San Isabel Electric Launches Efficiency Program

This fall, Pueblo West-based electric cooperative San Isabel Electric rolled out its Empower program. This expansion of its energy-efficiency programs helps people create an energy-efficient home or business space with free energy assessments, net-metered home solar power systems, electric vehicle and charger rebates for consumer-members and products such as high-velocity, low-speed fans, electric water heaters, electric thermal storage and air source heat pumps, just to name a few. Many of these products and services can be bundled to maximize efficiency and energy savings.

According to an October press release, the San Isabel Electric Board of Directors said Empower is essential to continue the path of providing value for not only SIEA consumer-members but the entire southern Colorado region.

YVEA Receives Grant to Expand Fiber Infrastructure

In late October, Steamboat Springs-based Yampa Valley Electric announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will award $6 million to YVEA and its fiber subsidiary, Luminate Broadband, to expand fiber internet service in northwestern Colorado.

The USDA will provide funding to YVEA/Luminate through its ReConnect program to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network. This will connect 264 rural households, 27 farms and ranches, 27 businesses, and three post offices to high-speed internet. With this funding, YVEA/Luminate will construct 200 miles of middle mile fiber to connect northwest Coloradans in Routt, Moffat and Eagle counties.

Innovations in Heat Pumps

By Amy Higgins

Colorado’s electric cooperatives have a reputation of staying on top of innovation and energy efficiency, and while heat pumps aren’t new to the beneficial electricity market, their advancements are.

Cold-climate, air source heat pump (ccASHP) is one of the latest innovations in beneficial electrification. These products can reduce air pollution and energy costs by switching from direct fossil fuels, like propane or natural gas, to electric resources that emit less carbon emissions.

“Overall, [ccASHPs] emit less carbon per unit of heat than burning fossil fuels,” explains Tri-State Generation and Transmission Relationship Manager Peter Rusin. “As [Tri-State] implements its Responsible Energy Plan, over the next four years and over the next 10, that gap is only going to grow compared to propane and natural gas — that’s going to be much better for the environment.”

Unlike the heat pumps of years past, today’s heat pumps include variable speed, or inverter, technology that allows them to operate over a wider range of temperatures. “So, instead of going down to 40 or 35 degrees where that heat pump is working before you need a backup, now we’re seeing systems get down to negative 13, negative 20,” Rusin explains. He says this variable speed technology can either eliminate or reduce the need for a backup because of the unit’s ability to carry temperatures much deeper into the extremely cold range, meaning it’s possible that it can be used as a primary heat source.

Granby-based Mountain Parks Electric, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Xergy Consulting recently conducted a pilot study of three homes in the Fraser area in which the homes were outfitted with ccASHPs. The study showed that one 2-ton ccASHP unit reduced total annual heating costs by approximately 30%. (Visit mpei.com/pilot-programs to read the complete findings.)

These ccASHPs are not only friendlier to the environment, but they are also more cost effective than a propane furnace or resistance baseboard system and safer to operate seeing as you’re essentially eliminating ignitable vapors in your home. “Any time you burn a fossil fuel, you can create carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons — all these things that really impact your indoor air quality,” says Mike Frailey, relationship manager at Tri-State. “Switching to an air source heat pump eliminates that [emission] from your propane or natural gas furnace. There’s a reduction in the CO2 emissions from an exhaust standpoint, too, such as a chimney.”

Frailey and Rusin share that they’re also seeing commercial interest in ccASHPs. For example, they’re working with a school in Wyoming that is interested in adding 55-tons of heat pump technology to replace a steam boiler system, and state rebates and educated resources could help them cut costs. Frailey adds, “In that specific application, it’s going to be a mix of split systems for some smaller rooms and then they’re doing three 8½-ton packaged rooftop units, so there are commercial applications and it seems it’s going to continue to evolve and grow.”

However, the upfront cost of a few grand or more might be a drawback for some. To relieve Colorado’s electric cooperative consumer-members of the cost burden, Tri-State offers a $450 rebate per ton for a new ccASHP and some of Colorado’s electric cooperatives offer rebates of their own. MPE, for example, offers a rebate of $500 per ton, which could mean $3,000 or more off the consumer’s bottom line when combined with Tri-State’s rebate.

Several Colorado towns are some of the coldest in the nation during the winter, but innovation in the energy sector and a commitment to provide electric co-op consumer-members the safest, most reliable service at the lowest cost possible is at the forefront of every co-op in the state. Products such as ccASHPs can keep Coloradans safe and comfortable during some of the coldest times.

To learn more about ccASHPs, contact your local cooperative. They can assist you in finding knowledgeable contractors to get the job done correctly, rebates to help your bottom line and information on how to stay comfortable in the dead of winter — they are the trusted resources.

Amy Higgins is an award-winning writer who has been writing for Colorado Country Life for nearly a decade, staying up to date on the latest innovations and changes in the electric co-op industry.

Protecting Vital Electric Lines When Wildfires Blaze

By Kylee Coleman

Just as rural Colorado started to regain footing from the stressful economic and emotional impacts of COVID-19 shutdowns, wildfire season erupted with force across the central and western parts of the state in late July.

