriously. The co-op’s management takes it seriously. That’s the value. It’s pretty hard to get heard these days. But at a co-op, your voice makes a difference.

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

Lighting Up a Warzone
The audacious story of electric co-ops in Vietnam
By Paul Wesslund

During one of the hardest chapters in American history, electric co-ops volunteered to win the war in Vietnam.

They didn’t win the war, but in his new book Poles, Wires and War, The Remarkable Untold Story of Rural Electrification and the Vietnam War, author Ted Case tells a riveting story of how they tried. He argues that the success electric co-ops had in the conflict that divided our nation just might have helped that Southeast Asian nation recover more quickly by demonstrating the value of bringing electricity to the countryside.

Case brings authority to the book as executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. He also makes good use of his masters degree in fiction writing to tell a compelling story of an audacious offer from Clyde Ellis, the head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, to President Lyndon Johnson. Give the South Vietnamese electricity, Ellis said, and you’ll win their hearts and minds in the fight against communism.

What followed was a classic battle of enormous personalities, foreign and domestic political and military maneuvering, and a determined band of people who brought electricity to the American countryside, fighting the odds to bring light to a warzone halfway around the world.

Case creates a fast-paced narrative as the crews race the collapsing war to pass bylaws, organize the co-ops and tangle with corruption, bureaucracy, in-fighting and Viet Cong soldiers determined to destroy what they were creating. In the end, in less than four years, three electric co-ops were bringing electricity to more than 8,000 members.

It was a service the South Vietnamese villagers valued and owned. They even felt strong enough to literally fight for it, in a doomed battle against an assault from Viet Cong armored tanks.

Case creates a highly readable, deep and unique American history of overcoming the highest of hurdles to show people how they could bring power to themselves; first in America, and then to the world.

You can order the book online at

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

Safe on the Bus

It was one of those wrong place at the wrong time type of deals,” Clint Shults says. On a snowy morning in April 2016, Shults loaded a school bus with FFA students from Meeker High School. The group was heading to a competition at Colorado Northwest Community College, about 65 miles away. A heavy, wet snow was accumulating.

Shults, a longtime volunteer for FFA, drove the school bus. The FFA team’s horse judging coach, Silvia Otabachian-Smith, followed the bus in her car. The caravan traveled just 7 miles when disaster struck.

Out of the corner of his eye, Shults saw a flash of snow falling off a power line and then heard the sound of a wire coiling. From behind the bus, Otabachian-Smith witnessed several bursts of fire. The bus snagged a power line just as it was falling to the ground under the weight of the snow.

“There’s an unmistakable sound, if you’ve ever heard wire unraveling from a roll,” Shults says. “The noise of us dragging the wire across the highway and just through the air … and then the strain of the wire as it became unraveled.” Rather than throwing on the brakes, Shults took his foot off the accelerator and let the bus coast to a stop.

Behind the bus, Otabachian-Smith’s first thought was to get out of her car and check that the students were unharmed. Luckily, a phone call from a student kept her safe. “They all started yelling at me on the phone,” she explains. “At that point, I knew we were in pretty big trouble.”

Amidst the chaos, Shults and his wife, who was also on the bus, kept the students calm and called 911 to notify dispatchers of the accident. Once Shults assessed the situation, his next concern was whether oncoming traffic could see them and stop in time, seeing as the bus signals shorted out.

“Everybody did everything right,” Sheriff Anthony Mazzola says.

John Purkey, line superintendent at White River Electric Association, and Sherriff Anthony Mazzola soon arrived on the scene. Sheriff Mazzola says, “John Purkey got out first. He needed to secure the scene.” He ensured that the lines were de-energized and untangled from the bus and that the scene was safe before first responders moved in.

White River Electric regularly provides training to local first responders. “We knew from this training that you don’t approach a scene because there is such a thing as step voltage, that even though the wire is on the ground as you walk into that scene, you could be stepping into different voltage variations and injure yourself,” Sheriff Mazzola explains.

The rescue took less than 20 minutes and everyone remained safe because they knew the right steps to take. “Everybody did everything right,” Sheriff Mazzola says. “The dispatcher told them not to leave the bus. Clint and his wife told everybody not to leave the bus.”

