Though politically polarized and not expected to tackle major, controversial legislation between now and the elections, Congress still could act on several issues important to electric cooperatives.
So, about 50 co-op leaders from Wisconsin were among 1,500 from around the country to hike Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill last month, urging elected officials to back co-op stances on proposals relating to coal ash, Rural Utilities Service (RUS) lending, and Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs). The gathering was part of the annual legislative conference hosted by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).
Opposing a proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designation of coal ash as hazardous, the co-op lobbyists promoted legislation to block the hazardous-waste classification, pointing out that recycled coal ash is valuable as a component of concrete and has repeatedly been adjudged non-hazardous by federal regulators. They also voiced concerns about new EPA rules on greenhouse gases that would essentially remove coal as a new generation source.
Co-op leaders also asked continued support for RUS funding in both houses’ upcoming agriculture appropriation bills. Wisconsin delegates thanked Reps. Tammy Baldwin, Sean Duffy, Ron Kind, and Reid Ribble for joining 109 other House members who signed a letter urging retention of the $6.1 billion funding level of RUS guarantees for fiscal 2013. Co-ops have a stellar record of loan repayments, and for the current fiscal year it’s estimated they’re contributing $100 million to deficit reduction, while the 2013 figure could approach $300 million in added revenue.
Finally, the grassroots lobbyists asked members of Congress to support a letter opposing changes to federal PMAs that market low-cost hydroelectric energy in four regions of the U.S. The Department of Energy has suggested altering the role of PMAs, forcing their customers to subsidize benefits for other parties, and electric co-ops—600 of which receive electricity from the PMAs—object to such a shift.
Electric Co-ops Protecting Security of their Systems
Your home probably has several security features—door locks, bolts, and an alarm system. When it comes to security of their computer systems, electric cooperatives follow the same principle—building and reinforcing multiple layers of protection to safeguard your personal data from attacks.
Securing digital data on an electric distribution system isn’t a “once and done” job. It’s a continual process of evaluating and addressing risks, tightening measures, planning, and evaluating again. While it’s difficult to thwart a determined computer hacker, with constant vigilance electric cooperatives can significantly minimize the possibilities.
Cooperatives nationally are bulking up cyber security with tools from the Cooperative Research Network (CRN), the research arm of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). CRN’s Guide to Developing a Risk Mitigation and Cyber Security Plan and supporting documents, released in 2011 with funding support from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), help utilities of all types develop a process to shore up cyber defenses.
“Electric cooperatives have made substantial progress in cyber security without additional regulation because they owe it to their members to protect system reliability and prevent unauthorized access to personal information,” explains Glenn English, NRECA’s CEO.
Electric cooperatives have been working with the DOE, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Obama administration, and the electric utility industry to strengthen and bolster cyber security. An assault on a co-op, for example, could be a prelude to, or part of, a coordinated cyber strike on the country’s power grid as a whole that could impact electric reliability. Last year, NERC, the nation’s electricity reliability watchdog, conducted an exercise dubbed “GridEx” to identify cyber security concerns and encourage utilities and government agencies to work together to mitigate the issues uncovered.
“GridEx provided a realistic environment for organizations to assess their cyber response capabilities,” observes Brian Harrell, NERC manager of critical infrastructure protection standards, training, and awareness.
A report on the test shows most utilities have adequate response plans in place, but more training and updated guidelines were suggested. Communication difficulties were also identified—a problem NERC will confront by developing strategies for secure information sharing.
To further pinpoint cyber vulnerabilities, a seven-year utility system security study was conducted by the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Following up, teams of grid guardians routinely scour electric distribution systems to find and fix weak spots in order to prevent would-be hackers from discovering security lapses.
“I look for vulnerabilities in control-system software,” remarks May Chaffin, an INL cyber security researcher. “I try to get them repaired before someone takes advantage.”
Lessons learned from the GridEx activity and researchers like Chaffin have been incorporated into CRN’s cyber security toolkit. Based on best practices developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and other industry organizations, the guide focuses on procedures co-ops should adopt to continuously monitor cyber threats and enhance risk preparedness.
