Electric co-ops have always benefited from the principle Cooperation Among Cooperatives. But lately, they’ve been bringing their collaborative expertise to a broader audience, working closely with federal research laboratories to help the industry stay ahead of the many challenges it faces.

“The U.S. Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories are at the pinnacle of global research, tackling the critical scientific challenges of our time,” says Craig Miller, NRECA’s chief scientist. “Being able to partner with them is a great opportunity for our member cooperatives.”

Over the past decade, he says, co-ops have worked with the labs on key technology challenges, including cybersecurity, renewable energy, grid resilience and modernization, and data management.

It’s a relationship Miller says brings mutual benefits: The labs like working with co-ops because they’re innovative and nimble. They also gain a better understanding of how utilities operate.

For their part, co-ops get to leverage the facilities, protocols, and knowhow of the labs and test the impacts of cutting-edge applications and technologies.

“Co-ops benefit from working with the labs on joint projects, and the labs are eager to spend time with co-ops listening and learning, sharing their research, and jointly envisioning the technological evolution of our industry,” Miller says.

Miller notes that lab representatives meet regularly with NRECA staff, often including the associaton’s headquarters among their stops when they visit DOE offices in Washington for project reviews and planning sessions. Co-op representatives serving with NRECA advisory groups also make lab visits and meet frequently with senior DOE researchers.

Since 2009, 40 electric co-ops have been involved with federal research projects.

“Co-ops are now mining the information and experience gained to help control costs, improve grid reliability, and add value to the services they offer their members,” Miller says.

‘Cool’ research

Summer is the season for blast freezing in Cordova, Alaska. With three large plants and two smaller ones within the coastal community on the Prince William Sound, Cordova Electric Cooperative powers the 11th largest seafood-processing center in the United States.

“Our system peaks a lot during the summer fish-processing season,” says Cordova Electric CEO Clay Koplin. “We have 2,100 citizens, but we only have about 1,500 meters, and 400 of those are in the boat harbor.”

For years, the co-op has used 7.25 MW of hydroelectric power to meet its growing system demand, which now tops 8 MW. They maintain diesel generation to balance variable hydro production and meet peaks.

“If we don’t have any spinning reserve, and we don’t know when the next cannery is going to put another 500 horsepower of freezer compressor on, it can cause an outage,” says Koplin, who is also mayor of Cordova.

In June, Cordova Electric commissioned a 1-MW lithium-ion battery array as the centerpiece of a microgrid that will offset 35,000 gallons of diesel fuel costs for the co-op’s members. When fully charged, the battery system will deliver 1 MWh of power to the co-op’s grid, charging or discharging as needed.

The battery storage project is supported by Sandia National Laboratories as part of its ongoing microgrid research. Cordova Electric is also working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) on grid modernization efforts that include power management strategies and virtual battery modeling.

The co-op is also a partner on RADIANCE, a grid-resilience project with Idaho National Laboratories, Sandia, and PNNL.

“The labs have to come to us to participate on the ground so they can learn from us,” Koplin says. “And we go out to the labs to validate what they’re doing against our physical knowledge and to expose our staff to their resources.”

Modeling for grid resilience

Severe storms have been a challenge for electric cooperatives since the first poles went up. Now, co-ops are working with national labs on ways to determine what parts of their systems are most vulnerable—before bad weather hits.

“Electric co-ops and NRECA worked with two national labs to develop a tool for computer modeling of grid-hardening improvements and damage-mitigation strategies,” says David Pinney, NRECA’s analytics program manager. “Utilities can use the tool to analyze factors including prevailing or extreme weather conditions, topography, accessibility, and other variables, to select options for system improvements which provide the best potential return.”

The tool, dubbed LPNORM (Los Alamos and Pacific Northwest national laboratories and NRECA Optimal Resiliency Model), was developed as part of the federal Smart Grid Research and Development Program.

