America’s electric cooperatives have a large stake in established operational technologies like advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), customer information systems (CIS), and geographic information systems (GIS) and are making significant inroads in up-and-coming systems like drones, prepaid metering, and analytics.

These are among the findings of a new NRECA survey on the technology use of nearly 200 co-ops.

“Periodically, it’s good to take an inventory of the capabilities and technologies we have in place and look for trends in products and services that are helping us provide more value to our members,” says Mike Sassman, NRECA’s Business & Technology Strategies manager of market research.

The 2019 NRECA Co-op Technology Survey asked co-ops to indicate whether they have deployed, have outsourced, or are considering implementing 29 diverse systems, ranging from AMI to electric vehicle incentives to artificial intelligence/machine learning. NRECA sent nearly 900 questionnaires and received 196 responses.

The survey was last conducted in 2013.

“We were particularly interested in data-driven decision-making, accelerated technologies, and money-saving services that allow us to use available staff more effectively,” says Quentin Rogers, vice president of engineering and technical services at Powder River Energy.

The Wyoming-based distribution co-op participated in the 2013 survey, and Rogers noted several changes in his 2019 responses.

“At Powder River, we’ve been focusing on ways to add value to our investments in AMR [automated meter reading], AMI, and SCADA systems,” he says. “Second-generation AMI technology is available now, and many co-ops are plugging that technology into their CIS and GIS. They’re finding ways to make those systems improve overall service to members.”

The survey findings provide an overview of where and how distribution co-ops of varied sizes are investing in technology that operations managers, engineers, and other co-op leaders can use to inform their own investments.

“You don’t want to be on the leading edge or the bleeding edge,” Rogers says, noting that some promising technologies offer limited utility or function as temporary fixes to prolong the use of legacy equipment. “Determining the best time for your co-op to step into technology can be challenging, but you don’t want to be a laggard in that adoption curve.”

Eighty-one percent of co-ops are using AMR/AMI technology, and one-third report that their meters are AMR capable, according to the survey. Two-thirds of co-ops have deployed GIS technology.

Diverse needs

Dion Cooper is vice president for information technology, communications, and cooperative services at Southwest Arkansas Electric Cooperative (SWAEC). He was a member of the 2019 survey advisory group and says they included questions about emerging operational technologies and those that are attracting the interest of co-op consumer-members.

“We added survey questions about artificial intelligence, machine learning, smart home technology, load management, and demand response,” he says. “And we included some smart thermostat and home display questions and asked specifically about electric vehicle charging equipment and related services.

“The results are a great way to reach out across all cooperatives for an overview of what others are doing to help define your options on how to address various needs.”

Co-ops from NRECA’s 10 regions participated in the survey. The results include responses from co-ops with fewer than 5,000 and more than 40,000 meters. Nearly half of respondent co-ops serve at least 20,000 meters.

Cooper says he not only shared the findings with senior management at SWAEC but also presented the report’s executive summary to the board.

“I focused on some of the things that our co-op has done that our directors approved and used the findings to set the stage for some things we may ask for later,” he says. “We were able to examine trending technology and some of the capabilities that other co-ops are pursuing.”

Spreading the word

NRECA is using the data to plan workshops, develop guidance materials, and suggest areas warranting future study to help distribution co-ops keep pace.

“The survey is a great tool for co-ops to use to assess what types of technology they are using compared to co-ops of similar member size, service, and operational footprint,” says Adaora Ifebigh, senior manager for research and development engagements in NRECA Business & Technology Strategies group. “For co-ops working on strategic plans, the survey results may provide guidance on technologies they may want to consider adding and could open discussions about goals, scope, and costs in the planning process.”

The survey also provides insights into some services that many distribution co-ops have effectively been able to outsource, including after-hours dispatch, now contracted by 75% of the responding sample. More than 70% of the respondents also now use contracted cloud-based data backup systems, and 68% contract for mapping and GIS services.

“There may be opportunities soon for co-ops to step up their member outreach, offering brief trainings and workshops on how to glean value and improve energy efficiency from smart thermostats and home displays,” says NRECA’s Sassman. “Co-ops may not want to offer that technology directly, but if members are investing in it, some co-ops may want to find ways to support it. Smart home technology offers great opportunities to strengthen relationships with members who are showing an increasing interest in beneficial electrification.”

Read more about the NRECA 2019 Co-op Technology Survey and results.