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Golden Spread Member Co-ops Paving High-Tech Futures

Smart grid incentive grant provides ‘more bang for the buck’

In 2009, Golden Spread Electric Cooperative (GSEC)—a generation and transmission cooperative that provides wholesale electricity to 16 member distribution co-ops—applied for and won a $17 million smart grid incentive grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The goal is to increase reliability of service, improve the efficiency of the electric grid, and manage the cost of electricity.

That goal is particularly important in GSEC’s territory, which covers about 24 percent of Texas’ land area, including parts of the Panhandle, South Plains and Edwards Plateau regions. With an average of only four electric customers per mile, the cooperatives must invest more in electric lines and service per capita than what city utilities typically spend.

Golden Spread, along with 10 of its member distribution co-ops, agreed to participate in the grant, pledging $26 million in matching funds (60 percent) to the DOE’s $17 million (40 percent). As Greg Henley, general manager of member co-op Lyntegar Electric Cooperative, said, “It enabled us to get more bang for the buck.”

With the grant money, the cooperatives have already accomplished many tasks. For example, Big Country Electric Cooperative, based in Roby, was scheduled to install 4,000 advanced meters in 2010, with the goal of having all of its 12,000 meters installed within three years as required by the grant.

Big Country Electric Cooperative General Manager Fredda Buckner said the co-op’s $1.9 million share of the grant will enable the co-op to have real-time information on its electric system. “It lets us match up our loads to power supply and monitor each circuit separately,” Buckner said. “We think we will cut down on costs. We just want to operate as efficiently as possible.”

In addition, the new technology will allow co-ops to turn on or shut off an account without sending a worker to the site. Bill Harbin, general manager of Lighthouse Electric Cooperative in Floydada, said, “It will save us a lot of transportation expenses because we won’t be going out to read meters.”

The participating co-ops will learn how effective the new technologies are on their home turfs. “We will evaluate the cost benefit to our co-op and determine just how useful smart meters are to us,” said Chuck Smith, engineering supervisor at Bailey County Electric Cooperative in Muleshoe.

The collected data from all the participating cooperatives will be available to Golden Spread, which has to ensure each co-op has the electricity it needs when it needs it. Monitoring GSEC’s electric load is complicated by the fact that it plans to make greater use of the area’s rich wind corridor. It recently purchased a 78.2-megawatt wind generation project that’s under development in Potter and Oldham counties west of Amarillo.

Although the wind is a renewable source of electricity, it is intermittent and must be backed up with more reliable sources of power. Golden Spread is developing a gas-fired power plant, Antelope Station near Abernathy, with quick-start generators that can quickly be brought into service when the wind dies down. It will supplement the gas turbines already generating power at Mustang Station outside Denver City.

Currently, electric rates are the same day and night, but some GSEC cooperatives are planning to develop time-of-use price schedules to help regulate the electric load in agriculturally productive areas. Electric irrigation pumps account for 60 percent of Golden Spread’s peak load—or maximum electric use—on the system. And the load varies seasonally, requiring the heaviest use during the summer. If some of the peak irrigation load could be shifted to off-peak times, or when the wind is supplying a lot of power, the pressure on the system would be reduced, and fewer new power plants would have to be built.

“The smart grid will provide the technology needed for load control and swift communication among Golden Spread, the cooperatives and member-consumers,” said Mark W. Schwirtz, president and general manager of GSEC.

In addition to load-control switches for irrigation, Taylor Electric Cooperative in Merkel will use smart grid technology to enable the use of the next generation of GE appliances in members’ homes. The “smart” appliances will communicate with members’ meters wirelessly and provide usage data to help members make informed energy consumption decisions.

Schwirtz said that almost all of the DOE smart grid funds will go to the electric distribution systems owned by GSEC’s participating members. “Our focus will be on upgrading control systems to make use of the additional information and capabilities from the smart grid upgrades that members will make to their distribution systems,” he said.

The participating Golden Spread distribution co-op members are: Bailey County, Big Country, Deaf Smith, Lamb County, Lighthouse, Lyntegar, North Plains, Rita Blanca, South Plains and Taylor electric cooperatives.

Kaye Northcott recently retired after 10 years as editor of Texas Co-op Power.