Leveraging Technology to Increase a Cooperative’s Member Options

By Ryan Hentges

Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative (MVEC), a distribution cooperative, is focused on utilizing technologies to enhance reliability, increase member options and provide members with more detailed energy information. Assisted by a Department of Energy Smart Grid Demonstration grant, and leveraging the coop’s existing technology investments, it plans to increase member demand response options.

Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative is a distribution cooperative located approximately 20 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. With 35,700 members and 43,000 meters, MVEC combines rural and suburban service areas. It purchases wholesale power from Great River Energy and Basin Electric, which are based in Minnesota and North Dakota, respectively.

MVEC has relatively deep experience with technologies that integrate advanced computing and communications with power grids: It has spent over a decade methodically deploying technologies that now fall under the smart grid rubric. Advanced metering, SCADA systems, load management, smart phone apps, and outage and meter data management systems have been introduced, as business cases were developed that made it possible to focus on achieving specified business opportunities. These have included enhancing reliability, increasing members’ options for interacting with the cooperative and acquiring more detailed information about members’ energy use.

For example, MVEC has used smart grid technologies to enhance reliability through outage identification, prediction and restoration verification. Proactive maintenance has been enabled through voltage data use and momentary blink information monitoring.

The cooperative also has used smart grid technologies to increase information available to its members. Consumers are able to gain insight into their electric use by viewing daily usage graphs in their bills or via an online portal and smart phone app that gives them access to hourly meter data and a variety of analysis tools.

While continued efforts will be made in distribution automation and to provide new personalized information to members, of late, the near-term focus has shifted to increasing member options. MVEC already offers members a variety of off-peak and peak-load energy management incentives. Although these traditional direct load control programs have served MVEC very well (with a 46 percent participation rate), we concluded it is time to try something new.

This year, MVEC will be utilizing a Department of Energy Smart Grid Demonstration grant and further leveraging existing technologies to bring new and innovative energy efficiency and demand reduction programs to its membership. The major elements of the project are the following.

Smart Thermostat Program. MVEC will offer smart thermostats to targeted members for free. Demographic information and hourly data will be analyzed to micro-target the offer of the thermostats to the members who are most likely to be interested and whose participation would most benefit both them and the cooperative as a whole.

The focus will be on members who 1) do not currently participate in an MVEC off-peak cooling program, 2) have downloaded MVEC’s SmartHub phone app or previously used Google PowerMeter, and 3) have substantial usage during previous year’s summer billing peaks. The smart thermostats allow members to remotely program their thermostats, change set temperatures and view how long their furnace or air-conditioner ran each hour. In exchange for the free thermostat, members will be asked by MVEC to increase the set temperatures on their thermostats by four degrees during system peaks.

Energy Challenge: MVEC will attempt to engage its members in a summer game focused on reducing peak energy use. Members will be allowed to organize into energy challenge “groups” that will compete against each other. The goal of each group is to reduce their electric consumption when MVEC asks them to. The cooperative will utilize hourly meter data to determine which groups reduced their aggregated usage the most over system peaks. At the end of the summer, the highest-ranked group in each category will earn cash prizes. MVEC will encourage churches, schools, clubs and neighborhoods to join together in the summer energy challenge, in which any group can participate and awards are based on reduction at specific times, rather than overall efficiency.

Residential Battery Storage Pilot Project: MVEC has deployed residential battery storage units as part of a Department of Energy Smart Grid Demonstration grant. The purpose of the project is to determine the business case for residential battery storage with and without renewable integration.

MVEC has deployed residential battery storage units capable of storing 11 kWh and 23 kWh of electricity. Some units have been installed with solar integration, while some have been installed on a stand-alone basis. The batteries are charged by utility power at night and solar power during the day, as it is available. The batteries are discharged during system peaks.

Over 40 members volunteered for the pilot project. Interest in the battery storage includes members with home offices, renewable installations, farmers and members with medical conditions highly dependent on electricity.

Prepay: MVEC has deployed a prepay program where 350 members currently participate. The voluntary program enables members to manage their electric consumption similar to managing their car’s gasoline consumption.

In the summer of 2013, members on prepay will be able to participate in a peak-time rebate option. Members who reduce their use during the peak system demand will receive a financial benefit based upon MVEC wholesale demand savings. Members on prepay understand how much electricity costs on a daily basis, and therefore are more likely to react to savings opportunities.

New Program Management: Accurately forecasting system load, timely dispatching of the necessary technologies and preparing acceptable program measurement become critical factors in operating and achieving payback on the variety of demand response programs in MVEC’s portfolio. In order to orchestrate all these technologies and programs, a demand-response management system will be deployed. Funded in part through the Department of Energy Smart Grid Demonstration Grant, MVEC will utilize the management system to forecast, dispatch and provide measurement and verification of programs.

To summarize, MVEC is focused on deploying smart grid technologies for specific business purposes. The cooperative has enhanced reliability, offered better energy information and is now offering new and innovative programs, all dependent upon a sound foundation of smart grid technologies. With these new technologies and programs, MVEC can offer members a wider range of options and choices. Smart grid technologies have enabled the coop and its members to move from electric rate options to energy solution options.




Ryan Hentges is Vice President of Corporate Services at Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative, where he has direct responsibility for technology, meter reading, billing, legal coordination and company-wide programs. During his seven years at the cooperative, Ryan has developed business cases and led the implementation of a number of smart grid technologies. Previously he spent nine years at Cargill in various information technology roles. Ryan earned a law degree at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in 2005 and an M.B.A. at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, in 1997.