Roanoke Electric Co-op – Unlocking value with vehicle-to-grid technology

Episode ID S1X01
October 01, 2021

Roanoke Electric Cooperative is participating in a ground-breaking pilot program designed to test vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capability. The program brings together a diverse group of collaborators with a vested interest in the potential value of emerging V2G technology. In this bonus track of Power Plays, CoBank’s Tamra Reynolds speaks with Curtis Wynn, CEO of Roanoke Electric, to learn more about its role in the project and how it fits within the cooperative’s focus on developing programs that give members greater control of their energy costs. 

Transcript

Teri Viswanath: Welcome to Power Plays extended play series, a short podcast series of interviews with influential electric co-op managers that are innovating. I'm Teri Viswanath, the lead economist for power, energy, and water at CoBank. Our extended play content is actually a five-part series. It was recorded to celebrate National Co-op month in October. Celebrated by cooperatives nationwide, this is an annual opportunity to raise awareness of a trusted, proven way to do business and to build strong communities.

In the first of our series, my co-host Tamra Reynolds, managing director at CoBank, sits down with Curtis Wynn. He's the president and CEO of Roanoke Electric. Roanoke Electric is located in North Carolina and is testing technology that can charge an electric vehicle and allow power from the vehicle's battery to directly power a building or send power back to the electric grid. This bi-directional resource or V2G capability could help Roanoke avoid peak power costs by tapping into lower-priced energy stored by the vehicle during nighttime or off-peak hours.

The conversation that Tamra has with Curtis sheds light on why this program was so important to Roanoke and more broadly his community and the lessons learned by that undertaking. The conversation also expands beyond V2G with Curtis offering of guidance on how his co-op innovates, which I think is really interesting. Here's that conversation.

Tamra Reynolds: In today's podcast, I'm speaking with Curtis Wynn, CEO of Roanoke Electric. Hi, Curtis.

Curtis Wynn: Hi, Tamra. How are you doing?

Tamra: Great. Thanks for joining us. Curtis, your organization participated in a pilot program, the first of its type to test vehicle to grid capability for your community. Let's talk about how that came about and why you thought it was important for your community.

Curtis: Tamra, as you know, Roanoke Electric Cooperative is currently experiencing slow growth and has been for quite a long time. As with most co-ops, cooperatives, electric cooperatives, we're experiencing at the same time rising costs, which really produces tremendous rate pressures, and that ultimately, have to be passed on to our member-owners. Now, for us, this has the added challenge of us serving in a region that is economically distressed.

Simply put, I'll just say it this way, our members can barely afford to pay their bills and a rate increase just adds an additional burden to the families that we serve. If you take a look at these factors, these have really caused us to be laser-focused on the overall goal of lowering our costs as a utility and creating more value for our member-owners. We're striving to do this in two different ways.

The first is putting programs in place that allow our member-owners to control and lower all of their energy costs, not just their electricity costs, but fuel costs such as gasoline cost. It falls right in there. We're also establishing some initiatives that lower the largest expense that we have as an electric cooperative, and that is our wholesale power costs. We see two major opportunities to do that. We are becoming more efficient as a utility as we work on these.

The first, of course, is reducing our land loss, and that's pretty common among several co-ops. The second speaks to what we believe this V2G pilot program can lead to in a very exciting way, that is improving our load factor. The two areas of focus basically position us to lower peak demand for power during times when the cost of capacity is higher and then selling more electricity during those times when we're paying for a capacity that we don't use.

This is not a new concept, but what is new is the technology and the data that are becoming available to us that allow us to operate our utilities much more efficiently today than we've done in the past. That's pretty exciting. We believe that the V2G program that you mentioned falls right in line with other initiatives that we put in place for our member-owners, such as energy efficiency, demand response via water heater controls and smart thermostats, conservation voltage reduction, and the normal one direction charging of electric vehicles. Then, promoting the use of time-of-use rates by our member-owners. All of these lead to Roanoke Electric becoming a more efficient cooperative of the future.

The whole prospect of using a partner vehicle, whether it's a cooperative vehicle, a school bus, or a vehicle owned by a small business that is on our system, creates tremendous opportunities for us to engage with our member-owners and to leverage battery technology that both creates low-cost transportation as a solution for those member-consumers while we're supporting the co-op's ability to more efficiently manage our distribution system. Those are some things that got us into this, and they really caught our attention as a way to get there.

Tamra: That's a great background, Curtis. Thank you. Through this program that you guys collaborated on and worked with other institutions, organizations, those range from advanced energy, clean energy works, the North Carolina State University's Clean Energy Technology Center, and the Environmental Defense Fund, all organizations which are equally interested in the potential that lies here, in that vehicle-to-grid type technology. Why is partnering or collaborating in the industry really important and what have you really learned as part of this experience?