The possibility of cyber mischief undermining automated digital technologies used by utilities has Congress, the White House, and regulators considering the right balance of security and emergency-response initiatives.
“There is no question that there will be some kind of legislation,” predicts English. “It’s important that policymakers make a distinction between what’s appropriate security for bulk power versus distribution systems. The question is whether what’s put forward makes sense, if it will be overly burdensome, and if it will make electricity less affordable for our members.”
In 2010, the U.S. House considered the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act. A similar measure, the Cyber Security Act of 2012, was introduced to the U.S. Senate in February. Both bills would provide the federal government with more power to draft cyber security standards but would weaken the NERC/FERC partnership that allows industry stakeholders to help ensure standards are technically sound and able to be properly implemented. NRECA cyber security experts believe any legislation should focus on encouraging federal agencies to routinely provide actionable, timely intelligence about cyber threats and vulnerabilities to utility industry experts.
“Hackers are getting smarter, and for some, much of the fun is the challenge of beating your system,” observes CRN Program Manager Maurice Martin. “Co-ops understand cyber security isn’t a one-time thing. Improved communications about potential trouble remain key to this effort.”
Electric co-ops are building cyber barricades and fashioning robust plans for addressing current and future dangers. But in a rapidly evolving cyber environment, there’s no such thing as perfect security.
—Megan McKoy-Noe and Rob Holt, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
Sources: Idaho National Laboratory, CRN, NRECA, NERC
Jackson Electric Director Gary Woods makes a point during a meeting with Senator Ron Johnson’s staff.
Where most election years see June filings of nomination papers as the official kick-offs for political campaigns, this year Wisconsin jumped the gun, and June will mark the conclusion of some drawn-out recall contests—just in time for the customary campaigns to rev up. For months already, we’ve seen cash thrown by the bushel-basketful into campaign advertising. We can only shudder at the prospects of what the burgeoning media purchases will have us seeing and hearing from now until November.
But national leaders of the rural electrification program recently reminded cooperative directors and staff that there are more influential forces in politics than carloads of currency.
“People trumps money every day when it’s used properly,” former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis told an audience of 1,500 at a National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) gathering in Washington, D.C., on April 30. The former Virginia congressman appeared on a panel with two other former House members, Martin Frost of Texas and NRECA CEO Glenn English, who represented Oklahoma for 10 terms. The trio offered tips on how cooperative leaders could harness the political power of sprawling co-op memberships to both support elected officials and shape future legislation.
A Hand We’re Dealt
A potent potential it is. The country’s 900-plus electric co-ops count more than 42 million members, with each individual co-op headed by elected directors—usually seven or nine—and a corps of loyal employees.
Legislative challenges warrant mobilization by the grassroots membership, English said, referencing how one House leader already has said that the Clean Air Act could come up for a rewrite in the next Congress. “Nothing is going to be bigger for the membership than our ability to affect that legislation,” he declared. “What we do over the next 12 months will have major ramifications for the electric bills your members pay for years to come.”
The fact that 1,500 board and staff members assembled in the nation’s capital for the NRECA meeting this year illustrates the broad commitment that has characterized electric co-ops’ political action since their beginnings.
You see, six months ago an urgent call came to us from NRECA government relations staff, who had just learned that for the first time in at least three decades the Senate and House scheduled a recess during the week of the electric co-op legislative conference. With Congress out of session, lawmakers would be back in their home districts, meaning virtually no chance for face-to-face meetings with them in their Capitol Hill offices. NRECA was concerned that few co-ops would attend under such circumstances.
No worries; cooperative leaders were savvy enough to realize that meeting with key legislative staff members—and likely in longer sessions than might have been afforded by in-person contacts with senators and representatives—would be highly beneficial. Citing his own experience as a House member, English noted that before any lawmaker casts a vote, he or she routinely consults with the appropriate issue expert on his or her staff. They have important influence on policy stances.
