In the remote island community of Kake, Alaska, members of the Tlingit tribe have begun to benefit from a cheaper, cleaner source of electricity.
Thanks in part to $3 million in grants from the federal government, Inside Passage Electric Cooperative rebuilt an abandoned dam to provide hydropower so the community would no longer be dependent solely on diesel fuel. Since the project came online in October 2020, it has saved nearly 71,000 gallons of fuel and more than $165,000 in fuel costs.
What’s more, the Juneau-based co-op’s small hydropower projects in Kake and Hoonah have helped increase populations of the state’s iconic salmon by improving stream habitat and restoring salmon passageways. That’s especially important to co-op members on Kake, who live off the land by fishing and hunting.
“We couldn’t be more pleased,” says co-op CEO Jodi Mitchell. “It’s been a huge success.”
IPEC’s hydropower project is just one example of how co-ops throughout the country have put federal grants to good use to strengthen their grids, invest in renewable energy, improve cybersecurity or offer high-speed internet to unserved communities.
Many co-ops are seeking to bring more innovation to rural communities by tapping into federal grants from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Congress passed last November. The bill will provide billions of dollars in grants over five years for broadband deployment, electric vehicle charging networks, electric transmission, energy storage, carbon capture and other clean energy technologies.
“Co-ops have already learned to be efficient with money because they’re not-for-profit,” says Emma Stewart, NRECA’s chief scientist. “They’re good at operating in a lean way and making the best use of the dollars they’re given.”
Stewart has worked with co-ops on several big initiatives over the past year, including a rural energy storage deployment program led by the Department of Energy (DOE) and projects to bring solar power to low-income and moderate-income communities.
“Co-ops are able to move in an agile way and can often deploy projects quicker than other applicants,” she says.
Grant money can make all the difference at not-for-profit co-ops seeking the resources to move their co-ops and communities forward.
“Grants are so important, because otherwise we’d have to borrow so much money that our rates would go up instead of down,” Mitchell says. “That’s just unacceptable.”
In upstate New York, Otsego Electric Cooperative is using a $7 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission to expand broadband beyond its membership to reach about 600 households in sparsely populated villages with little or no service.
The co-op began receiving grant money in January and hopes to complete the project later this year so that people can work from home, do schoolwork remotely or access telemedicine services.
“With this additional $7 million, we’ll go out and help our neighbors who are most in need of service,” says Tim Johnson, CEO of the Hartwick-based co-op with about 5,000 members. “Fortunately, this grant money came along. Otherwise, it would be a huge financial risk that most co-ops wouldn’t be able to take.”
Without the federal money, Otsego EC “probably could have done it with very low-interest funding,” he says. “But it would have taken a very long time, and people are desperate to have it now.”
In Colorado, Fort Collins-based Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association used $250,000 from the DOE to help finance a microgrid with battery energy storage to boost the reliability and resiliency of its service to Red Feather Lakes, a remote community in a rugged area of the Rocky Mountains. The town was plagued with outages caused by car accidents, snowstorms, wildfires and even occasional tornadoes.
The distribution co-op, along with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, paid the remaining $300,000 cost of the microgrid project, which runs on a 140-kilowatt, 446-kilowatt-hour Tesla Powerpack battery and is fed by a 20-kW solar photovoltaic system provided by the community. There also is a 1,000-gallon propane generator.
Together, those assets enable the community to survive power outages for up to four days off the grid, says co-op CEO Jeff Wadsworth.
“So far, it’s allowed us to see what a small microgrid can do in providing resiliency,” he says of the project, which was completed last fall. “It would not have happened without DOE and the community partnership. NRECA also played a significant role in helping us with the funding.”
NRECA and 23 co-ops also participated in a $68 million smart grid demonstration project that began in 2013. The project, co-funded by a DOE stimulus grant, enabled participating co-ops to install smart grid technologies and share what they learned with other co-ops.
The project led to widespread co-op adoption of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which combines smart meters with communications networks and data management systems to allow co-ops to transmit real-time pricing and other information back and forth to the meters.
“We’ve come far in a relatively short amount of time on AMI,” says Jeff Haase, manager of member services and end use strategy at Great River Energy generation and transmission co-op in Maple Grove, Minnesota, which participated in the demonstration project. “Nearly every one of our members has completed or substantially completed an AMI rollout.”
The benefits of AMI data include enabling co-ops to know exactly where power outages are occurring before they get calls from their members and helping them create programs to reduce peak demand, Haase says.
“We wouldn’t have gotten started as soon as we did without the DOE grant,” he says.
As NRECA has worked to help co-ops leverage federal grants from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, it is exploring the development of consortiums of co-ops that are interested in the same types of projects, Stewart says.
So far, consortiums have been formed around electric vehicles, cybersecurity, microgrids, smart grid and data and mitigation and response to wildfires, storms and extreme weather.
“To combine co-ops as teams to participate in those grants will help us get those efficiencies of scale,” Stewart says.
Johnson says Otsego EC plans to apply for some of that money to improve the resiliency of its system by replacing old poles and wires and is looking at the possibility of deploying a backup battery storage system for its substation.
“Co-ops are close to our communities, and we know where the needs are,” Johnson says. “We’re grassroots. For us, it’s not about profits, it’s about doing what we believe is best for our members.”