The Energy Innovations newsletter is your source for the latest innovations by Colorado’s electric co-ops.

Mountain Co-op Opts to Build Fiber Backbone

Nationwide, electric cooperatives install automated metering systems, energy efficiency and demand response programs, and grid monitoring systems that all require real-time communication in order to provide members the safe reliable electricity they are accustomed to receiving 24 hours a day. As technology advances in the electric industry, cooperatives are requiring more sophisticated telecommunications technology.

A such, electric cooperatives — as well as their members — need access to fast and reliable high-speed internet service for system management, work, video conferencing, entertainment and to stay relevant and connected to the world. Studies still show that rural Americans are less connected than their urban counterparts due to limited or no access to high-speed internet.

In a recent survey to members of Granby-based Mountain Parks Electric, Inc., the electric co-op reports that members agree that low-cost, high-speed internet is “very important to the future of the local economy.” In response to survey results, the MPE Board of Directors has weighed two business cases for becoming a retail internet service provider, which prompted two feasibility studies.

Both studies proved that there would need significant capital investment. One study estimated a cost of $95 million for MPE to form, construct and operate a “last-mile” (retail) internet service. The area’s rugged terrain, and its sparse population are the biggest factors in this cost estimate.

When the electric co-op formed in 1946, nearly 100 percent of households in the territory signed up for electric service. In contrast, the internet feasibility study revealed that only about 45 percent of current electric co-op members would sign up for retail internet service through MPE.

With those lower numbers is the potential for members to see an increase in electricity rates if MPE were to move forward with the retail internet project. The MPE board is not eager to impose such rate increases on co-op members.

However, the board of directors is still convinced that high speed internet is a need in the community it serves. As such, at the February meeting the board adopted a motion to improve internet access in a more cost-effective manner. Instead of building an expensive retail service, the board moved to construct a “middle-mile system.”

A middle mile system is the backbone of a high-speed internet network. Once constructed it will allow for immediate electric utility operational improvements. An MMS backbone investment will not significantly impact MPE’s electric rates to members. MPE also reports that the backbone will position the co-op to implement technologies that may help manage future wholesale power costs, benefiting all members.

Look for future Innovations in Energy Newsletters from CREA for updates on this forward-thinking project from a Colorado cooperative.

3,000 Pounds of Recycled Lights Benefits Local Nonprofit

Sedalia-based CORE Electric Cooperative (formally Intermountain Rural Electric Association) held its first-ever holiday light recycling program. It was hugely successful and co-op members brought in much more than expected — over 3,000 pounds of recyclable holiday lights. CORE took the lights to Western Metals Recycling center where it was paid 20 cents per pound to recycle the lights.

This was a chance for members to recycle their old holiday lights at no cost, and the program provided a donation to Energy Outreach Colorado. CORE matched the amount received from the recycling center, making the donation total over $1,200. Energy Outreach Colorado helps low-income Coloradans with heating bill assistance, emergency home furnace repair and grants to improve the energy efficiency of affordable housing facilities.

This recycling program is an innovative way to encourage members to dispose of holiday lights in a responsible manner, and also provide funds to help Coloradans.

Co-op Rebates, Updates Help Local Businesses Shine

Since January 2018, Colorado electric co-op, Empire Electric Association, has presented over $15,700 in rebates to 10 local businesses that built, updated or retrofitted their spaces with LED lighting.

A new cider brewing company in Mancos outfitted its tasting room lighting with LED pucks for a pleasant and inviting look and feel. It also installed bright LEDs in the brew room’s high ceilings for an efficient and well-lit workspace.

LED horticulture lights are now installed at The Herbal Alternative, which save on energy and are passively cooled. Less heat is generated by LEDs compared to the old lighting, helping to maintain the correct temperature for the plants.

In another retrofit, 6500 Kelvin lighting brought new sparkle to an antique store in Cortez, updating the space with bright white lights.

Steve Keetch Motors retrofitted existing showroom fixtures with LEDs, as well as placing them in the service garage, offices, waiting room and restrooms. These efficient bulbs make lighting spaces more efficient and cost-effective.

Denise Moore, EEA’s communications specialist takes photos of the rebate check presentations to share on social media and says that the co-op “Has enjoyed featuring business in our area that take advantage of our rebate program.” This thriving program is just one way that the Cortez-based co-op helps commercial members save money and develop more efficient spaces.