“In my opinion, a very dangerous situation was avoided because the correct steps were taken,” Otabachian-Smith says. “People were patient. People communicated. Luckily, we had cell phones and help was there almost immediately.”

Afterward, the students and adult volunteers continued according to schedule. “We were told to get back on the bus, went on to CNCC and competed,” Shults says. “Some of the kids got their names called, and it ended up being a good day in spite of what happened that morning.”

Shults and others are working with Safe Electricity to share their story so that others can learn from their experience. Safe Electricity wants you to know the steps to take to stay safe if you are in a vehicle that comes into contact with a downed line or power pole:
1. Remain calm and stay inside the vehicle.
2. Call 911.
3. Warn others to stay away from the vehicle.
4. Stay seated and do not exit the vehicle until utility personnel say it is ok to do so.
5. If you must exit the vehicle because it is on fire, jump clear of it with your feet together and without touching the vehicle and ground at the same time. Keeping your feet together, shuffle or “bunny hop” to safety.

Frank Sampson of White River Electric emphasizes the importance of treating every downed power line as if it is live.

For other chaperones who travel with students and might encounter a downed power line, Shults warns, “Do not tell any young person or any passenger to get off the bus.”

“Electricity is invisible and there is no way to determine visually if a wire is energized,” explains Frank Sampson, manager of operations at White River Electric. “Never assume that a wire has or doesn’t have electricity in it because you can’t see it. You can only see the effect of it, and it travels at the speed of light. It’s extremely destructive and exceedingly fast.”

After 26 years in law enforcement, Sheriff Mazzola knows firsthand the importance of electrical safety education. “Everybody needs to know what electricity can do, and we all need to be aware of it.”

Learn more and see the story at

Downsizing the American Dream of Home Sweet Home

By Justin LaBerge, with additional information provided by Colorado Country Life

A house, two kids, a manicured lawn and a well-maintained fence to keep it all safe. For years, that was the dream to which many Americans aspired.

But if you scroll through your social media feed or watch one of the countless reality shows about real estate and housing, you’ll notice that many folks are eschewing that traditional American home in favor of alternative accommodations.

The reasons people prefer these nontraditional structures are as diverse as the buildings themselves. Some want to simplify and declutter their lives. Others want to save money and energy. Here’s a look at a few of the more popular non-traditional home designs that might be coming to a neighborhood near you.

Tiny houses look like real houses, with square corners, traditional siding materials and pitched roofs. They typically offer 100 to 130 square feet of living space, and must be less than 8 feet 6 inches wide and 13 feet 6 inches tall to legally drive on the road without a special permit.

The tiny house trend got its start with a man named Jay Shafer who built his first miniature house on wheels in Iowa in 1999. Shafer is a person who liked to challenge the status quo, and after living in a variety of nontraditional spaces over the years, he started drawing plans for imaginary houses.

Over time, the designs got simpler and smaller, and he was inspired to build one for real when he learned they didn’t meet building codes. He took that as a challenge and realized that if he built the house on a prefabricated, street legal trailer, it would be considered a trailer load and not a house and, thus, not subject to building codes.

This nonconformity makes tiny houses a controversial issue in many communities, and local governments struggle to balance individual rights, local codes and public safety. Their nontraditional design also makes tiny houses more difficult to finance and insure, although options for both are available.

Despite these challenges, thousands of people purchased do-it-yourself plans as well as manufactured tiny houses from Shafer and other designers.

Unlike mobile homes or camping trailers, tiny houses look like real houses, with square corners, traditional siding materials and pitched roofs. They typically offer 100 to 130 square feet of living space and must be less than 8 feet 6 inches wide and 13 feet 6 inches tall to legally drive on the road without a special permit. The weight varies based on the length and rating of the trailer, but tiny houses are typically much heavier than camping trailers because they are made from traditional building materials.

Tiny house living continues to pick up in popularity in Colorado. Several companies offer manufacturing services to suit what buyers long for in a little home, including Colorado Springs-based Tumbleweed Tiny House Factory, Durango-based Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses and Fort Collins-based MitchCraft Tiny Homes.