Electric co-op communities such as Glenwood Springs and rural areas of Mesa and Garfield counties, Grand County and Larimer County were impacted at once when three large fires started burning within days of each other. All attention was quickly directed at keeping people, property, livestock and electric system infrastructure safe from extreme fire situations and damage. Countless evacuations and road and area closures brought the state to a halt. Interstate 70 was shut down through Grizzly Creek Glenwood Canyon for an unprecedented two weeks in August.

Lineman Hunter Henderson services a power pole during the Pine Gulch Fire. Photo by Matt Mason, Grand Valley Power.

Hot, windy and dry weather created the perfect storm for what would become the largest fire in Colorado’s recorded history: the Pine Gulch Fire on the Western Slope, burning in Grand Valley Power’s service territory. As of early September, the Pine Gulch Fire had burned over 139,000 acres and was 81% contained. The Williams Fork Fire in the Mountain Parks Electric service area was also burning with little containment progress. The Cameron Peak fire affected both MPE and Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association service territories, doubling in size over Labor Day weekend before 14 inches of snow gave firefighters a chance to try to get ahead of it.

COOPERATION AMONG AGENCIES
For every agency working on the front lines to fight fires, there are countless more supporting suppression efforts. Colorado’s electric cooperatives work tirelessly with emergency personnel to keep consumer-members safe and informed in all of these active fire situations.

PVREA’s Vice President and Chief Operations Officer John Bowerfind, said the Fort Collins-based co-op is working closely with the Cameron Peak Fire incident command. “There are daily virtual meetings on the fires to get updates, to find out where the fire moved during the last day, where it is projected to move, where they are clearing out areas and if there are any utilities they’re concerned about,” Bowerfind explained.

GVP’s connections with public agencies were essential. “GVP has great relationships with the counties involved, so we know everything that is going on. Our relationships with Mesa County and emergency management are crucial in getting timely information to members,” Communications Specialist Dana Pogar said. GVP Operations Manager Bill Barlow and Pogar attended community briefings held by the Rocky Mountain Incident Management team. “We were able to speak to the community about fires and electrical safety, and what the restoration efforts would look like once evacuations were lifted,” Pogar said.

MPE Manager of Operations Rich Trostel participated in daily cooperators meetings in Grand County for the Williams Fork Fire, which was only 10% contained in early September. Once the fire stopped being a threat to any housing developments, those meetings turned to daily email updates to give the size of the fire, forecasts, how many people are working to suppress the fire and other pertinent details.

PREVENTION STARTS EARLY
The co-ops’ focus on wildfire threats, however, started long before the first flames ignited. Co-ops work year-round on vegetation management, which removes brush and trees near power lines. This is so that if a power line snaps for some reason, that line is less likely to ignite a fire in nearby vegetation. However, not all vegetation management procedures are easy since co-ops are often dealing with rugged terrain and various rights-of-way from private and public land managers.

Trostel recalled that prior to 2006, the pine beetle epidemic killed quite a bit of forest around Grand County. “There were so many dead trees close to line, so we were in crisis mode getting rights-of-way cleared.” The Granby-based electric co-op hired several contractors and cleared all 214 miles of power lines that had trees associated with them.

In 2017, MPE tested a mowing program where it cut the right-of-way to the ground and stopped vegetation and tree growth. Although an economical way to clear rights-of-way, the mowing system had limitations in steep and rough terrain. MPE also had issues with aspen trees growing back thicker than before and, in some cases, multiplying, so the co-op’s tree contractor tried an herbicide test plot in 2018. Trostel said that the co-op went back this spring to look at the test plot.

“All broadleaf trees are dead, but the low ground cover is thriving,” he said, “and this is more economical than a crew going into remote forest areas to cut down trees.” MPE consumer-members are usually agreeable when they are asked to cut down trees or have vegetation cleared from around power lines and poles on their property because they understand the risks if they don’t.

GVP is also consistently looking at lines and their proximity to trees and vegetation as crews drive around the service area. Barlow explained that GVP crews go circuit by circuit in most cases. “The co-op has a dedicated patrolman looking at trees and lines,” he said. Consumer-members are also involved. According to Barlow, many GVP consumers request that the co-op come to assess vegetation and trees near lines, and he said GVP will coordinate outages where trees near lines need to be trimmed.

CO-OPS TAKE ACTION DURING FIRES
Once an actual fire starts, the co-op is hypervigilant. When the Cameron Peak fire broke out in Larimer County, PVREA immediately worked to protect its infrastructure and power poles that were in the path of fire and considered most in danger. The Fort Collins-based electric co-op covered poles with fire wrap material. “We wrapped the bottom 8 feet of the pole from where they go into the ground, which we believe will help if it’s a smaller brush or grass fire,” Bowerfind explained.

“We get daily maps from incident command, and we overlay that onto GIS [geographic information systems] to see where lines are in relation to the daily fire growth. Based on daily direction of growth and wind, it alerts us to if there are areas we need to be concerned about,” Bowerfind said.

We prepare, wait and respond,” he stated as the Cameron Peak Fire stabilized during the first week of September.

As Poudre Valley REA crews were able to access areas where the Cameron Peak Fire had burned, they found poles and lines totally destroyed.

During wildfires, co-ops keep the power flowing as long as it is safe to do so. But, according to Colorado Rural Electric Association’s Safety and Loss Control Director Dale Kishbaugh, “Every time [emergency crews] think they have a grip on the fires, the winds change or something else happens” that makes fire suppression efforts even more difficult and unpredictable. That’s why co-ops are on standby and in constant communication with emergency management teams, ready to de-energize power lines and equipment when called upon to do so. “Our first concern is everyone’s safety,” Trostel explained. “We will take out power if [the fire] gets too close to lines and infrastructure.”

