Until recently, when a lightning strike or other disruption caused a fault on a remote section of Dairyland Power’s 3,200 miles of transmission line, it triggered a laborious trial-and-error process involving multiple field crews in different locations working to isolate the problem.

“We would send out teams to visually inspect and conduct switching maneuvers from several locations to narrow down the location,” says Eric Hammes, system operations center manager for the La Crosse, Wisconsin-based generation and transmission cooperative. “If it wasn’t an obvious problem like a downed line or damaged tower, it could be extremely time-consuming, resulting in prolonged outages.”

That’s all changed now.

Over the past decade, Dairyland Power and other G&Ts have invested millions in microprocessor-based relays, geographic information systems and infrastructure upgrades that can work together to isolate a fault in seconds.

“Remote connection to the protective relays allows the system operator to view real-time and historical data to assist with determining what happened and where,” Hammes says. “By knowing the approximate location of the fault on a transmission line, most customer outage times can be significantly reduced.”

Such system-visibility technologies are among the many innovations that co-ops have pioneered in the evolution toward the resilient grid, one that not only remains safe, reliable and affordable but also is more flexible and more able to meet emerging needs and enhance member-focused products and services.

“From the devices at the edge of the grid to bulk power plants, electric cooperatives are leveraging all the technologies that are available and cost-effective, including renewable generation, storage, grid sensors and demand response,” says Venkat Banunarayanan, NRECA’s vice president of integrated grid. “Each co-op is unique in terms of the nature of their electric grid, characteristics of their service territories, and the type of consumers or demand served, so they are creating unique combinations of solutions to serve their members.”

Jim Spiers, NRECA’s senior vice president for Business and Technology Strategies, says the pace and breadth of the ongoing grid revolution are transformative.

“The grid is always evolving,” he says. “But what we’re seeing now is a rapid and widespread proliferation of new devices, processes and systems that are enabling unprecedented grid visibility and control, helping mitigate environmental impacts, and boosting reliability, resiliency and efficiency. Electric co-ops, with their member focus and commitment to resilience, are absolutely at the forefront of this transition.”

The resilient grid comprises hundreds of such systems, processes and components. These are five critical facets that experts say will have the broadest impacts on the grid and the consumers who rely on it.

Power supply

Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC) once relied heavily on coal generation for baseload power. Now, the Anadarko, Oklahoma-based G&T is forging a path that leverages natural gas generation to balance an increasing supply of power from renewables, much of it through the Southwest Power Pool integrated marketplace.

“As we transition from traditional generation resources to carbon-free resources, we will need to look at alternatives for firm capacity,” says David Sonntag, the co-op’s vice president of special projects. “We need to ensure we have enough capacity in the future to meet demand, plus the necessary reserves to maintain reliability.”

It’s a strategy that more G&Ts are adopting to enhance their supply and product portfolios as demand for more renewable generation collides with the need for 24/7 service.

Spiers notes that as more and more variable resources come online, their dependence on firm, controllable generation for grid support means that determining the right portfolio mix may be the most essential aspect of the resilient grid.

“Building a robust portfolio and a plan for the future that maintains the right balance between reliable dispatchable resources and renewables is what informs every other aspect of the modern grid,” he says. “Without that, everything else falls apart.”

Reliability and cybersecurity

Steve Beuning, vice president of power supply and programs at Holy Cross Energy, says member expectations about power quality and availability have grown exponentially as the number of personal electronic devices and the ability of consumers to monitor their power use has increased.

“Consumers are more interested in resilience than ever before,” he says.

Holy Cross Energy, based in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, leverages its distributed energy resources (DER) program, among other services, to bolster reliability. One such initiative provides on-bill financing for the purchase and installation of residential battery storage systems that members can use as backup power and the co-op can deploy as demand response.

“We guarantee a certain level of reserves kept in the battery at all times to help them ride through outage events on our distribution system,” Beuning says. “We’ve got a target to install about 1,000 units over the next few years, which will give us 5 MW of demand response capability from the members’ side of the meters.”