Now trending throughout the United States are tiny home communities where like-minded little home lovers can enjoy the niceties of living in a neighborhood, but on a much smaller scale than traditional living. One such community located in Fairplay offers tiny house owners a community clubhouse as well as nearby access to Breckenridge Ski Resort, fly-fishing hot spots, ample hiking and many more outdoor adventure options.

A new tiny house planned development popped up in Salida as well, where the manufacturing of 200 rental units is currently under way. Located along the Arkansas River, the tiny house community will feature a community building, exercise facility, restaurant, 96 storage units and more when completed. Sprout Tiny Homes is developing this community and has plans to break ground in Walsenburg where it will build a 33-unit tiny home community to address the need for housing in the area.

The shipping container became a political symbol for many people in recent years. To some, they are a symbol of the decline of American manufacturing. To others, the containers are tools that connect us to a globalized economy and lower costs of many consumer goods.

But to a group of architecture enthusiasts, the shipping containers stacked on cargo boats, carried by freight trains and pulled by trucking rigs are grown-up Lego blocks waiting to be turned into homes.

The first container buildings were built by those looking for a fast, simple and low-cost way to provide shelter. Containers are strong, easy to transport and, thanks to global trade, abundant.

A Rhino Cubed container home.

Over time, what started as a clever way to recycle old containers and quickly build inexpensive structures changed into an architectural trend. The modular, boxy aesthetic of shipping containers gives container homes a modern look that many find appealing. Today, container homes range in size and complexity from modest, inexpensive, utilitarian dwellings to large, highly customized, luxury homes.

Container homes are getting attention in Colorado as well. Rhino Cubed recycles and repurposes out-of-commission shipping containers to create compact homes that make a big impression. The Louisville-based company sells containers with minimal amenities such as windows, doors and lead-free certification; midstream amenities with all the above plus hickory floors, finished walls and insulation; or all-you-could-expect-from-a- house perks, such as a full kitchen, storage, water disposal, bunk beds, exterior paint and more.

Container home enthusiasts say the three keys to a successful project are understanding all local building codes and safety regulations before starting the project, hiring a contractor that has previous experience with this unique form of construction and purchasing the correct type of container.

Monolithic domes offer homeowners the high ceilings and large open floor plans that are so popular today. They are also highly efficient, requiring about a quarter of the energy required to heat and cool a similarly sized traditional structure. Photo credit: Kevin McGuckin

The options are plentiful when it comes to miniature domiciles in Colorado and beyond. From tipis to monolithic homes to yurts, home buyers can choose what suits their fancy. At Colorado Yurt Company, for example, potential buyers can build a yurt from scratch using their Yurt Price Calculator. Select the requirements for your yurt, such as door type, window options and snow and wind load packages, and watch as it calculates your costs.

Even traditional houses aren’t immune to the trend of alternative construction techniques. Advances in technology transformed the manufactured housing business as well. In addition to the classic mobile home and newer modular home designs, high-end custom homes created from prefabricated panels built in a factory can be purchased and assembled on site. This can save up to 15 percent over the cost of a traditional home.

So, whether it’s a tiny home, a yurt, a container or a prefabricated home, the American dream of home ownership now comes in many shapes and sizes.

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

The Substation of the Future

By Paul Wesslund

Solar panels, electric cars, computer hackers, vandals and thieves might not seem to have much in common, but they’re all making big changes in your electric service. Those changes have electric utilities talking about “the substation of the future.”

Could this be the substation of the future?

If everything goes according to plan, you may never even know about those changes, says Tom Lovas, a technical liaison and consultant with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“The traditional model of generation, transmission and distribution is kind of being turned on its head,” Lovas says. “In the past, power flowed to a substation and then flowed out to the consumer. … [T]he substation has now become a point of information and interconnection, and it’s coordinated in a different way.”

Before making sense of what Lovas means by a substation becoming a point of information, it helps to understand what a substation does.

That mass of wires and equipment you see behind chain-link fences as you drive along freeways or side roads basically turns high-voltage electricity into lower voltage electricity that can be used in your home. Electricity generated at a power plant gets “stepped up” to a high voltage at a substation because that’s a more efficient way for power to make the long-distance journey through transmission lines. When the current gets close to where it will be used, another substation steps the voltage down, for distribution to you and your neighbors.