PVREA’s Bowerfind said that the co-op only turns off power when requested to do so by incident command because the power is important to incident command. It powers their communications. “They have a strong desire to keep power up and running because it makes their communications much more effective,” he said.

When GVP turned off power during evacuations, it was due to orders from the emergency management officials, Barlow said. When co-ops de-energize lines, they are typically able to alert members by having up-to-date outage maps on the co-op website, sending text alerts, posting social media alerts and sending alerts through co-op apps. “Members in GVP’s service area were supportive of the co-op’s, outages and understanding of the situation to cut off power for the safety of the community, first responders and GVP crews,” Pogar said.

PVREA Vice President of Member and Government Relations Amy Rosier talked about a variety of methods PVREA used to communicate with its members during the fire. Although PVREA had not turned off power to any consumer-members as of the first week of September, when the fire started, the growth was rapid. “We set up a landing page on our website dedicated to the Cameron Peak Fire,” she said. Social media has also been a large part in its communications plan. But the co-op took preparations one step further. “We worked with predictions on who could possibly be impacted,” Rosier said. “If it does look like there will be outages, we could act quickly” to alert consumer-members of outages.

The Pine Gulch fire is on record as the largest wildfire in Colorado, burning over 135,000 acres. It caused extensive damage across the Western Slope. Photo by Bill Barlow, Grand Valley Power.

RECOVERY
As Pine Gulch Fire evacuations lifted in GVP’s service territory, co-op crews had to visually inspect poles and lines in those previously evacuated and burned areas. “We have to look at everything; you don’t know how intense the fire was,” Barlow explained. “If you had big flames, did it weaken a conductor? You have no idea if poles were burned in half. We went house to house to look at the facilities, to shut off breakers, to look at everything” in order to keep consumer-members and their property safe once the power was restored.

Pogar said the process in which the co-op communicated with members and the community after evacuations were lifted was systematic with safety at the forefront. “We mailed a packet explaining restoration efforts. In the packet, we included a safety information page on how members can safely restore power in homes after a wildfire.” The sheriff’s department also distributed GVP’s safety information to residents as evacuation orders were lifted. “[GVP Operations Supervisor] Mark [Shaffer] and Bill [Barlow] even went door to door in many cases to talk to members not only about their power being off, but to inspect member homes and meters that GVP is responsible for,” GVP Communications Manager Christmas Wharton said.

The physical damage to property and infrastructure was minimal for GVP during the Pine Gulch Fire. “When we were looking at the potential for damage, we were looking at losing upwards of 300 poles plus having 70 consumer-members out of power or, even worse, lose homes,” Wharton said. Early on, there were intense discussions on what to plan for. “Our geographic information systems analyst and engineering department were valuable in planning on what to expect. They laid the fire path map over GVP’s mapping system to see specifically what lines were going to be affected and to count how many poles could be destroyed,” she said. However, as of early September, GVP had lost only four poles and a little bit of wire, according to Barlow. “We have huge thanks for Mesa and Garfield counties and all agencies taking such special time and efforts to protect not just homes, but facilities, poles, equipment and oil and gas,” Barlow said.

MPE had more damage in its area, having lost about six structures. “The damage is in very remote, very hard-to-get-to areas, with no roads and trails,” Trostel said. “It’s steep and inaccessible, so all repairs will be done by helicopter work or a hike to each pole.”

At magazine deadline, PVREA was assessing the damage to its infrastructure.

Total damage and statistics from all of the fires have not been finalized by the time of publication. Kishbaugh and CREA advise electric co-ops on long-term recovery impacts, what is needed to work with state emergency management and how to coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for any funds needed to repair and replace burned infrastructure. A task force Kishbaugh is included in looks at what the devastation will be after the fires. Fires affect the watershed, drinking water and the environment and can cause burn areas to be greatly affected by flooding because the forests simply won’t have the chance to recover immediately.

GVP believes its community will be stronger than ever after the Pine Gulch Fire. “Our community is awesome and supportive of each other. We’re in this together and we’re going to get through it,” Wharton said. So, too, will all of these fire-stricken areas where their local electric co-op is an integral part of the coordinated effort to protect their communities.

Kylee Coleman writes on Colorado electric co-op issues for the Colorado Rural Electric Association and Colorado Country Life.

The Energy Star Logo: the Symbol that Changed Efficiency Standards

By Paul Wesslund

The little blue (and sometimes black) logo with the star inside that you see on all sorts of appliances and electronics has changed the way we view savings through more efficient products.

The Energy Star® program claims credit for reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and for saving Americans $30 billion in energy costs. Analysts credit Energy Star with innovating the energy industry, as manufacturers set goals of making more energy-efficient products than their competitors.

What the Energy Star logo does is make it easy to know whether a product you’re thinking about buying is more energy efficient than other models. Essentially the program looks at the average energy use of each type of product and awards the Energy Star rating to top performers based on different criteria — a refrigerator needs to be 9% more energy efficient than the minimum efficiency standard; a computer needs to use 25% less electricity than conventional models and include a power-saving mode option when it’s not being used.

