2018 Technology Trends in the Cooperative Marketplace

Many encouraging signs indicate that rural communities are healthy and growing. In the recently announced spending bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the President, there were several pieces of good news:

  • The budget for Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery System (CEDS), which funds the Rural cooperative Cybersecurity Capabilities Program (RC3), was increased from $62 million to $75 million

  • $600 million was budgeted to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make loans for rural broadband service

  • The USDA’s electric loan program was funded to $5.5 billion

  • The bill will streamline the bureaucracy for vegetation management in rural areas

Other markers are upbeat as well, with March 2018 being the first time since 2015 the Creighton University Rural Mainstreet Index, which measures confidence in the rural community, maintained higher than a neutral rating for 2 months in a row. The ratings went from 54.8 in February 2018 to 54.7 in March 2018, a vast improvement from the 45.6 rating in March 2017.

Co-ops and TechAdvantage 2018
One place to get a read on what is happening in the electric cooperative market is the annual TechAdvantage conference. This year’s TechAdvantage Conference & Exhibition was held in Nashville, Tennessee in conjunction with the 76th annual meeting of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), whose cooperative members spend more than $4 billion each year upgrading and maintaining their systems.

The 2018 conference was dominated by new technologies geared toward enabling cooperatives to do more with less. One of the key challenges today for them is the ability to troubleshoot and deal with problems before they impact members. This allows for proactive activities, which for instance, help prevent future problems like outages. Monitoring is critical to new solutions that allow sensors to be deployed on all assets on the distribution network. Imagine the number of sensors needed to monitor everything on the distribution network and the associated software to turn these mountains of data into useful information — that’s the Internet of Things taking shape.
Safety, reliable power supply, and affordable rates are what we expect from our electric cooperatives. As distributed energy resources are becoming increasingly more available and affordable, many distribution utilities are adopting technologies that enable either the self-generation and/or the energy efficiency choices of their members. These choices may include solar power (whether community solar or rooftop solar), smart thermostats, water heater programs, electric vehicles, battery storage systems, and smart appliances in addition to applications and software to track and monitor their usage. These choices are important to cooperatives not only as an effort to service consumer needs but also due to the diverse makeup of the cooperatives themselves.

Traditionally, cooperatives were considered rural providers of electric services, but many co-ops provide electric services to urban consumers as their service areas have grown and developed into suburbs of some of our largest major cities. These urban co-ops may have several hundred thousand members while other co-ops are truly rural and have several hundred members. The needs of both of these types of co-ops can be different but their main purpose is to deliver quality electric service to the members they serve. Any system offered in the cooperative marketspace today must take into consideration this need to offer choices as well as their diversity in size and staff.
In addition to vendor exhibitions, attendees at TechAdvantage 2018 were able to participate in 60 Training sessions and 20 Technovation sessions. At these sessions, vendors and electric cooperative partners presented real world problems to attendees and explained how they worked together to solve those problems. One of the highlights here was Don Bowman of Wake Electric. Don led two unique sessions and spoke about his use of the OATI webDistribute CVR system which helps his cooperative dramatically decrease their monthly peak demand charges.
Final Thoughts
Conservation Voltage Reduction (CVR)Demand Response Management System (DRMS), and Distributed Energy Resource Management System (DERMS) solutions are, and will continue to be, staple solutions for cooperatives. This was evident as the OATI team interacted with cooperatives’ staff, listened to their challenges, and shared our solutions. These OATI applications provided a perfect fit into the overall theme of the conference and addressed the needs of today’s electric cooperatives.
Microgrids are also on the rise in co-op land, and as they emerge, so too does the need for microgrid management systems, such as OATI’s GridMind™ microgrid automated controller. While at TechAdvantage this year, an OATI subject matter expert had the opportunity to demonstrate GridMind to several cooperatives who expressed interest in microgrid management solutions as they develop feeder-based microgrids to make them more competitive in attracting valuable Commercial & Industrial customers. OATI is one of the few companies in the energy industry that owns and operates a fully functioning microgrid. The OATI Microgrid Technology Center is available for tours by the electric cooperative staff.
Another OATI subject matter expert helped TechAdvantage 2018 attendees understand the key benefits and characteristics of OATI GridPort™, a gateway for highly secure, real-time, two-way communication with all types of grid edge assets. GridPorts are a unique telemetry and control device that takes cybersecurity to the edge of the distribution network. Using OATI webCARES certificates, a patented technology from OATI, utilities can be assured that the data they are bringing back into the IT/OT network has not been corrupted in any way. The GridPort gateway can monitor and control an asset in near real-time and can handle virtually any protocol, making the OATI solution available to any and all utilities, regardless of legacy applications.
TechAdvantage 2018 was a great opportunity to learn more about what is happening in the electric cooperative market and the needs of cooperative members. OATI was able to show utilities solutions to meet their grid modernization needs with OATI’s 20+ years of experience providing innovative and scalable solutions with a strong cybersecurity focus.
About the Author:
Mr. Steve Sendele is a sales professional with extensive experience in wireless data solutions. He has over 15 years of experience selling Smart Grid solutions to utilities. Mr. Sendele is currently an Account Executive with Open Access Technology International, Inc. (OATI) Smart Grid solutions to Public Power utilities in the Midwest.