Curtis: Partnering and collaborating are important for two main reasons. One is that we are a very busy co-op at Roanoke Electric. We're managing several initiatives as we speak. Finding and paying for the bandwidth that is needed to keep up with the pace of change that is coming our way is a major challenge. It's a major challenge on many fronts, especially for a relatively small electric cooperative like Roanoke Electric.

The other thing, as you said, these entities have a common interest in this technology that we're experimenting with to implement vehicle-to-grid technology. From a practical perspective, they don't have the ability to look at it that way. They might be able to look at it conceptually, but not from practical use. That's where we come in. They provide the conceptual knowledge and we had the best position to make it practical.

What have we gained? Well, we've taken advantage of their intellectual bandwidth for one thing. What that does is that it really enables us as a cooperative to gain greater speed to market. We hear about that a lot. This is important because disruptors are in a literal foot race to get to our member-owners before we do. Taking three to five years to develop and execute a strategy is going to become more and more problematic as we move into this environment of being in a fast-paced environment and having to do things quickly. That's just my opinion. That's the way I feel about it, but others might differ, but I think that's very important.

As you look at the entities that you name, most of them are not traditional players in our space. However, we, as an electric cooperative, evaluate who we work with, we look for some basic characteristics in evaluating entities with whom we want to collaborate versus do they believe in the rural electric cooperative model? That's very important. Secondly, are they equally concerned about finding solutions that ensure that this industry transformation is both innovative and inclusive? Then, finally, do they agree that the control and ownership of the project is data? The outcomes that we come to and the learnings that we gain, that they belong to us, the cooperative, and we evaluate entities based on those three factors as well.

Tamra: When you think about meeting those membership needs and looking ahead for the next three to, say, 10 years, how do you really assess what's going on there and where you need to take the co-op from that perspective?

Curtis: I attributed much of this to our approach to management. Several years ago, we adopted what is known as strategy execution in terms of how we try to keep pace of the change. We took a very proactive step to shift away from the traditional strategic planning process as we know it. Let me briefly unpack that. What strategy execution is a perpetual, ongoing process that really begins with seeking input from our member-owners and engaging with them, looking at things like satisfaction scores, engagement indices, suggestions that we get.

Then, what we also do is we regularly scan the external environment to identify a lot of those factors that we don't necessarily have any control over. We do what is commonly known as the PESTLE analysis, looking at a number of different facets, political, economic, social, cultural, technological, environmental, and legal. Much of this, we have absolutely no control over as a cooperative, but they do play into our planning process if you will. Then we, as a team, and when I say team, I'm looking at everybody from top to bottom, we spend significant time looking at ways trying to figure out how do we meet the demands of our member-owners, considering the two inputs that I just gave you.

In addition to that, we get in this industry as co-ops and electric co-ops, we're very fortunate, we can also gain great ideas from other co-ops. We learn things during conferences and workshops, and then you look at other ways. I really enjoy listening to CoBank's Knowledge Exchange, which is packed with information. You probably have something to do with that. I say all that to say, there's no shortage of ways for us to find great ideas in this whole electric cooperative sector.

Where all of this leads to really is some specific goal setting and identifying some initiatives that solve real problems, specific problems. Some of these problems that we try to solve are normal and then others are what we call hairy and audacious. In this strategy execution, there is something that we call BHAG, Big Hairy Audacious Goals, and we go after those, but most importantly, we regularly communicate through our team.

What do we need to do better to serve our member-owners and the communities? How do we plan to do that? How can our individual contributions, everyone in the organization normally challenged to see how can we as individuals in the organization and the efforts that we put forth lead to the overall success of the cooperative, the communities we serve, and the member-owners who we work for?

Then we just measure, we try to measure to see if what we're doing is a part of our commitment to our communities as we set these goals. We're all managing these and making sure that the outcomes are what we have in our performance valve scorecard to see if what we set out to do is really getting done. Then the cycle just continues. It's very perpetual that it seems like it never ends. I'd say at the end of the day that the process has really resulted in results and we've gotten tremendous employee engagement.

We see a lot of ingenuity coming through, a lot of creativity, and most importantly, ownership by each and every team members as a part of the overall strategy. They know that it takes all of us to get the job done. Those are just some things that we do to try to keep up with this crazy rapid pace of change that we've seen ourselves fall into.

Tamra: Is there anything else that maybe you'd like to share about Roanoke Electric and anything that maybe you've forgotten in previous comments that you want to circle back on?

Curtis: I really don't. I just will say, we're out here just like all of our other 800 plus colleagues trying to figure this whole energy transformation process out. I really appreciate the fact that we are a part of a network that has so many resources that we can tap into that makes our jobs much easier, and makes solving the problems that we're faced with much more doable. It's just really great to be a part of that. I really don't have anything else. I appreciate the time and the opportunity to share a few minutes with you today.

Tamra: Thank you so much, Curtis. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

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