Another resilience issue centers on cybersecurity. As the grid grows more reliant on sophisticated control software and digital communications platforms, grid assets become more attractive targets for cybercrime or cyberterrorism.

“We have all these technologies coming into the grid, and most of them are connected to the internet, so this is a major concern for everyone in the industry,” says NRECA’s Banunarayanan.

He notes that co-ops continue to improve their cybersecurity posture by increasing awareness and education among staff, implementing measures such as network monitoring and anomaly detection and developing and testing plans to handle cyberattacks.

Demand response, coordination and flexibility

Lee Ragsdale, senior vice president of energy delivery at North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, says grid coordination and flexibility will be essential for the state’s co-ops to meet sustainability goals while keeping electricity affordable and reliable.

He says that as more distributed energy resources—like microgrids, batteries, renewables and even smart thermostats—are added to the grid, co-ops will work together to make them more beneficial and effective.

“We’re able to aggregate and coordinate these ‘edge-of-grid’ resources through a newly implemented distributed energy resource management system [DERMS] that uses the latest technology to deploy them in ways that provide value to our members,” Ragsdale says.

North Carolina Electric Membership Corp., the state’s Raleigh-based G&T, is using the DERMS system to implement a Distribution Operator to serve as a single point of contact to enhance coordination and visibility across the grid.

“We’re excited about platforms that better connect consumers with their utility, and it is up to us as cooperatives to engage members in this new space,” Ragsdale says. “Our efforts to do so will provide an unparalleled level of service.”

Banunarayanan says integrating and optimizing power supply and demand response resources is critical, particularly as more distributed generation and flexible load (such as electric vehicles) are added to the grid.

“Having diverse generation and demand sources is a desirable thing, but without the ability to communicate and manage those resources, their value to the grid will not be maximized,” he says. “Resource visibility and monitoring as well as interoperability between those resources and the utility systems is the key that unlocks all the potential.”

Harnessing data

Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative has spent more than 15 years refining a suite of outage management tools that leverage the data and communications capabilities designed into their grid modernization initiatives.

“On the operations side, we can drag-and-drop tasks on specific crews, based upon considerations including personnel, skill capabilities and available equipment,” says Roger Schneider, senior vice president of engineering and operations at the Hughesville, Maryland, distribution co-op. “Details on the shared data are tailored to meet the work needs of personnel involved in various aspects of our operations, so if a member calls into our customer service representatives, they’ll get the most up-to-date information available.”

Such systems are among the many applications enabled by the increased volume of grid data available to co-ops.

“With co-ops deploying new communications infrastructure and sensors, the sky is the limit with the amount of data available to help them make decisions,” Banunarayanan says. “The critical element is processing and organizing that data in ways that are useful to making decisions.”

System awareness and control

Granular feedback from systems and sensors means engineers and technicians will have increasingly detailed visibility and precise, real-time control over grid functionality.

Great River Energy uses data from the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) of its member distribution co-ops to ensure that demand response controllers on electric water heaters throughout its sprawling Midwest territory are operating within normal parameters.

Nathan Grahl, a principal data analyst at the Maple Grove, Minnesota-based G&T, worked with their member-owners to develop an algorithm that uses historic whole-house interval data to identify when an electric thermal storage water heater is charging. Results from this algorithm can be used to determine when specific controllers are not working properly and relays it to the local distribution co-ops.

“It’s an example of how to use AMI data to optimize annual work planning,” Grahl says. “It allows them to go right to where the problem is and fix it.”

Banunarayanan says such applications are indicative of how transformative system awareness and control can be to grid operators.

“The data and the control capabilities will get more and more specific over time,” he says. “When you add in artificial intelligence and the potential to automate responses, we’re talking about a grid that is substantially more robust and resilient from where we were a couple decades ago. These breakthroughs are just around the corner.”