Mountain Co-op’s Green Power Rebates

Granby-based Mountain Parks Electric members who installed renewable energy systems received nearly $21,000 in total rebates in 2017. This is the program’s biggest rebate year yet, increasing from $14,490 in 2016.

The electric co-op started the Green Power program in 1999, then purchasing renewable energy credits on behalf of customers who wanted to support the development of renewable energy sources. In 2011, the course of the program changed to a thriving rebate program that rewards members who install local renewable energy projects at their home or business, with the goal to facilitate more green power projects. This increases the amount of renewable energy that the co-op can offer to members.

The project is funded by members’ voluntary additions and contributions to their monthly electric bill, ranging anywhere from 50 cents to $100 a month. Rebate levels are generous, with the residential rebate at $1,000 + $0.10 per DC watt ($2,000 maximum) and the commercial rebates at $1,000 + $0.10 per DC watt ($8,000 maximum).

Colorado Co-op Brings LEDs to Businesses

Sam Christensen, owner of a home furnishings store in downtown Durango, retrofitted his poorly lit showroom with LED bulbs. Durango-based La Plata Electric Association’s project specialist Ray Pierotti advised Christensen on which bulbs to buy to transform his store into a bright and colorful retail space. Pierotti also helped the retailer process rebates on the commercial-grade LED bulbs.

Christensen spent $1,163 on the bulbs and received a rebate of $592.57 directly from the co-op. He will save about $1,400 annually on his La Plata Electric Association electric bill, resulting in a return on the LED investment in less than six months.

Pierotti reports that more than half of Durango’s downtown businesses are 100 percent LED lit. He encourages retailers and business owners to contact him directly before they upgrade lighting or do a store redesign.

This is just another example of how Colorado co-ops help residential and commercial members make the most out of their electricity use using all resources available.

Gunnison Co-op Promotes Efficiency Innovations

Infrared thermography imagery is a fast and accurate way to find suspect areas around homes and businesses where electric efficiency is less than ideal.

In an innovative approach, Colorado electric co-op Gunnison County Electric Association has provided IR energy audits to its members since 2011 and it continues to offer this service today.

Not only can the IR audit solve efficiency issues in residences and businesses — like improper or missing insulation in ceilings and walls — it can find other issues not related to the building construction or insulation. GCEA’s energy use specialist Alantha Garrison reports that IR audits have also discovered radiant in-floor or in-ceiling heating systems that the member did not know existed.

High electricity bills can be of concern for many consumers, and GCEA uses these high-tech energy audits to help find problem areas that can contribute to that issue. These audits help inform members as well as lower their bills.

Efficient Lighting for Fire Station in Co-op Territory

In an innovative effort, Colorado electric co-op San Miguel Power Association in Ridgway was called on to help brighten and increase efficiency at the Norwood fire station in southwestern Colorado. Fire chief Joe Conway took advantage of the expertise and rebates offered by SMPA, his local electric co-op, to upgrade the lighting of three truck bays, several personnel offices and a meeting/training room which is also used by the community.

These spaces were formerly outfitted with 40-year old lighting technology, but thanks to the help of the co-op and volunteers, the lighting redesign will be more efficient for the fire station, benefitting both the personnel and the community that uses the space.

The lighting project will reduce the energy requirement by 15,000 kilowatt-hours a year and reduce the station’s annual bill by approximately $2,000. This upgraded investment will pay back in less than one year with the SMPA rebate.

SMPA works directly with both commercial and residential members to take advantage of their rebate programs.

Colorado Centennial Farm Installs Micro Hydro Project in Co-op Territory

With a goal of generating 40,000 kilowatt hours, about the same amount that his center pivot sprinkler uses, Jim Park installed an innovative micro hydroelectric project on his corn and alfalfa farm in Weld county.

Typically seen on the Western Slope, agricultural hydroelectric projects on the eastern plains and the Front Range are still gaining popularity and traction. After his 20-year service as a Poudre Valley REA board member, and the owner of a 260-acre Colorado Centennial Farm, Park was knowledgeable and interested in hydroelectric generation.

After receiving coordinated grants from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Park ordered a cross-flow turbine generator from the Ossberger company based in Germany. Park placed the turbine at the bottom of a 25-foot slope in his irrigation diversion off the Lower Latham ditch. The turbine was manufactured specifically for his land elevation, water volume and generation needs. The ditch runs from April to November and the turbine began generating power in June 2017.

