Jim Spiers is currently the Vice President of Business and Technology Strategies at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)—the national service organization that represents the nation’s more than 900 not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives. He has been with the organization since June 2014 and has over 25 years of experience in the energy sector that has spanned operations, planning, rate setting, regulation, restructuring, technology, and business strategy. When Spiers became a part of the organization, he was tasked with creating a business unit to provide guidance to electric cooperatives to help solve industry challenges while continuing to provide affordable and reliable electrical power. The Business and Technology Strategies unit (BTS) is composed of NRECA’s Energy and Power Division, the Cooperative Research Network, and the Strategic and Economic Analysis team.
Flagger Force: How did you come to your position with the NRECA?
Jim Spiers: I spent several years as an independent energy consultant and was later named director of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, then vice president of business strategy and chief technology officer at Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association in Colorado. I joined the NRECA about three years ago to help support cooperative members through the Business and Technology Strategies unit (BTS) by bringing resources together from technical, economical, and scientific research to provide the best service for our member stakeholders and to ultimately, get more value out of the grid.
Flagger Force: How would you characterize the NRECA‘s philosophy for engagement with electric cooperatives?
Jim Spiers: Our philosophy is centered on a collaborative approach. Our staff offers deep expertise in numerous domains that help members collaborate with one another as well as with federal regulators and our associate members to identify opportunities for innovation in economic prosperity and environmental development—improving the quality of life. We use a lot of tools, such as advisory groups, that can inform us on how we can focus our support. We engage directly in the field with our members—talking about what they need such as guidance on cybersecurity and grid infrastructure technology.
Flagger Force: When you think of the various initiatives that NRECA are working on, which ones are you are personally excited about?
Jim Spiers: Cybersecurity concerns is an important one for our nation. Recently, we have collaborated with N-Dimension Solutions, Milsoft Utility Solutions, and the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) to develop “REACT,” which is a tool to rapidly detect cyberattacks and compromised utility systems. This was funded by a competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office (DOE) of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. An unsolicited award of $7.5 million over three years was provided to us for our work by the DOE to find the resources and tools for small and medium utilities across the country to be as “cyber-secure” as possible. This was the first kind of award provided to an association like ours. Another initiative that we are very excited about is focused on greenhouse gas emissions. America’s electric cooperatives have been instrumental in setting up a first-of-its-kind, integrated test facility in Wyoming to take the CO2 out of the slipstream of an operating coal power plant in order to convert it to a useful material. This work is being done in partnership with the XPrize Foundation [a public competition intended to encourage technological development that could benefit mankind], our cooperative partners, and some other utility partners to further develop and fund the research. As this project evolves, we anticipate a companion research operation will be set up in Alberta, Canada. We are on the leading edge of a carbon emissions technology that is addressing how we capture the carbon and create a use for it today. These examples show how ideas develop out of our cooperatives and how the NRECA can help create the resources needed to make it all happen.
Flagger Force: What is it about cooperatives that foster innovation?
Jim Spiers: Yes, electric cooperatives stand apart in the utility space as extremely innovative. Two of the key principals that guide us are autonomy and independence. Not only are we withstanding the pace of change, but our members have the local control, which leads them to respond to emerging needs with new ideas—fostering innovative technology developments for the grid. For example, our research work has gone from $2 million to over $22 million in grants, specifically because we let our cooperatives in the field drive a focus toward the most relevant research. Cooperatives are typically nimbler than others in the utility space who may often have more complex stakeholder networks to consider. This is a good business model for addressing what our cooperative members need.
Flagger Force: The NRECA has a long history of engaging in international electrification projects. What are some of the initiatives currently?
Jim Spiers: There are several initiatives for this mission. We have a long history of being instrumental in the success of providing the resources and tools that third world countries may need to create their own power grid. We have been a part of launching cooperatives in Costa Rica, the Philippines, and across the Caribbean. The expansion of those projects is still in play. We are also in sub-Saharan Africa with the objective of two programs: 1) grid access—expanding the grid to reach those communities who are within close distance of each other; and 2) is what we call greenfield—figuring out we can launch solar technology to be of use to those beyond those limits. We have teams of lineman from throughout our electric cooperatives who travel to these destinations to assist in implementation. It is truly moving when you hear the stories of these big, rugged, tough lineman having tears in their eyes when they see how happy the communities are to finally have a light source.
Flagger Force: What is important to NRECA in terms of partnerships?
Jim Spiers: We look for partners with common missions as ours. We want to find those folks who want to solve a problem that cooperatives face and do it in a collaborative way that aligns with our values. The stronger the overlap of mission, the stronger the partnership. The cooperatives exist to improve the quality of life and economic prosperity of their members. When we find partners that are willing to meet our mission, then those are the companies that we want to work with.