But that straight-line path for electricity is changing, says an international industry group planning for how the substation of the future will fit in with the power lines and power plants that make up the electric grid.

“Rather than continually getting bigger, the grid is now increasing in intelligence,” according to a 2016 strategic plan of the Centre for Energy Advancement through Technological Innovation (CEATI International). “Customers are increasingly looking for ways to manage their own energy, customizing how they use it and serving as suppliers of energy.”

One example of customers serving as suppliers of energy is the fast-growing number of homeowners installing rooftop solar panels. Now, electricity doesn’t just flow from a power plant through a substation to a house. Instead, electricity also flows in the opposite direction, from the house, then back onto the grid as homeowners sell excess solar power back to their utility.

When power flows in both directions, running a utility gets a lot more complicated. First, there’s safety. Lineworkers need to be sure they know which wires are energized and which are not. Electricity traveling in a different direction could put new stresses on old equipment, and utilities need new ways to monitor electric current so they can keep track of new patterns of electricity use and generation.

Lovas cites an increase in electric cars as another new addition that could change electricity use as people charge their vehicles at a variety of times and places.

Electric utilities are analyzing information about where the electricity is coming from and where it’s going. This information can be used to improve operations in the utility network and can make the substation of the future an important part of “the smart grid”

Information collected at a substation could keep track of how transformers are performing so they could be replaced before they fail or even recognize power use patterns that could predict an outage.

“We collect zillions of data points of information. What we’re trying to do is make sense of what that information is telling us,” Lovas says. Figuring out how to analyze and use all that data, he says, could improve safety, reduce outages, reduce outage duration and reduce maintenance costs.

These days, we know that information can also be stolen or misused by cyber criminals, so the substation of the future needs stronger security. And not just cyber security. Lovas says that substation planning needs protection against more old-fashioned attackers like vandals and copper wire thieves. CEATI International wrote in its strategic plan on the substation of the future, “In the new environment, station facilities have to be protected from physical tampering, sabotage or theft and also from malicious threats to data and/or control systems connected to cyber networks.”

Lovas also expects the substation of the future will respond to concerns about what substations look like, with utilities looking for more remote locations or planting trees around them. Underground substations could offer better security, as well as avoid complaints about the appearance of the collection of wires and equipment.

When will we see the substation of the future? Maybe never, if it’s hidden behind a grove of trees. Or, since improvements and advancements are already being installed, maybe it’s already here. “I don’t think there’s any defined date when the substation of the future takes over,” Lovas says. “It’s just a natural progression of things.”

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

Take Control of Your Smart Devices and Make Them Work for You

By Paul Wesslund

If you ever want to see one of the biggest changes going on in the world today, look around your home. Your smartphone, video gaming system, security camera, fitness bracelet, thermostat and even your television could be part of a vast, interconnected group of devices that goes by the clunky name of the “internet of things.”

The term refers to anything connected to the internet, which covers a lot of gadgets and will soon cover even more. Today, you can purchase lightbulbs that dim with the sound of your voice or from the press of a button on your smartphone. A 2014 report by the investment firm Goldman Sachs predicted the number of internet-connected devices could grow 10 times by 2020, to as many as 28 billion “things.”

While this growth may seem like the latest trend, it was recognized more than 30 years ago. Credit for naming it goes to Peter T. Lewis, co-founder of Cellular One. In a 1985 speech he said, “The internet of things, or IoT, is the integration of people, processes and technology with connectable devices and sensors to enable remote monitoring status, manipulation and evaluation of trends of such devices.”

Low prices versus security
In other words, the rapid rise in the number of internet-connected devices has been building for decades, says Tim Heidel, deputy chief scientist with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “The ‘internet of things’ is the latest buzzword that reflects a long-term trend,” Heidel says. “Ten years ago, you may have had six or eight or 10 devices on the wireless router in your home. Now, that number can go as high as 25 or 30 devices.”

Heidel credits lower costs for ramping up this high-tech revolution, which can make life more convenient and fun, and even increase energy efficiency with new ways to control heating, cooling, lighting and other electricity users.

