Beneficial Electrification

By Kent Singer

The electric industry is a complicated business and the vocabulary that we use to talk about it is full of mysterious acronyms, perplexing jargon and complex terminology. NERC, FERC, RTOs, ISOs, energy, capacity, kilowatts, megawatts, gigawatts — it’s been said that to understand the industry, you have to learn a second language.

To make things more complicated, yet another new term has been added to the electric utility lexicon in the last couple of years: beneficial electrification.

For those of us involved in the electric co-op program, the term “beneficial electrification,” at first blush, doesn’t make a lot of sense. We all know that there was a time when the farms and ranches of rural Colorado did not have access to the life-changing commodity that is electric power. Before electric co-ops were founded in the late 1930s and early 1940s, although cities were electrified, much of rural Colorado was still literally in the dark. With the construction of rural electric systems by cooperatives, the ability to apply motive power to the many backbreaking tasks that had previously been accomplished with manual labor vastly benefited the lives of countless Coloradans.

So, it’s obvious that the “electrification” of rural Colorado was then and is today something that is “beneficial” to many people; it hardly seems necessary to modify the word “electrification” with the word “beneficial,” right?

Today, however, “beneficial electrification” has a new meaning. It refers to the use of electricity in place of other fuels (e.g., natural gas, propane, heating oil, gasoline) where the substitution of electricity will accomplish certain goals. Among these are: saving consumers money, reducing environmental impacts, creating a more robust electric grid, and improving the quality of life for communities.

One of the most important examples of beneficial electrification is the trend toward electrification in the automobile industry. Switching from the internal combustion engine to a battery-powered vehicle results in lower overall greenhouse gas emissions and lower maintenance costs. Similarly, using electricity instead of propane for space and water heating and using heat pumps to heat and cool homes may also have environmental and economic benefits. Electric co-ops are working hard to integrate all of these technologies, and more, into their fleets and service offerings.

To further the cause of beneficial electrification, CREA was one of the primary sponsors of a conference last summer in Denver called “Electrify Colorado! Beneficial Electrification in the 21st Century.” The conference focused on the benefits of using electricity and how that transition is consistent with Colorado’s evolving energy policy. Building on that experience, CREA has become a founding member of the Beneficial Electric League of Colorado and is working with other stakeholders to sponsor another conference this summer.

For the last couple of years, CREA has sent Colorado co-op linemen to Guatemala (and is sending more to Bolivia this year) to bring electricity to remote villages. While we know that this is the original meaning of the term “beneficial electrification,” we also know that programs we implement to meet the new meaning will benefit rural communities across Colorado for years to come.

Kent Singer is the executive director of the Colorado Rural Electric Association and offers a statewide perspective on issues affecting electric cooperatives. CREA is the trade association for your electric co-op, the 21 other electric co-ops in Colorado and its power supply co-op.