Park will eventually see a positive return on his investment, and if the unit generates more energy than needed to run his sprinkler, a portion of the overage will be treated as a savings on his electric bill through PVREA.

Fort Collins-based PVREA cooperative partnered with Park for this project and provided him the interconnection for it to come back to his metering.

Co-op Upgrades Power Lines During Wildfire Rebuild

Wildfires ravaged northwestern Colorado this summer, with at least three fires in Routt and Moffat counties. Steamboat Springs-based electric co-op, Yampa Valley Electric Association experienced the harsh effects of the lightning-caused Moffat County Pine Tree Fire, which was not well-contained until mid September and the Winter Valley Fire, which was spread quickly due to 50 mile per hour winds.

The Pine Tree Fire caused significant damage to the YVEA power system. Fire officials allowed co-op crews into parts of the 4,700 acre burn area to assess the damage to their lines and equipment.

YVEA had over 30 members without power due to the fire, but the co-op crews and contractors worked in extreme and challenging conditions to restore and replace the damaged infrastructure to their system. In addition to the 2 to 3 miles of overhead line that needed to be repaired, there were 33 utility poles that needed replacement, 13,200 feet of damaged aluminum conductor cable and two melted meters. The repairs will strengthen the transmission system and increase reliability in that area. The Winter Valley Fire, which spread to 7,800 acres, took out the three-phase line into Lily Park.

In both cases, the system was rebuilt with shorter spans between poles and an improved and strengthened infrastructure. This will mean fewer outages for members in these areas going forward and better reliability.

Innovations at Co-ops Reported at Federal Hearing

Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy CEO, Dr. Bryan Hannegan, was a valuable witness representing rural electric cooperatives at the Energy Subcommittee Powering America Hearing, held by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce on September 26. The goal of this hearing was to provide insight into the nation’s electric grid and electricity markets and how rapidly-evolving technology innovations have a role in empowering consumers by giving them greater control.

During the introduction of the hearing, Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI 6th District) stated that the United States electric grid has been transforming in a way that allows consumers to become active market participants, in which they expect control, convenience and choice. The hearing and the testimony from the panel of witnesses shed light on the challenges that prevent advanced energy technologies from deploying around the country.

The panel—including Dr. Hannegan— reported that although the electric industry is regulated to ensure that all Americans have access to reliable and affordable electricity, changing technologies require a grid that allows two-way flows. Several members of the panel emphasized that battery storage and microgrids provide grid resiliency and localized solutions to keep electricity reliable and affordable.

When asked a question by a subcommittee member about the advantages for microgrids in rural areas, Hannegan replied that microgrids improve reliability and service, especially during natural hazard events, such as the snowstorms Holy Cross experiences in their service territory. He pointed out that microgrids are always helpful in addition to grid supply and that local generation solutions are a better option in those situations.

Dr. Hannegan reminded the subcommittee that infrastructure is important in light of the wildfires and hurricanes around the nation that recently compromised electric stability, especially in Puerto Rico. He also emphasized that local decision-making must “remain paramount” and that electric regulations are not a one-size-fits-all situation. He explained how rural electric co-ops have a small employee base, how their linemen work differently because of technology, how their member service staff will want to rethink how they interact with customers who have a choice in their electricity needs and how all of those factors may lead to a new look at the standard co-op principles. Despite these challenges, he still thinks that innovative and evolving technologies are exciting because it gives co-ops access to solar and wind where the “price points are nearly a wash.”

With “no shortage of feedback from co-op members,” Holy Cross is aware that members will ask for electricity innovations that they’ve read about or have seen on television. And since electric co-ops are “heavily embedded in the communities they serve,” the feedback the co-op receives “forces a pace of innovation on the co-op.” Hannegan was quick to point out that the challenge of co-op boards is to make sure they strike a balance of what co-op members want and what makes fiscal sense.

He spoke to the fact that the architecture of the grid is changing from a hub and spoke model with passive consumers to “a dynamic decentralized and distributed grid” via digitization, metering data and software developments. He pointed out that co-ops are naturally consumer-centric being member-owned nonprofit distributors. He told the committee that even with rapidly-changing technologies, co-ops will continue to prioritize the needs of their members while developing and deploying the technologies to provide safe, affordable and reliable electricity.