Electric Co-ops Seek Fairness Among All Utilities

By Erin Kelly

Electric cooperatives are not-for-profit entities and therefore do not pay federal income taxes. Usually that is a good thing. It means co-op electric rates are set to only cover co-op costs. There is no incentive to charge more than is needed; any profit (known as a margin in the co-op business model) is returned to consumers as credits.

But when it comes to government incentives to transition to newer, cleaner fuel sources, not paying taxes is a problem. Other utilities have long received federal tax breaks for providing power from solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. Co-ops cannot tap into those programs because they are exempt from those taxes.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association is working to change that. It is urging congressional leaders to provide electric co-ops with direct payments to develop clean energy projects. These would provide incentives comparable to the tax breaks granted to investor-owned utilities such as Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy.

In a letter to top congressional leaders, NRECA, the American Public Power Association and the Large Public Power Council asked for direct payments to member-owned and community-owned utilities to help employ technologies such as battery storage, carbon capture and electric vehicle charging networks.

“Allowing public power utilities and rural electric cooperatives to receive these tax credits in the form of direct payments for building clean energy infrastructure would ensure that all utilities serving all Americans would have equal access to these federal resources,” said the May 14 letter, which was signed by NRECA CEO Jim Matheson, APPA President/CEO Joy Ditto and LPPC President John Di Stasio.

“The direct payments would be used to help offset project costs — increasing the incentive for further investments — and would enable public power utilities and electric cooperatives to own these facilities directly. It would also mean more local projects, with local jobs, under local control,” the letter stated.

The issue is one of NRECA’s top legislative priorities for this session of Congress.

The letter points out that co-ops and community-owned electric utilities together serve nearly 30% of all retail electric customers.

“The president and Congress have ambitious climate goals that cannot be met by leaving nearly 30% of the nation’s electric utility customers without access to incentives and support,” the three association leaders wrote.

President Joe Biden has set a goal of eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 2030 to help slow climate change. Matheson and the other association leaders called that “a daunting challenge” with a hefty price tag that will be borne in part by co-op consumer-members and public power customers.

“As such, we cannot afford inefficient or ineffective policies,” they wrote.

Erin Kelly is a staff writer at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Transmission Project Crosses the Canyon

By Jonah Martin, Manager, MNC Project Management Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Co-ops Support Future Leaders

Electric co-ops fund college scholarships, youth programs

By Sarah Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Super Grid: The Path to Wealth on Renewables?

By Reed Karaim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But a super grid would also face significant challenges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Co-op Women in Power

By Sharon Sullivan

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

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

Jessica Matlock

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

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

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

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

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

Ginny Buczek

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

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

Barbara Walz

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

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

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

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

Sylvia Spangler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing Vegetation to Mitigate Colorado’s Wildfires

By Sarah Smith

Wildfires ravaged Colorado this summer, wreaking havoc across the state and scorching more than 665,000 acres of land. The 2020 wildfire season marked the worst in the Centennial State’s recent history, and the Colorado Rural Electric Association, representing Colorado’s electric cooperatives, and its member cooperatives are determined to serve as advocates for better wildfire mitigation. The prevention of these devastating fires is not only imperative to restore and maintain the natural beauty of Colorado, but also the functioning of critical infrastructure and, of course, public safety.

Making sure the rights-of-way are clear from trees helps mitigate wildfires caused by power lines.

Colorado’s electric co-ops work tirelessly to mitigate situations in which their power lines might cause a wildfire. Some approaches include trimming trees on an annual basis to ensure they aren’t coming into contact with electric lines, maintaining the rights-of-way and keeping infrastructure up to code and equipment operating properly.

Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs has taken vegetation management a step further by finding new and innovative ways to utilize technology to pinpoint potential fire risks. Holy Cross recently teamed up with Intel Geospatial, a cloud “geovisual” data management platform, for a proof-of-concept project. The project consisted of performing an overhead system inspection with an unmanned aerial vehicle, and then providing the photos to Intel Geospatial.