“We’ve had several large events in the last five years that did significant damage,” says Kevin Jordan, supervisory engineer at Horry Electric Cooperative in Conway, South Carolina, and a member of the LPNORM co-op advisory panel. “We had a severe ice storm in 2014, and we had major hurricanes in 2016 and again in 2018.”

The co-op, which serves about 80,100 meters in the popular Myrtle Beach area, attributes about 95 percent of its weather-related outages to tree damage. For decades, Horry Electric has used standard 30-foot-wide rights-of-way through the heavily forested rural portions of its service territory.

“We want to use the tool to define those areas that need help, because it’s very expensive to do some of these jobs,” Jordan says. “LPNORM gives us the ability to pick and choose where we really need improvements the most without spending a ton of money to do it.”

The tool is still being refined, but members of the co-op advisory panel believe analytics gleaned from its use could soon be practically applied to help prioritize system work plans.

“We are excited for a more efficient application of contingency planning that looks to other limiting factors beyond load flow analysis, test records, and the like,” says Jason Burch, manager of system engineering at Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, a 93,000-meter system in Mount Crawford, Virginia.

Burch, who also served on the project’s co-op advisory panel, says motivation for participating “was fueled by the persistent itch for better reliability through preparation and study.”

“It’s a huge asset to any co-op, large or small, to be able to nail down project costs and return on investment,” Jordan adds. “You’re a lot more likely to get a project approved if you can prove that it will make a difference, and doing research like this helps prove that.”

Building alternatives

With a single transmission line connecting his 4,500 meters to vital electricity, Kevin Short has spent more than a decade considering the costs and available options for improving system reliability for Anza Electric Cooperative.

Located 90 miles from San Diego and 118 miles from Los Angeles, the high-desert community is exurban to both bustling cities but is still rural and rugged, attracting a stream of new residents to its broad vistas and open spaces.

“We’ve seen a fairly steady load growth for several years, most of it tied to new homes and a little bit of expansion,” says Short, CEO of the Anza, California-based distribution co-op.

When the Cranston Wildfire took out 2 miles of investor-owned transmission line through Riverside County in July 2018, Short faced a 10-day systemwide power outage.

Most members went without air conditioning and refrigeration and lost running water, and backup batteries to cellular telecommunications towers died within the first few hours. Greenhouse ventilation systems and agricultural irrigation equipment also stalled.

“Electricity is certainly a necessity rather than a luxury in modern life,” Short says. “The Cranston fire prompted us to expand our search for options outside the standard additional transmission line equation. It led us into looking at an increase in our system’s solar generation along with the addition of battery energy storage and development of some microgrid capabilities.”

Working with its power provider, the Generation and Transmission Cooperatives of Arizona, and NRECA, Anza Electric has developed a partnership with Sandia National Laboratories. The result is driving development of a demonstration microgrid harnessing 2 MW of co-op-owned solar capacity, an additional megawatt of member-owned solar, and battery storage capable of meeting two to four hours of system demand.

“Building up their resilience to help meet emergency demand is the first step to eventually building out a wider system of microgrids,” says Jan Ahlen, NRECA’s director of energy solutions. “While collectively, microgrids could allow them to island their entire service territory and meet overall demand, a smaller project will offer emergency support for some critical infrastructure.”

Requests for proposals for the microgrid project were issued in June, and Short hopes to have the necessary battery storage and other infrastructure operational within two years. The initial system is expected to be able to meet demand for the town’s small commercial district, a community building that serves as an emergency cooling center, and public safety facilities.

“The main message that we’re trying to get out to our members is that we’re doing what we feel is prudent in providing some system reliability and resiliency without breaking the bank,” Short says.

Jim Spiers, NRECA’s senior vice president for business and technology strategies, says facilitating partnerships with the national labs offers demonstrable benefits for all co-ops, not just project participants.

“At NRECA, our focus is on working with cooperatives to find solutions to an opportunity or problem, aligning partners and financial support, and ensuring the transfer of that value to any cooperative that can utilize it in the future,” he says. “These research projects with national labs demonstrate a great relationship that is serving cooperatives well.”