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.

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.