“Intel has developed a software platform designed to allow integration of the inspection photos into a set of base maps, which then allows the end user to review the photos more efficiently for system deficiencies and create reports for field crews to repair the issue,” said Cody O’Neil, vice president of the Glenwood Springs district operations group at Holy Cross.

“We look forward to incorporating this software into our system maintenance program, with the end goal of improving our system reliability, which in turn minimizes the chance that the electric system ignites a fire,” O’Neil added.

Sangre de Cristo Electric Association, Inc., in Buena Vista is another cooperative that is thinking outside of the box. The association recently added a $6 per month wildfire mitigation rate rider on SDCEA monthly bills, which began in January 2021. The co-op experienced the depredation of wildfires firsthand with the Decker and Hayden Creek fires. The aftermath of these fires created a major impact on those living near the lasting burn scars, and Sangre de Cristo’s region remains at high risk for an even larger, more severe wildfire in the future.

Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on vegetation management over the past several years, it would take an additional 20 years under the co-op’s current allocated budget to raise enough money to efficiently clear regional electric lines, and the association knew it had to accelerate the process. According to SDCEA, the board approved the $6 per month rate rider for 2021, with an incremental increase of $1 per year until it reaches $10. The rider will be reviewed periodically to guarantee its effectiveness and will be removed from SDCEA bills when it is deemed no longer necessary.

“Over the years, Sangre de Cristo has budgeted and spent millions of dollars cutting back trees in our ROW [rights-of-way] and our easements. We have tried to preserve as many trees as we could. But the recent spate of wildfires in California and Colorado, along with the loss of life and homes, has caused us to re-evaluate our risk and the urgency that it requires. Our highest calling is the protection of life and property,” said Paul Erickson, SDCEA chief executive officer.

The safety and livelihoods of co-op consumer-members are always top-of-mind, which is why CREA, along with its member cooperatives, is pursuing a three-pronged approach to reduce the threat of wildfires throughout the state. The approach will heavily focus on the power line rights-of-way through the state’s vast landscape. The three prongs are:

1. Reviewing the vegetation management strategies in rights-of-way with private landowners and public land managers. Sometimes, co-ops and other utilities experience difficulties accessing the rights-of-way or easements if they can’t gain permission from adjacent landowners to cross their land.

2. Working with policymakers on changes that will allow for better vegetation management in rights-of-way.

3. Joining the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in addressing concerns regarding access to rights-of-way on federal lands.

Electric co-op crews clear trees and other vegetation that could increase wildfire risk.

A right-of-way is an easement agreement between the landowner and the co-op allowing the co-op to access the power line (or whatever infrastructure is in the right-of-way). It also allows the co-op to maintain the power line and to clear any trees or other vegetation that might cause a threat to the power line. Generally, the co-op pays the landowner a yearly fee for this access, which is negotiated between landowners and co-ops.

In Colorado, these rights-of-way can vary in width depending on the type of power line running through the rights-of-way or according to the agreements with landowners. Land owned by the state or federal government can present its own set of challenges. Each governmental agency has its own criteria and policies regarding rights-of-way. Sometimes, it can take months or even years to get necessary permits to work within existing rights-of-way or easements. This lack of consistency and often drawn-out processes can make maintaining the vegetation to minimize wildfire risks difficult.

Positive news is on the horizon for electric cooperatives across the nation. “The [federal] agencies have recently taken several positive steps to streamline approvals that allow electric co-ops more timely access to power line rights-of-way located on federal land,” said Janelle Lemen, NRECA regulatory issues director. “NRECA is engaging with the agencies to ensure consistent and coordinated implementation of these regulations.”

That work is having an effect. The U.S. Forest Service issued a final rule on November 19, 2020, under the National Environmental Policy Act, which ensures that co-ops will no longer face a waiting period when there is an emergency vegetation management situation or maintenance that cannot be put on hold.

Wildfires are not completely avoidable, especially during the dry summer months in Colorado. CREA and its member cooperatives are committed to providing safe, reliable electricity at an affordable rate. Vegetation management for wildfires is a fundamental aspect of the service electric cooperatives work to provide to their consumer-members, and co-ops will continue to act proactively on wildfire mitigation. By working together, wildfire threats in Colorado can be reduced.