So, if the appliance or electronic device you purchase includes the Energy Star logo, you know it’s among the most energy-efficient products available. That simplicity is the secret to the success of the program that is run by the federal Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The program’s effectiveness comes from a complex process of making sure the Energy Star logo is accurate and trusted — and the numbers show it is trusted. Americans bought more than 300 million Energy Star-rated products in 2017 alone, and an Energy Star study found that three-fourths of U.S. households say the Energy Star label influences their purchases.

Today, more than 500 certified labs in 25 countries around the world test nearly than 2,000 products a year — along with surprise inspections — to manage a list of 60,000 product models. Energy Star runs seminars on how to meet its standards. Those standards require that televisions must use 3 watts or less when switched off; lightbulbs must use two-thirds less energy than standard incandescent bulbs; Energy Star home furnaces must be between 4% and 15% more efficient than standard furnaces.

Energy Star tests also require quality standards in addition to energy efficiency. In general, products must have popular features, such as internet connectivity for smart televisions. Lightbulbs must last up to 15 times longer and produce 70% to 90% less heat than conventional bulbs.

In 2018, Energy Star tested 1,792 models, disqualifying 59 of them. Of the 858 different kinds of lighting and fans tested that year, 51 were disqualified. Of the 35 televisions tested, two were disqualified.

Energy Star caught on because it has something for everybody — ways for consumers to save money; ways for businesses to promote their efficient products; online calculators for those wanting deep dives into finding the ideal energy use; and for the rest of us, a simple little logo that tells us we’re buying one of the most energy-efficient products available.

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

Electric Cooperatives Celebrate Women’s Right to Vote

By Derrill Holly

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved by Congress on June 4, 1919, but it took more than a year for the measure granting women nationwide the right to vote to gain ratification by 36 states. This August 18, 2020, the nation marks the centennial of this human rights milestone.

Rural America was built and owes much of its success to family-run farms and businesses, operated by men and women. While dads and husbands are often celebrated for their contributions, wives and mothers have been full partners in creating thousands of communities, especially here in the West, where the right to vote came to women years before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

The Vast Billboard Campaign of the Woman’s Party put up a billboard in Denver in 1916. Photo source: Library of Congress

Wyoming, Utah, Washington and Montana territories all granted women the right to vote long before the Constitutional Amendment passed. Colorado was the first state to pass a popular vote giving women the right to vote and it was the first state to elect women to a state legislature. Western women were more than ready to put their skills to use leading their communities.

Power and partnership
“Historically, rural wives were always isolated and only had interaction with their husbands and children, but they helped run farms and ranches, and ran their homes,” said Betsy Huber, president and CEO of the National Grange.

Founded in 1867, the Grange chapters took root as fraternal community organizations committed to promoting sound agricultural concepts in the North, the South and the expanding West.

“From the very beginning, women could hold any office in the Grange,” Huber said. “We have 13 offices, including four that are only open to women.”

By the early 1900s, organizations like the Grange were providing rural women with meaningful leadership opportunities and fueling passions for full engagement in public life that included political participation.

With the rise of suffragist sentiments in the early 20th century, the Grange routinely included women in governance decisions, Huber said. “One of our national agriculture committees early in the last century had six members, including three men and three women, who reviewed and discussed the resolutions submitted by local Grange chapters that ultimately set policy for the National Grange.”

Suffragists gather outside the depot of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with a banner: “We Demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Photo source: Library of Congress

Among the farm women embracing the suffragist cause was Febb Ensminger Burn, a widow from Tennessee’s McMinn County who ultimately played a decisive role in earning women the right to vote and forever changing U.S. history.

“Suffrage has interested me for years,” Burn once told a reporter.

Between running her farm and caring for her family, she followed news accounts from Nashville and was turned off by harsh opposition speeches against ratification in the summer of 1920. In August, she penned a seven-page letter to her son, Henry T. Burn, a freshman representative in the House of Representatives of the Tennessee General Assembly.

“Vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt,” Burn wrote to her 24-year-old son. “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help.”

With the letter from his mom in his pocket, Rep. Burn broke a 48-48 deadlock by changing his vote to pass the measure, and women nationwide were guaranteed the right to participate in all national elections.

A donkey carries a sign urging a vote in favor of the 19th Amendment. Photo source: Library of Congress

“I spend a lot of my time encouraging co-op members to contact their legislators, and mother-son influence is a great example of true grassroots activism,” said Amanda Wolfe, a National Rural Electric Cooperative Association senior political advisor, who lives in Nashville.

“Voting is so much more than just a right, it is a privilege,” Wolfe said. “The suffragettes fought for generations to finally win that privilege 100 years ago, and every time we cast a ballot, we honor their memories.”

Fueling cooperative change
When electric cooperatives were organized years later, many of the same principles honored by rural organizations, including recognition of property rights, were among the fundamental tenets included in co-op charters. Family memberships were vested in heads of households, regardless of gender, and women were among the founding members of many electric cooperatives.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, farm magazines quickly published stories about the news. Maye Shaw of Quitman, Texas, was a former teacher and regular reader who knew life on the farm would be easier with electric power.

She wrote Rep. Morgan G. Sanders for information on the new electric co-ops and persuaded her husband Virgil Shaw to look into it. By 1937, they both were riding through the surrounding countryside recruiting members and collecting $5 sign-up fees. Mr. Shaw eventually became the founding general manager of Wood County Electric Cooperative, which now serves nearly 36,000 meters and is still headquartered in Quitman. In 1939, when the Rural Electrification Administration approved its first loans for electric cooperatives in South Carolina, women were actively involved in the formation of Darlington-based Pee Dee Electric Cooperative.

