Colorado’s Electric Co-op CEOs: Plate spinners extraordinaire

plate spinning

One of CREA’s most important functions is to provide opportunities for electric co-op staff to meet — either in person or virtually — to share success stories as well as challenges facing their co-ops. Among the many peer groups we convene for these discussions, the one that meets most frequently is our group of chief executive officers, sometimes called general managers, of Colorado’s electric co-ops.

Whenever I think about the job of being an electric co-op CEO, I immediately think of Erich Brenn, the plate spinner who appeared occasionally on the old Ed Sullivan television show. (If you don’t remember either Ed Sullivan or Erich Brenn, sorry, you probably have a lot less gray hair than I do.) As a reminder, Mr. Brenn is the guy who would dazzle live studio audiences with his ability to spin bowls or plates on long sticks while simultaneously sprinting around the stage, performing other tricks with cutlery and drinking glasses.

Now, I’ll grant you, Mr. Brenn’s act was not as impressive as Usher performing at this year’s Super Bowl halftime, but it passed for solid entertainment in the 1960s. If you Google Erich Brenn and watch his performances, you just might agree. But it occurred to me recently during a virtual meeting of our co-op CEOs that Mr. Brenn’s plate-spinning performances are a pretty good analogy to the life of an electric co-op CEO in Colorado.

First, think of the responsibility that lies on the shoulders of these people. They and their teams are literally charged with providing you one of the commodities that is essential to your life: electricity. Can you imagine your life without electricity? No lights. No cold beers. No computer. No power to run your water and sewer service. No ability to charge your phone so that you can watch TikTok and cat videos. (I realize you also watch videos of your grandkids.) In other words, a much-diminished life.

Given how reliable electric service is in rural Colorado, and how much we take it for granted, you may think it’s just not that tough to run an electric utility. With all due respect, you have no idea how difficult it is to keep all the plates spinning.

First, every distribution co-op, like the one you belong to, must partner with one or more power suppliers that will provide the bulk electricity the co-op needs to serve its members. While that decision used to be relatively straightforward, in today’s world there are options that didn’t exist a few years ago. In some cases, co-ops desire to provide more of their power from local sources like community solar and rely less on just one supplier. In other cases, a co-op may decide it’s a better decision to rely on the resources of an established utility.

And the choice of power supply options, that is, the power plants that generate electricity, is also changing quickly in Colorado. The Colorado legislature’s mandate for reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases from the power sector means that by the end of this decade all coal-fired power plants will be retired.

Going forward, utilities will have to depend on wind, solar, and batteries that are backed up by natural gas plants. This dynamic requires co-ops to rethink their approach to keeping the lights on.

Second, Mother Nature does her best to try to topple the spinning plates from time to time. Whether it’s ice storms, wildfires, hail, or wind, electric co-ops are always battling these elements to keep their systems energized and the electrons flowing. These events are unpredictable and require lots of advance planning and rapid response times by co-op staff, particularly linecrews. This job has become more complicated in recent years given the proliferation of rooftop solar arrays that produce energy and must be accounted for when restoring power.

And last, but certainly not least, in many co-op service territories the cost of living, particularly housing, has skyrocketed in the last decade or so. This makes it extremely difficult for many co-ops to hire and retain qualified personnel to do all the important work that has to be done to operate the co-op. In many cases this results in one person doing two or more jobs. You won’t hear co-op folks complaining about this, but it’s a reality.

So, the next time you flip a switch in your home or watch another cat video, remember that it’s your local co-op CEO, working with their board and staff, who keeps the electricity on and those plates in the air.