What innovation means for a four-state G&T co-op
I was intrigued to learn that Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., based in a suburb of Denver, has hired a director of energy innovations. His name is Reg Rudolph, and he has an unusual history in the electricity co-op world: not only were he and his father CEOs of co-ops, but they were also CEOs of different co-ops at the same time.
In January, Rudolph left his position as CEO of the San Isabel Electric Association, Inc., a Colorado transmission member of Tri-State, to join Tri-State.
“My role is to help build what I call the ‘cooperative energy ecosystem’, trying to balance and optimize electricity supply and demand,” Rudolph told me during a telephone interview.
This mission is as wide as it seems. He is responsible for finding optimal systems and technologies that meet the needs of the sprawling 42 distribution systems, including cooperatives and public supply districts, that make up the Tri-State Association.
In the past, Rudolph said, utilities operated on a simple basis: you had generation lines and power lines delivering electricity to consumers, for which you charged tariffs.
“But now, as we look to the future, we need to try to figure out how we integrate distributed energy resources, including intermittent renewables. My role is to create this new ecosystem which is a more finely tuned supply and demand driver.
This development is demanding.
Four-State Carbon Management
Contrary to its name, Tri-State is active in four states: It serves member distribution companies in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming. The demands and expectations of States and their regulators are somewhat contradictory. Colorado has embarked on a rapid transition to clean energy while Wyoming is fighting a rearguard defense of its coal industry, while advancing carbon management technologies. In Colorado, Tri-State has committed to being carbon-free by 2040. Elsewhere in its association, the pursuit of carbon neutrality may take a little longer.
As Rudolph was explaining the complexities of managing a multi-dimensional system with demand-side inputs, distributed energy resources, and the need for real-time decisions, it occurred to me that managing a utility comes down to compose new music for an orchestra, which will play it without rehearsal.
The force that makes modernization – the shift from carbon-based to carbon-free production – so difficult is because it has to be done in real time: energy has to flow. There is no possibility of stopping when changing or retooling; the utilitarian imperative is always to keep functioning.
There are no free lunches in the utilities sector.
“We have a philosophy at Tri-State that every energy source has some kind of externalities. We at Tri-State try to find the energy sources that have the least negative environmental footprint,” I told said Rudolph.
For example, in battery storage, Tri-State likes lithium-ion but questions the cost and environmental impact of how the materials are sourced. The same environmental concern applies to solar and the environmental pedigree of Chinese-made panels. Nevertheless, the public service is strongly committed to wind and solar power, and this commitment is unlimited: there will be more.
“We try to weigh all the options but always keep the lights on,” Rudolph said.
As an innovator, he looks both backward and forward. “We need to look at some older technologies and see if they’re suitable today.”
Something that might not have been useful in the immediate past could have a new future when soldered with modern data analytics and lightspeed connectivity, for example.
Relevant ancient Roman device
Rudolph said he remembered it from a recent conversation with a friend who told him about an ancient Roman device that may still have application today. I too was reminded of this last October when my wife and I visited the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology on the island of Crete.
Besides decarbonization, Rudolph must look for ways to keep the price of electricity low. Many of the roughly one million customers are poor, at or below the poverty line, Rudolph said.
“Tri-State has a pretty good build system,” he said. “But when you better integrate the generation, transmission and distribution system, that’s where we can improve; and that is why I was brought.
According to Rudolph, modernizing the entire cooperative energy system and applying demand side management can reduce costs and help the entire operation.
But it’s a tailor-made project: One size doesn’t fit all among the Tri-State cast members. For example, setting up incentives for interruptible supply is a different undertaking for a data miner than for a farmer with high irrigation demands.
“Irrigators want to water whenever they need it during the growing season — not just at night or during the week, and not at all out of season,” Rudolph said.
So, innovation is a subtle business of making the most of the present and looking to the future. But Rudolph warns that while hydrogen and ammonia, small modular reactors and new storage systems are all tempting for the future, “they’re not going to cut costs and turn on the lights any time soon,” a he declared. Tri-State’s immediate goal is more sun, more wind, and more fine-tuning of a complex ecosystem.
Tri-State’s energy mix still contains 36.5% coal, but it has been reduced by 20% since 2019. After adding two major wind projects in 2021, Tri-State has nine wind and solar installations. The utility has more than 735 green megawatts to build in six projects by the end of 2024 — all solar in Colorado and New Mexico — which will make it the largest rural solar power cooperative and support Tri-State’s transition because even more coal is to be retired. Rudolph says this can be done without triggering a duck curve, and solar is mostly the charge form of the association.
At Tri-State, we hope that small innovations lead to big results.