Mrs. E.S.J. Evans, the home demonstration agent for the Darlington County Agricultural Extension Service Office, was an organizer, and Miss Sue Coker and Mrs. E.A. Gray were elected to the founding board.

Acting for the future
America’s electric cooperatives support Co-ops Vote, a grassroots movement designed to encourage voter registration, political engagement and participation by everyone in local, state and national affairs.

“We provide the information to co-op consumer-members to find out how, where and when to vote, and information on the issues that affect rural communities,” said Laura Vogel, an NRECA senior political advisor. “We do not tell people who to vote for, and we don’t endorse candidates.”

Co-ops want their consumer-members to vote. They want the rural voice to be heard. Voting in the upcoming election is a great way to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment and honor those suffragettes who worked hard to win the right for women to vote.

Derrill Holly writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives.

The Battle Behind Keeping the Lights On

By Paul Wesslund

Did you know squirrels, lightning and trees have something in common? They can all knock out your electricity.

Electric cooperatives across Colorado and the country work hard to keep your lights on all the time, but “you’re going to have power outages, and that’s just the way it is,” says Tony Thomas, senior principal engineer with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

An electric utility’s basic job of keeping the power flowing 24/7 calls for maintaining a complex network of power plants, poles and wires, but it also means battling the unpredictable. Thomas cites the top three troublemakers to electric reliability as trees falling on power lines and other interferences from vegetation, lightning strikes and animals going about their daily routines, especially squirrels chewing on electrical equipment.

“Utilities do an awfully good job, but Mother Nature gets in the way sometimes,” Thomas says.

However, humans contribute to power outages as well, with vandals deliberately damaging electrical equipment and drivers accidentally crashing into utility poles.

Statistics say the lights are almost always on
Numbers collected from electric utilities show that power in the United States is incredibly reliable. According to these figures, the percentage of time that the average American has electricity at the flip of a switch is 99.97. Thomas says what’s most important to know about that number is that it doesn’t change much.

“I don’t see big swings from year to year,” Thomas says. “If things are fairly consistent, that means the utility is operating about as efficiently as it can.”

When it comes to electric reliability, the biggest challenge is maintaining and updating the massive machinery of the nation’s electric grid. More than 8,500 power plants generate electricity that is shipped through 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines.

But utilities still try to improve on that reliability. Among the techniques being used to foil critter catastrophes are snake barriers around substations, buzzard shields on transmission towers and mesh coverings on wood poles to protect them from woodpeckers.

For some of the other causes of outages like trees and lightning, there’s now an app for that.

Utilities operate extensive right-of-way programs to keep vegetation away from power lines, from clearing underbrush to publicity campaigns asking people not to plant trees where they can fall on power lines. These days, those efforts can be aided by digital software that forecasts the growth of trees and other plants so utilities can recognize when to prune branches before they cause a problem.

Other software tries to manage lightning by analyzing the age and wear on the utility’s equipment that minimizes the damage from lightning strikes so it can be replaced before it fails.

While Colorado’s electric co-ops fight storms and squirrels to keep the power on, by far the biggest part of reliability comes from the decades of building, maintaining and updating their part of the massive machinery of the nation’s electric grid. In Colorado, a variety of power plants generate electricity that is shipped through miles of high-voltage transmission lines. Banks of substations and transformers step-down that voltage to send it to homes and businesses through an estimated 100,000 miles of local distribution lines.

Keeping that network up and running calls for a lot of planning among utilities to anticipate how electricity will be used in the future. Part of that reliability planning has focused on protecting the electricity system from computer-based digital attacks.

The never-ending job of cybersecurity
Bridgette Bourge is among those overseeing how digital technology affects reliability for electric co-ops and their consumer-members. As director of government affairs for NRECA, she sees both the positives and the negatives to the latest internet-based, or cyber, technology.

“Cyber helps a lot on reliability because it gives us the ability to monitor and know everything right away,” she says. “But whenever you increase reliability through a technology, you do potentially open up vulnerabilities as well from the security angle.”

For any organization, including electric utilities, the benefits of the internet come infested with mischief makers. Bourge says it’s routine for a company to receive tens of thousands of attempts each day to break into its computer network. Those “knocks” at the cyber door can come from individuals, countries and organizations, or from the army of automated “bots” roaming the internet worldwide, testing for weaknesses where a hacker could enter.

For a utility, a troublemaker inside the computer network could affect electric service, and that’s why local electric cooperatives work with their national organization, NRECA, to organize a variety of cyber reliability programs.

Bourge says those cyber reliability programs aim to help protect against a range of threats, from broad attempts to shut down parts of the electric grid, to more focused efforts to corrupt pieces of software used by electric cooperatives.

Working closely with the nation’s electric co-ops, NRECA shares the techniques for protecting utility systems from internet invaders. NRECA also works closely with federal government cybersecurity groups in the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

NRECA is also part of a national program to create a cyber mutual assistance agreement. Much like how groups of lineworkers from an electric co-op travel to help restore power after a hurricane, these cyber agreements would utilize teams of information technology experts in the case of a cyber incident.

