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COMMENTARY ARCHVES
   

FEBRUARY COMMENTARY
by Share Brandt

Solving Complex Problems

The world today is much more complicated than it was seventy-seven years ago when electric cooperatives were stringing wires to electrify rural America for the first time. Fortunately, through our history of innovation we have developed a network of resources so that no matter the size of an individual co-op, help is only a phone call away.

Through our national trade association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and its 905 electric cooperative-members we have created our own research arm known as Cooperative Research Network (CRN). When it comes to smart grid technologies, cyber security, managing reliability with increasingly higher penetrations of distributed generation and a myriad of other complex issues, electric co-ops can turn to research devoted to application of these technologies in rural utility systems.

Cyber Cooperation

Cybersecurity provides a good example. Most home and business computer networks use a firewall— a virtual barrier or hardware—to protect linked computers from hackers, viruses, and other virtual invaders. Utilities use firewalls to secure systems, too. But sophisticated cyber threats make firewalls an aging technology.

“Firewalls are less able to provide the level of security we require,” shares CRN Program Manager Maurice Martin. “We want to make sure that our co-ops have the tools they need to work securely.” To meet the challenge, CRN is developing a way to replace firewalls with a security tool that monitors computer network traffic. The system memorizes the normal pattern of operation. When the system detects an abnormal pattern (a possible intrusion), it sounds an alarm.

A Department of Energy (DOE) grant of $3.6 million, with an additional $1.1 million from CRN and partner Honeywell Corp., funds the research. Allies such as Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, Carnegie Mellon University, and Cigital Inc. will work with CRN to develop the cyber security tool. “We’ll combine high-level functionality with an easy-to-use platform,” predicts Craig Miller, chief scientist at CRN. “The system will simplify cyber security management for small utilities with limited resources.”

Collaboration to Embrace Change

The DOE and the NRECA signed a cooperative agreement in 2013 for a multi-state 23 megawatt solar installation research project that seeks to identify and address barriers to solar deployment at electric cooperatives. The DOE is providing $3.6 million, matched by a $1.2 million cost share from NRECA, the National Rural Utility Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC), Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange, PowerSecure International, Inc. and fifteen participating cooperatives, including Eau Claire Energy Cooperative. By working together to research best practices, the project will analyze the business side of these deployments and develop system packages consisting of standardized, optimized and scalable technical designs for a variety of system sizes.

As it stands now, a cooperative must start from scratch in deploying solar. According to Eau Claire Energy Cooperative President & CEO Lynn Thompson, “The 15 cooperatives will explore how standardization can help minimize design and engineering costs of solar installations and also reduce uncertainty about the effects of these installations on the distribution system.” Thompson continued, “Our Board of Directors plans to continue researching the feasibility of constructing our own solar energy project. However, the decision to move forward with this project, like any other, will be based on whether or not it benefits our co-op member-owners.”

Electric cooperatives will continue to embrace public-private partnerships to bring innovative solutions to providing reliable, safe and affordable electricity in sparsely populated rural areas.

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