In the days leading up to Christmas 2022, while most people were busy with last-minute baking, shopping, and gift-wrapping, Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association’s (WECA) Vice President of Operations Tim Clay was on the phone, multiple times a day, working in partnership with a group of utility and state leaders to help Wisconsin stave off an energy crisis that was threatening the grid.
The transition to more intermittent energy resources, complicated by problems with a natural gas pipeline, and compounded by increased demand from a major winter storm that brought high winds, heavy snow, and frigid temperatures, meant people in some areas of the state were uncomfortably close to a critical call to action—slash energy usage, or face rolling blackouts. For once, getting coal for Christmas might not have been a bad thing.
Clay’s collaboration calls are another tool available through the Utility Public Private Partnership (UP3). WECA’s participation ensures the state’s electric cooperatives have access to all possible resources at the state and regional level, as well as a seat at the table before, during, and after emergency situations that may threaten power supply to members, from extreme weather to cyberattacks, to domestic terrorism. The public-private partnership, which has earned national recognition for excellence, brings together the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, which includes Wisconsin Emergency Management and the Wisconsin National Guard; WECA, representing all of the state’s electric cooperatives; several investor-owned utilities serving the state; and American Transmission Company (ATC).
“The world we live in is changing, and we need to stay ahead of any and all potential threats that may affect electric cooperative members,” said WECA President and CEO Steve Freese, who officially signed on to the UP3 agreement in February. “Communication and collaboration are key to ensuring a swift and safe response in the event of a crisis.”
“The UP3 members recognize co-op utilities provide a critical life-line service to local governments, businesses, and residents across a wide geographic area in Wisconsin,” said Drew Werner, Wisconsin Emergency Management lead all hazards planner. “Their participation enables greater information sharing and collaboration between the state and these utilities.”
That pre-Christmas storm that had Clay on speed dial with the partnership group rose to crisis level. Dairyland Power Cooperative broke its winter peak load record from 2019, setting a new record of 1,038 MW on December 22, 2022. The next day, the regional grid operator declared a Maximum Generation Emergency Event, a warning to power plant operators that the electricity supply on the grid was getting dangerously low. This, as much of the state was blanketed with snow.
Jump River Electric Cooperative’s territory was among the hardest hit, with 16 inches of heavy, wet snow recorded in Hayward, and 10 to 14 inches to the south, causing downed powerlines and widespread outages. At the peak, 46% of Jump River members were out of power.
“One member described the scene outdoors as one that looked like a tornado had gone through, followed by a lot of snow,” said Jump River General Manager Kurt Harris. “Other members, a few in their 90s, said they had never seen anything like this in their lifetime.”
Despite the looming holidays, crews from multiple cooperatives responded to Jump River’s call for help. The lack of access due to the heavy snow and downed trees created a challenge for lineworkers. This difficulty went beyond the average storm.
UP3 engaged early on, communicating storm status and resource needs between partners. “WEM was able to share outage information collected during the call with affected county and tribal emergency managers to allow them to make decisions about opening warming centers,” said Lieutenant Colonel Chris Robbins, Deputy Director for Strategic Plans, Wisconsin National Guard. “Additionally, WECA identified the benefit of suspending International Registration Plan (IRP) and International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) requirements for electric utility vehicles responding to co-op outages. WEM was able to relay this to the Governor’s Office, and the measure was included in Executive Order 181, declaring an energy emergency.
WECA’s input helped ensure the order eliminated barriers to power restoration, including waiving restrictions for out-of-state line workers.
“We’re continually looking at our preparedness and ways we can enhance our preparedness for all types of emergencies, whether it’s a man-made or natural disaster, and participation in this partnership is one additional thing that we’re doing to make sure we have access to every resource possible,” Clay said.
The state partnership offers can help fill the gap with needed resources, as it did in July 2019 after an extreme derecho tore through parts of central and northern Wisconsin.
“Hundreds of linemen came from other states to help restore electrical service, but there were not enough hotel rooms available. So within a short period, WEM brokered lodging in state Army National Guard armories, the American Red Cross provided cots, and the Business Emergency Operation Center procured and coordinated water and other basic needs. Without the UP3, there would have been a significant lag in getting those resources,” David Wilson, manager of corporate security at ATC told WECN.
The partnership also ensures utilities and state leaders are cohesive in response to potential threats that are less evident than a significant storm.
“Electric cooperative infrastructure and utility infrastructure is a target, as we’ve seen in other parts of the country,” Freese said. “There have been an increasing number of cases of people intentionally sabotaging the electric distribution system, and we must be prepared for the potential risk of coordinated attacks. In this situation, it is imperative that we have immediate dialogue among utilities so we can have a timely, heightened level of alert.”
“The state partnership makes sense because the restoration of electric service is one of the highest priorities in terms of critical infrastructure. It must be restored as fast as possible to help aid other recovery efforts that rely on the use of electricity,” Clay added.
In addition to the UP3 partnership, WECA is finalizing a regional mutual aid plan to ensure communication and collaboration with other Midwest states in case of an energy crisis. That’s another additional tool WECA will have, as we hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
As Clay says, “What electric cooperatives do for members is just too important. There is no such thing as being over-prepared.”—Julie Lund