“You can’t solve cybersecurity,” Bourge says. “No matter what you do today, the bad guys are going to figure out a way around it tomorrow. You have to keep thinking about the next step.

“Electric cooperatives take cybersecurity very seriously,” Bourge adds. “It’s built into their DNA.”

Electric co-ops are well-placed to pay attention to cybersecurity. She says that as community-based, member-led businesses, electric co-ops have a unique interest in protecting the reliability of the local community’s energy supply. Co-ops are prepared to act quickly when lines are down and work hard to thwart cyberattacks as they battle to keep the lights on.

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

Assess Your Energy Situation

By Derrill Holly and Amy Higgins

Staying at home can open your eyes to the changes that can benefit your castle — changes you may or may not have taken notice of before. Perhaps you’re noticing a draft around your windows and doors. Maybe you detected a hot spot in an area of your home that was previously overlooked. And with that, it’s conceivable that your electric bill is higher than it was last summer.

Better energy efficiency at home starts with savings, not sales, and an energy assessment conducted with help from a trained energy advisor from your electric cooperative can help you get there.

Some co-ops offer general assessments of the energy situation; some provide audits; all have expertise they can share. Co-ops are always there to answer questions about energy efficiency. In the past, some offered in-home assistance with energy questions. Others offered answers over the phone or via their website. As we move into our new “normal,” each Colorado co-op is finding ways to help its consumer-members answer their energy efficiency questions.

“In my opinion the biggest benefit for a member having an energy [assessment] is knowing exactly where your energy is going — if you’re being the most efficient with your energy that you can possibly be,” said Andy Molt, director of member services at Y-W Electric Association in Akron.

Co-ops provide this information because they are trusted energy advisors that are always working to help their members save energy and control their electricity costs.

“I’m usually looking for whatever problem the member has indicated, which could be high bills, a cold and drafty house or to check the efficiency of appliances,” said Alantha Garrison, energy use advisor at Gunnison County Electric Association in Gunnison, who has provided 535 assessments since 2010.

Members become frantic when they see a major increase on their power bill and want almost immediate answers as to why. In conjunction with experience and the ability to refer to meter data reports, the process of identifying major power consumption problems has been simplified and resolved in many instances.

Problems, such as poor insulation or air leaks from windows and doors, can be identified rather quickly using a thermal camera. “I can actually look and see if there are voids in the insulation and walls with [a thermal camera],” Molt said. Interestingly, Molt said he not only finds insulation problems in older homes, but sometimes also finds “huge voids” in the insulation of newer homes.

Energy advisors are constantly receiving training, certifications and reading materials to hone their skills. During on-site assessments, energy experts use all their senses and teachings to find abnormalities, such as hot water line leaks, running well pumps or damaged power cords. Their close examination sometimes leads to identifying safety issues as well.

Amy Blunck, communications director at Fort Collins-based Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association, shared that during one walk-through assessment, they found an old, metal surge strip that was malfunctioning. “It had burned a hole in the back of the strip, and it was arcing,” she explained. “This surge strip was in a barn sitting next to a pile of wood, and it could have burned the whole barn down if not discovered.”

Expert advice
Many of the electric co-ops that provide energy advice support professional development for energy advisors that includes exposure to building science concepts.

Training focused on both new construction techniques designed to improve energy efficiency and retrofitting options for upgraded older housing are common. Specialized training for multifamily units and manufactured housing are also common.

“By providing a picture of how energy is used in the home, people can concentrate on what can save them the most energy,” said Eileen Wysocki, an energy auditor with Holy Cross Energy, headquartered in Glenwood Springs.

Wysocki starts with a baseload estimate of energy use based on meter data. Talking with the consumer-member, she learns about household size and behavior patterns, and considers seasonal factors like heat tape used to prevent water lines from freezing during winter months.

“We have many ‘second homes’ in our service territory,” Wysocki said, adding that even when those homes are empty, energy use continues. “Fan coil blower motors, whole house humidifiers, boiler pumps, ventilation systems, driveway snowmelt pumps, pool pumps, hot tubs, garage heaters, heated toilet seats and towel bars are using energy, regardless of occupancy.”

The co-op serves Colorado’s popular ski areas around Aspen and Vail, and is currently designing a new audit form. It will stress benefits members can receive through efficiency upgrades, including comfort, said Mary Wiener, energy efficiency program administrator for Holy Cross Energy.

While some co-ops provide assessments free of charge, especially when they are requested in response to high bill concerns, others may charge a small fee, offering rebates to members who implement some of the recommendations provided.

An energy advisor can help a member avoid ineffective upgrades or the purchase of outsized equipment that might not improve their comfort or produce savings through recoverable costs.

“For members, simply talking to us on the phone about their energy use or asking us to help them find the problem at their home or business often answers their questions, and they start to understand how much control they have over their own costs when it comes to their electric bill,” Blunck explained. “Understanding that something as simple as using a smart thermostat, where they can control the temperature so their kids aren’t constantly turning up the AC, or putting the donkey up in a corral, where he can’t get to the stock tank heater cord, can make a big difference in your electric bill.”

Offering solutions
Most energy assessments are initiated following a request tied to high bill concerns, when members are really motivated to control their energy costs.

On average, members can reduce their energy use by about 5% if they follow the low-cost or no-cost advice given after an assessment. Additional savings of up to 20% can be achieved by addressing issues with big-ticket items, such as heating and cooling replacement, adding attic insulation or major duct damage discovered during the assessment.