“The cost of including communications in the devices has come down dramatically. Twenty years ago, you could only afford an ethernet port or Wi-Fi in a computer,” Heidel says. “Now, we’re getting to the point where it costs literally only pennies to include that capability in any device imaginable.

“So what’s changing here is the number of devices. Once you have a critical mass of all the places that are capable of communicating, they can then start communicating with each other.

All of this promises convenience and services, but in the pursuit of extremely low costs, sometimes there’s the opportunity to cut corners on security,” Heidel adds.

A stunning example of security problems with the “internet of things” happened last October when hackers crashed dozens of websites in the United States for most of a day, including well-known names like Netflix and Twitter. Incredible as it seems, that attack may have been aided by a device in your own home.

Here’s what happened Friday, October 21: Hackers already scanned the world for devices vulnerable to infection by malicious software that allowed them to take control of hundreds of thousands of home routers, baby monitors, printers and network-enabled cameras. Using that “botnet,” the hackers flooded websites with so many messages the sites shut down for several hours in what is called a “denial of service” attack.

Cyber safety tips
There are ways you can reduce your risk from hackers hijacking your internet-connected devices, says Cynthia Hsu, cyber security program manager with NRECA.

“Understand what you’re buying,” Hsu says. “If you have a choice between two vendors who are producing a product and one takes security seriously and the other doesn’t, use your money to buy a product that takes security seriously. If consumers are not willing to pay for security, the manufacturers have no incentive to build it.

“The criminal element is rapidly escalating the innovation of new ways of attack.” If you have a router for wireless internet in your home, Hsu says, “make sure you patch your router’s software whenever security updates are available so it’s protected as new vulnerabilities are discovered.”

Other security steps Hsu recommends:
• Install firewalls in your home network.
• Change the default passwords regularly in devices you purchase.
• Disconnect gadgets when they’re not being used. “Not everything needs to be plugged into the internet all the time,” she says.

Keep in mind that the electronics in your home can not be accessed from outside without you allowing it. For example, your electric utility cannot access your refrigerator’s energy usage unless it is a smart refrigerator that you allow access to and it is connected to one or more online applications.

The folks at your local electric co-op can offer expertise in managing the promise and the problems of what is called the “internet of things,” and they can answer questions about efficient energy usage. NRECA, your co-op’s national association, is researching some of the newest devices to understand how they can be used for energy efficiency.

“NRECA does a lot of research to help guide, deploy and test these devices,” says Venkat Banunarayanan, NRECA’s senior product development manager. “These projects are looking at how to use these devices in the ‘internet of things’ to bring value to the co-op and its members.”

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

Innovative Technologies Change the Costs of Electric Power

By Justin LaBerge

Advances in technology are bringing major changes to the energy industry. We are generating a growing portion of our electricity with renewable resources, and advances in automation and communications technology are making our power grid smarter and more reliable than ever.

These advances are exciting news for American energy consumers, but they’re also changing the cost structure of the industry. Since electric cooperatives use costs to determine their rates, changing costs require corresponding changes to rates.

Not-for-profit electric cooperatives work hard to ensure their rates are fair to all members. To accomplish this mission, cooperatives design their rates so that the bill each member receives matches the cost of serving that member as closely as possible.

But just because your local electric cooperative’s rates are designed to be fair doesn’t mean they’re always easy to understand. In fact, rate structures that do the best job of fairly assigning costs are often the hardest to understand.

Here is a quick look at three of the approaches electric cooperatives are trying.

Time-of-use rates
With time-of-use rates, when you use electricity is just as important as how much you use. Rather than charging the same price for electricity at all times, time-of-use rates charge different prices based on the time of day when the energy is used. The goal of this system is to encourage consumers to reduce their energy use at the times when demand for energy is highest.

For most electric cooperatives, demand for electricity spikes in the afternoon and early evening hours as heating units and air conditioners battle outdoor temperatures and families return home from school and work and began evening routines.

When demand for energy spikes, electric cooperatives must purchase extra electricity to meet the demand. That extra power typically comes from more expensive power plants.