So, legislative assistants are featured in photos from this year’s lobbying mission (see pages 10–11). And you can see the 50 co-op leaders from Wisconsin brought their trump card: themselves.
If thoughts of the summer just ahead
have you feeling a little flighty,
then we've got the perfect activity for
you! On back-to-back weekends this
month, the City of Monroe will host
hot-air balloon events offering ample
opportunities to enjoy the sport of ballooning,
the oldest successful method
of human-carrying flight.
The fun begins on Saturday, June
9, when the city hosts the first portion
of the U.S. Open National Championships,
which will pit some of the best
balloon pilots in the world against
each other in a series of complicated
ballooning tasks performed both
in the air and on the ground.
Expected to compete are
current and past U.S.
and World Champion
the U.S. Open National Championships
will require competitors to fly
in two Midwestern cities, challenging
themselves in each of the
unique flying areas,
with scores from
to fly on all
nights of the
event, the U.S.
will have more
tasks than any balloon
competition ever flown, according
to Maury Petrehn, the competition's
visionary organizer and a past
The championships will open in
Monroe with a Saturday evening Glow
Monroe event, which will find pilots
setting up and glowing their balloons
at various locations in Monroe. Spectators
are welcome to wander throughout
the city, taking in the colorful balloons
illuminating the June evening.
The championships will continue
in Monroe Sunday, June 10, through
Tuesday, June 12, with competitive
flights taking place each morning and
evening. Virtually anywhere spectators
find themselves in the city while the
competition is underway, they'll be
able to look skyward and see a swath
of colorful balloons in flight.
Once the competition ends in
Monroe June 12, the competitors will
travel to Peoria, Ill., for the second
portion of the U.S. Open National
Championships July 19–21.
However, the hot-air balloon fun
will continue in Monroe with the 27th
Annual Monroe Balloon Rally held
June 15–16. This annual event, sponsored
by Glanbia Nutritionals and The
Swiss Colony and supported by other
community businesses and organizations,
is a weekend jam-packed with a
variety of family activities. Centered at
the Green County Fairgrounds within
Monroe's city limits, the balloon rally
features 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. balloon
flights as well as a visually stunning
balloon glow both Friday and Saturday
evenings. The balloon rally will alsoshowcase several uniquely shaped
balloons, including a 140-foot-tall
American bald eagle balloon and a
110-foot-tall teddy bear balloon known
as Mr. Biddle.
Those who prefer to take in a
ballooning event by taking flight themselves
will have their chance, as hot-air
balloon rides will be offered to the
public for the first time in Monroe this
year. Spectators may choose to book a
hot-air balloon flight—which will be
offered on the days leading up to and
during the Monroe Balloon Rally—or
a tethered balloon ride, offered during
the festival weekend.
Flights are generally 30 minutes
but can last as long as an hour; duration
is dependent on weather conditions,
launch, and landing sites. Therefore,
passengers should prepare to be flexible
with their flight time. To book
a flight and download the required
forms, visit www.Open-Championships.
com or www.monroeballoonrally.
com and follow the link to the
Spectators who prefer to remain
grounded will find plenty to do right
at the fairgrounds. In addition to
showcasing the hot-air balloon events,
the Monroe Balloon Rally weekend
includes the Hot Air and Hot Wheels
car show on Saturday. Other attractions
include an arts and crafts show,
inflatables and carnival-style games
for children, jousting and bungee challenge,
12 hours of live music, and lots
of food and beverages. Also held during
this year's Balloon Rally weekend
is the cattle judging portion of Green
County Dairy Day as well as the Green
County 4-H Dog Agility Trials.
Getting around to the various
weekend activities will be easy, as
Monty Chesebro's Tractor and Wagon
Rides, sponsored by the New Glarus
Hotel and Chalet Landhaus, will be
at the event giving rides and shuttling
visitors to and from their cars.
Whether you prefer to enjoy hotair
balloons from the air or from the
ground, Monroe will provide plenty
of opportunities. Taking in one of the
city's ballooning events is a great way
to let your summer take off.