Improved energy efficiency not only helps the co-op control peak demand and wholesale power costs, it also provides opportunities to discuss services available to members. Those include rebates, weatherization programs and payment assistance.

So, what are the biggest benefits of having an energy review? “Finding areas to air seal; learning specific habit changes that can make a difference; learning when it’s most expensive to use power; learning how much energy different items use, so you know what to expect on your energy bill; learning about new co-op programs you might not have known about,” Garrison said, adding, “also, if you have a pet, I’ll probably take an infrared image of it to send to you, which people love.”

To learn more about energy assessments available to you, contact your local electric cooperative.

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

Amy Higgins has been writing for Colorado Country Life for nearly a decade focusing on the topics that make a difference in the lives of its readers.

Co-ops Come Together During COVID-19

By Amy Higgins

In the wake of COVID-19, Colorado’s electric cooperatives have quickly altered the way they deliver their essential services. It’s no doubt more challenging, but they are still continually looking for ways to help their communities. After all, “concern for community” is one of the seven cooperative principles each co-op passionately stands by.

Tending to the welfare of their families, friends, communities and worldwide population, Colorado’s electric cooperatives are adhering to their own safety guidelines as well as those provided by the Colorado Rural Electric Association, the local and national government and the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While some co-ops weren’t initially equipped to do so, they swiftly figured out how to perform their work duties remotely and are using emails, phone calls and video chats to meet with fellow employees. Line crews are maintaining safe distances when on the job, and those few who still operate at co-op offices are performing maximum sanitization practices and distancing from others to make certain they’re available to consumer-members without the need of face-to-face interaction.

Over the last several weeks of uncertainty, Coloradans had to learn the ropes of “social distancing,” which can be contradictory to how they typically operate, including those electric co-op personnel still working in the field. “The rule [in our communities] is everything is about shaking hands, so it’s a little bit of a change from what they’re used to,” said Dale Kishbaugh, director of safety and loss control at CREA, adding, “Some of the members may look at it as guys being rude for not wanting to shake their hands, but the situation that we’re in, you’ve got to realize, it’s the best thing for them.”

The biggest challenge, Kishbaugh said, has been communication. “Our [line crews] are really, really good at hands-on. And having to convert over and try and put it into words in an email is a lot more challenging than we ever envisioned it would be,” he explained.

Since social distancing and sanitation standards were established, line crews have been relying on emails and phone calls to relay information instead of the face-to-face meetings they were accustomed to pre-COVID. CREA’s safety and loss control department is creating weekly videos to encourage and assist the crews when they’re on the job, highlighting the importance of maintaining safety practices and staying physically and psychologically healthy, among many other things. Topics have included the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE), job briefings and stress management.

Kishbaugh stressed the importance of getting outside, talking through stressors with someone you can count on and keeping family life and work life separated as much as possible.

In-house employees have also experienced the growing pains of change. “Initially, simply closing our offices to any member access was a paradigm shift,” said Tadius Huser from the member services team at Highline Electric Association in Holyoke. “We have drop boxes and drive-through windows that still function, as well as staffed offices to take calls. Eventually we worked on providing options for employees to work from home, and our IT team has done an exceptional job reacting to this need as, until this pandemic, we didn’t have a work -from-home option.”

Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association in Fort Collins recently held its first ever virtual annual meeting, with nearly 700 consumer-members tuning in — a considerable drop in comparison to the 1,800 average, but notable given today’s circumstances. “We certainly wish we were able to do this annual meeting in person like we’ve done for over 80 years. However, with the times we find ourselves in, that just isn’t possible,” said PVREA President and CEO Jeff Wadsworth in his opening remarks. “We look forward to next year when we’re able to meet in person.”

Andy Carter, member engagement manager at Cortez-based Empire Electric Association, said it was initially a challenge to get a work-at-home system in place with an IT department of two people and many staff members who never work from home. He explained: “We are a small co-op (60 employees) and, while we cross train employees, we don’t have a lot of depth to cover all of the normal duties if employees become ill.”

But the message has remained the same throughout Colorado’s electric co-op territories: “Our crews may be staggered and some of our employees may be working at home, but none of these changes impact the reliability of our services,” said Sarah Schaefer, communications supervisor and public information officer at Mountain View Electric Association, with offices in Falcon, Limon and Monument.

CO-OPS COLLABORATE
“Cooperation among cooperatives,” another cooperative principle, is significant for information sharing, brainstorming and assisting in a slew of ways, especially when the answers aren’t particularly evident.

“I am in regular communications with several other comparable cooperatives in Colorado. We are sharing ideas and resources, and brainstorming solutions. It’s a very collaborative and supporting environment,” said Hillary Knox, vice president of communications at La Plata Electric Association in Durango, adding, “no one has ever dealt with anything like this before.”

Amy Blunck, communications director at Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association, works at home during the mandatory statewide stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Polis.

Colorado’s electric cooperatives utilize the “cooperation among cooperatives” principle in a variety of ways, and always have. Utilities collaborate with local co-ops, CREA and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to help with communications efforts, both internally and externally; assist in a variety of local disaster relief efforts; dispatch assistance; share resources; and much more. “The beauty of ‘cooperation among cooperatives’ and working together is that we’re stronger and better for it,” said Christmas Wharton, communications manager at Grand Valley Power in Grand Junction.