Sarah Smith, a freelance writer in Colorado, has a long history with electric co-ops.

Cool Technologies Keep Lineworkers Well-Connected

By Tom Tate
When electric cooperatives were formed in the 1930s, their technology was primitive by any standard — digging holes for the utility poles by hand, walking the poles up into those holes, using ladders to reach equipment needing service. And if you had to get in touch with the line crew, face-to-face communication was the only option.

Today, the lineworker rivals any other worker when it comes to having the necessary tech to get the job done safely, quickly and more accurately. Let’s take a look at a few of the devices behind this evolution, starting with the tablet.

Many electric co-ops send their crews into the field with ruggedized tablets. What are those? They are tablets (and smartphones) with special cases and screen protectors built to tough specifications that will allow a lineworker’s devices to survive bouncing along in a line truck, being exposed to all kinds of weather and being dropped into a bucket or toolbox.

Depending on the electric co-op, the data and other content on these ruggedized devices varies. Often work orders detailing the day’s project are found on these devices. These can include construction drawings for how the job is to be built, the bill of materials so the crew knows what to pull from inventory before hitting the road, and system maps so lineworkers know exactly where to go. Gone are the reams of paper and cumbersome map books of the past.

Not quite as new, but equally important, are global positioning system, or GPS, coordinates. This functionality might be built into the lineworker’s tablet, a ruggedized smartphone or a handheld unit. As more co-ops map their systems using GPS coordinates, the GPS capability gets the crews where they need to be in an efficient manner. Some GPS units are designed specifically for heavy trucks, and plot routes that avoid bridges with weight limits or roads with height restrictions.

Close up of an infrared camera

Infrared cameras help lineworkers scan power lines and other equipment and find hot spots that could mean equipment that could fail.

Another popular tool is the forward-looking infrared camera, also known as FLIR. Many people are familiar with this technology from the many ghost hunter programs currently on television. With a FLIR camera, crews can rapidly scan power lines, transformers and other equipment when searching for hot spots. A piece of distribution equipment about to fail will often get hot. While not visible to the naked eye, it shows up clearly on a FLIR display. Scanning the system with a FLIR camera is a fast and accurate means of spotting a problem before it becomes an outage.

And today, many lineworkers have eyes in the sky in the form of drones. Colorado’s electric cooperatives cover territory that is often difficult to access when they need to survey the system for necessary repairs or to locate a new power line route. Instead of tackling the job on foot or on four-wheelers, the co-op crews might be able to send in a drone. Flying above the area provides a great view of the situation and allows the crew to make an assessment of what to do next without having to be there in person. This is especially useful after a major storm when roads can still be blocked.

Cooperatives are laser focused on providing the best reliability possible at the lowest possible price. A major aspect of reliability is getting the lights back on as quickly as is safely possible after an outage. Key in this is the outage management system, or OMS. This system builds on “geo-tagged” system maps (each pole has its GPS location mapped), sophisticated engineering models of the distribution system and, for maximum accuracy, an advanced metering system.

When an outage occurs, the system uses models and databases to determine the exact location of the fault and the extent of the outage. Crews can then be sent to the right spot to correct the problem. Part of this restoration effort might be a vehicle tracking system that tells operations staff the exact location of each line truck. The crews closest to the outage are sent to restore power — and essential information can be accessed on the tablets, depending upon the situation.

Sometimes all the technology in the world is not enough and a good old-fashioned visual inspection is required. During daylight hours, it can be easier to see the cause of a problem. But at night, lineworkers need a reliable source of light. Today, that comes from LED flashlights and truck-mounted lights. These powerhouses are a fraction of the size of regular flashlights, and they make an older incandescent model look like a candle by comparison. In the hands of a lineman, they provide an amazing view of the lines during the darkest of nights.

Technology is permeating every aspect of cooperative operations, allowing your electric co-op to constantly improve your service. The well-connected lineworker is at the forefront of that technical evolution.

Tom Tate of writes on the electric industry for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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.