BY SCOTT FLOOD
From the earliest days of electricity, weather has presented the biggest challenges to reliability and safety. Severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, derechos, heat waves, heavy snowfalls, flooding and ice events have long put power lines and co-op crews to the test, including those in Iowa.
If you think storm events seem to be more frequent and more intense these days, you’re not wrong. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks weather and climate disasters causing more than $1 billion in damage, reported an annual average of 18 such events between 2018 and 2022. That compares to an average of just 8.1 major disasters per year from 1980 to 2017.
Proactive upgrades, vegetation management
While scientists and policymakers debate the causes of our wild weather, electric co-ops are diligently working to prepare for it. From coast to coast, cooperatives are taking steps to harden the vital infrastructure that delivers electricity to our members’ homes, farms and other businesses. Co-ops have been upgrading equipment and our connections to the nation’s electric power grid so we can better withstand disaster-level events. We’re also taking steps to prevent damage from happening in the first place.
For example, you may have noticed our emphasis on tree trimming and other vegetation management strategies. Keeping trees and branches at a safe distance from power lines reduces the potential for weather-related outages. Like you, we’re sometimes sad to see our favorite trees trimmed, but many of the outages we handle every year happen when trees tangle with power lines.
Because recent wildfires have spread to places where they’ve previously been rare, we also need to plan for the possibility of fires in our area. Keeping vegetation away from power lines and equipment helps us prevent wildfires and limit their spread.
Hardening our infrastructure will include a long list of other strategies. We’re paying more attention to the condition of our system. If one of our power poles is damaged or otherwise weakened, strong winds might bring it down and leave a big area of our community in the dark. That’s why we keep an eye on all our poles and install more durable replacements when necessary.
When our crews aren’t fixing problems, they’re working just as hard to prevent them from happening. Poles and wires are frequent targets for lightning, so we can protect the local power grid by installing devices that safely divert surges caused by lightning strikes.
Leveraging new technology
We also invest in sophisticated management systems – what some call the smart grid – capable of drawing our attention to potential issues before they grow into problems. Paired with innovative technology like reclosers, these systems are engineered to keep your power flowing even in the toughest weather conditions (or when a squirrel makes a poor choice). We’re also taking steps to protect substations and other important outdoor equipment from severe weather events.
Outages, availability impact costs
Power outages are just one way extreme weather can affect your energy costs. Weather extremes in one part of the country can have significant effects on energy availability and costs elsewhere. As winter temperatures drop in many areas, the demand for heating drives market energy prices up, and not-for-profit electric co-ops may have to pass those higher costs along to members.
Reducing peak energy use
You and your neighbors can help us limit the impact of those higher costs by shifting your energy use during peak times. For example, instead of running the dishwasher in the early evening when energy costs are highest, set it to run while everyone’s asleep and rates are lower. The more members who help by reducing energy use at peak times, the less everyone will have to pay for energy.
Considering the impact of potential weather disasters and implementing steps to prevent damage is just one more example of your electric cooperative’s dedication to making sure your power is always ready when you need it most.
Scott Flood writes on a variety of energy-related topics for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing nearly 900 electric co-ops.