“There is a special camaraderie among electric co-ops — we’re not competitors, we’re family. We have been for over 80 years,” said Amy Blunck, communications director at PVREA.

MAKING AN IMPACT
To help with COVID-19 relief efforts, several organizations are making financial contributions, including CREA, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and CoBank, a cooperative bank that serves agribusinesses, rural infrastructure providers and Farm Credit associations throughout the United States. CoBank recently announced that it is committing $1.4 million, Tri-State donated $200,000 and CREA contributed $5,000 toward those efforts.

Colorado’s electric cooperatives are also contributing to COVID-19 relief efforts. For example, Mountain Parks Electric made a generous donation to Mountain Family Center — both based in Granby — to help vulnerable populations faced with hardship in Grand and Jackson counties pay their electric bills during the COVID-19 outbreak.

GVP recognizes the hardships its community is incurring in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, including small businesses. GVP is hosting several contests on Facebook that will give purchased gift certificates from local restaurants, service providers and boutiques to winners. The electric co-op also hosted a virtual food drive, and several of its employees took it upon themselves to sew face masks for local health care providers. “Our employees, even if it’s just time or energy, all contribute to our communities in the most wonderful ways,” Wharton said. “It’s because we’re a part of our community, and a rising tide lifts all boats.”

TOGETHER WE’RE STRONGER
It seems most folks recognize the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic, yet others underestimate the importance of social distancing and the toll it takes on all those surrounding them when they fail to do so. “That’s why they had to go to the extent of closing everything down — it’s because people weren’t following directions,” Kishbaugh stressed. “That’s why the restaurants are in the situation they’re in now — people kept congregating at the restaurants and [other places].”

COVID-19 has had a detrimental effect on lives, livelihoods and the economy worldwide, and experts don’t envision a sudden “return to normalcy,” but following the guidelines presented by our health experts and legislators can help us get on the road to recovery.

Right now, many are out of work and unable to afford provisions or pay their bills. However, if you take a look around, acts of kindness are being performed all around us, and companies, like your electric co-op, are urging consumer-members to contact them if they are struggling to pay their bills.

“I would like to acknowledge the stress and emotional toll it takes on the customer service reps working the phones making payment arrangements with our members who are scared and not sure how they will pay their bills. It’s a lot to do all day when they themselves are struggling with some of the same issues,” said Kathy Bertrand, member services manager at Yampa Valley Electric Association, based in Steamboat Springs and Craig.

Bottom line is, we’re in this together. “We urge our members to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and avoid all nonessential travel,” Blunck said. “Take this opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors in our beautiful state and spend more quality time with family. Our nation is strong, and we will get through this together.”

Amy Higgins has been writing for Colorado Country Life for nearly a decade and has a good understanding about the topics that affect its readership.

Co-ops Keep Power Flowing Despite COVID-19 Virus

Colorado’s electric cooperatives, including their power suppliers, are in emergency mode, protecting critical personnel and making sure the lights stay on for consumer-members across the state during the new coronavirus pandemic.

The state’s 22 electric cooperatives provide electricity to an estimated 1.75 million Coloradans living and working in all four corners of the state. Serving consumer-members along the edges of the Front Range population areas, as well as those who live down quiet country roads, the co-ops serve 70% of the state’s landmass. Co-op employees, including the CEOs and managers, the lineworkers and the office personnel, all understand how critical the electricity they provide is getting to everyone through the current situation.

The co-ops are doing everything they can to make sure your electricity stays on and CREA, the statewide trade association for the co-ops, is working to support the co-ops in these efforts.

Keeping personnel safe
Personnel at your electric co-op are meeting regularly to assess the situation as closures, restrictions and the status of the virus change. Protocols are in place to make sure that the staff, particularly the critical staff, including lineworkers and control room operators, are healthy and following procedures to maintain their health. Your co-op is also in contact with the other co-ops around the state and has made plans for assistance in case there is a need.

Co-op employees are the ones who will make sure the lights stay on. With that in mind, each co-op has established protocols that are appropriate for the community they serve. Some, especially those serving the ski resort communities where early cases of COVID-19 were reported, immediately closed their facilities to public access. Other co-ops quickly followed to lessen the chances of staff contracting the virus.

Co-op office lobbies have been closed to the public; employees who can are working from home. No outside travel is allowed. Meetings are conducted over the phone or internet.

However, none of that means that co-op services for consumer-members has stopped. Member services representatives are still available to answer questions and resolve problems over the phone. Drop boxes are available for member payments.

The Colorado electric co-ops that utilize upgraded digital meters also have account information online for consumer-members that is available through the SmartHub app or website link. The app allows consumers-members to view their usage and connect with auto-pay services.

Information is updated regularly on each co-op’s website and Facebook page. Some co-ops also offer information through Twitter and Instagram.

Check with your local electric cooperative about newly implemented procedures designed to keep you as a consumer-member and staff members at the co-op safe and healthy.

Sharing information
The co-ops are also benefiting from their connection to other co-ops across the country. Weekly phone calls with co-ops in other states and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association allow Colorado’s co-ops to learn from others, discuss ways to keep employees safe and share alternate ways to provide specific services to consumer-members.

Colorado’s electric cooperatives are committed to maintaining reliable electric service for all of their consumer-members during this crisis and will do everything in their power to serve their communities.