A time-of-use rate ensures there’s always power available when consumers need it but provides price incentives to shift certain activities — such as running the dryer or dishwasher — to times when demand for electricity is lower.

When co-op members embrace this model, they can lower their monthly bills and help the cooperative reduce its costs — which can save members even more money in the long run.

Demand charges
Perhaps the most confusing concept in energy billing is the demand charge.

Historically, most residential consumers have not paid demand charges. But as our power grid becomes smarter and our network of generation resources gets more complex, it’s likely that more electric cooperatives will incorporate demand changes into their residential rate structures.

Demand measures the highest amount of electricity you demand from the system at one moment in time. The higher the demand, the more it costs to build, operate and maintain the equipment delivering that energy to you.

To understand demand charges, imagine you’re at a party chatting with two guests and you ask them how they got to the party. Betsy tells you she drove 150 miles per hour to get to the party. David says he drove 150 miles to attend the party.

There’s a big difference between a car capable of traveling 150 miles and a car capable of traveling 150 miles per hour. Any car can take you 150 miles. But if you want to go 150 miles per hour, you’ll need an expensive car with extra horsepower.

The same thing is true with electricity. If you demand large quantities of electricity be delivered to you all at once, the electric cooperative has to build larger, more expensive equipment to accommodate that demand.

Even if you only demand that much energy every once in a while, the cooperative still has to ensure its system is capable of handling that request when it comes.

If Betsy and David use electricity the same way they use their cars, Betsy is going to be paying a lot more than David each month, even if their total energy use is the same.

As the energy sector continues to move through this unprecedented period of innovation and change, cooperatives across the U.S. are experimenting with new rate structures to figure out the best way to recover costs and pay for the electric grid in a manner that is fiscally responsible and fair to all members.

Fixed monthly charges
Most electric cooperatives charge a fixed monthly fee to be connected to the co-op’s lines. Common terms for that fee include customer charge, service availability charge or access charge.

No matter what it’s called, the goal is to recover the cost of the poles, wires, bucket trucks, computers, switches and employees that bring electricity to your home or business. Those costs are the same every month whether you use a lot of electricity or turn off everything in your house and go on a month-long vacation.

Most utilities, including electric cooperatives, have never charged the full monthly cost of service as a flat fee. Often, the fixed portion of a member’s bill is only a fraction of the actual cost to build and maintain the power lines to his or her home or business. The rest of that cost is made up with a separate delivery charge that varies based on how much energy you consume.

To understand the difference between these structures, imagine a new vehicle with a sticker price that would require a monthly car payment of $500. Now, imagine if instead of charging $500 per month, the car company structured your payment so it was $250 per month, plus an additional 25 cents for every mile driven. If you drove 1,000 miles per month, you’d end up paying the same amount. If you drove more than that, your payment would be higher, and if you drove less than 1,000 miles, your payment would be lower.

That’s how cooperatives traditionally charged for the delivery of electricity to your home. But as renewable technologies become more popular and consumers make better energy choices, the old model doesn’t fully cover the cost of maintaining the grid.

Electric cooperatives are generating a growing portion of our nation’s electricity with renewable resources, and advances in automation and communications technology are making the power grid smarter and more reliable than ever.

As not-for-profit, member-owned organizations, electric cooperatives want to help their members find the best energy solutions to meet their needs. If members want to install solar, cooperatives want to help. If members want to reduce their energy use through home improvements and efficient appliances, cooperatives are eager to give advice. But even if we all consume less energy, we still need the power grid, and it costs a lot of money to operate and maintain that grid.

By lowering the variable delivery charge and increasing the fixed charge, electric cooperatives can keep the grid running safely and reliably while allowing members to make the energy choices that work best for their lives.

This system does a better job of fairly charging each member for the actual cost of their service. The total amount of money raised by the cooperative remains unchanged, but some members end up paying a bit more, and some a bit less.

Looking toward the future
The coming years will bring many changes to the way we generate, deliver and use electricity, and advances in energy technology promise to greatly improve our quality of life. America’s electric cooperatives are working hard to ensure that whatever the future may bring, you’ll be connected to that future through a modern energy grid that is safe, reliable and fairly priced for all.

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

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.