Tornado season 2024 is off to a ferocious start. First, the state’s earliest-ever twisters hit in early February. Then, May brought several days with severe weather and spawned 21 tornadoes, bringing the year-to-date total to 23, already matching the state’s annual tornado average. Sixteen tornadoes hit on Tuesday, May 21, wreaking havoc, mainly in rural areas powered by electric cooperatives. Part of Eau Claire Energy’s territory was in the path of an EF1 that touched down near Augusta that night.

“Storms caused extensive damage and fallen trees in all areas of our service territory,” said Monica Obrycki, president and CEO of Eau Claire Energy Cooperative. “Outages started around 6 p.m., and crews worked through the night, restoring power to most members by morning. The remaining 160 outages were caused by extensive damage and downed trees that prevented us from accessing equipment or the area we needed to reach to restore outages, so those took longer.”

Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative was also hit by the widespread storms on May 21, when high winds and downed trees impacted seven substations and knocked out power to hundreds of homes. Just three days later, Mother Nature raged again, bringing straight-line winds and another round of power restoration for the co-op’s crews. It was bad, but it could have been worse. Central Wisconsin serves the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, which declared a state of emergency in June of 2022 following a tornado outbreak that knocked out power to more than 90,000 households across the state, including 60,000 in central Wisconsin.

Central Wisconsin Electric and Eau Claire Energy Cooperatives, like all Wisconsin electric cooperatives, prioritize electric reliability for members and work to mitigate the impact of storms like these, but they must strike a careful balance. Co-ops invest in preventive measures, such as regular infrastructure inspections and vegetation management, but as not-for-profit entities, co-ops operate with smaller margins and must also focus on efficiency to keep rates down. And it’s not easy.

Electric co-ops serve mainly rural areas with fewer meters per mile than utilities that serve more densely populated areas. Nationally, investor-owned utilities have an average of 34 customers per mile of line, while Wisconsin electric co-ops serve 5.27 members per mile, which means higher costs and more maintenance.

It is for these reasons that, when the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) announced the launch of the Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) grant program, the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association (WECA) and several of the state’s electric cooperatives saw it as a potential opportunity to make much-needed improvements to aging infrastructure, and improve their fighting chance during severe storms.

The grant program, funded by the Biden administration’s Infrastructure, Jobs, and Reinvestment Act (IIJA), is aimed at helping to fund projects that improve reliability of the grid during the clean energy transition. Wisconsin was awarded $10.24 million, and WECA lobbied for the PSC to prioritize smaller utilities in granting the funds, as they are excluded from many other programs due to large capital investment requirements.

“The more miles of line, the longer it can take to locate issues and return to service,” WECA Vice President of Operations, Environmental and Regulatory Services Tim Clay explained in written comments to the PSC. And, he argued, this is one of the few federal programs under the IIJA that electric cooperatives can afford. “WECA believes electric cooperatives, municipal electric utilities, and small, privately owned utilities should be the sole focus of this program,” Clay said.

Several electric cooperatives, including Polk-Burnett, Eau Claire, and Oakdale, also submitted comments, which resonated with the PSC. The three-member Commission voted in August 2023 to award at least 75% of the funds from this program to smaller entities.

At the time, former PSC Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq said, “When you look at the footprint of our small co-ops and the associated cost with trying to make their system more resilient, I think that they need more money. And this is our opportunity to provide that money now.”

And they did. On May 23, the PSC announced the GRIP program awardees and every single electric cooperative application was approved. Twelve co-ops were awarded a total of $7,320,065 for 14 projects, all aimed at keeping the lights on and/or restoring power more quickly.

For example, Jackson Electric Cooperative, which submitted the top-ranked application, was awarded $641,966 for a project to address an area in Millston that has had eight outages in the past three years, often due to large cranberry producer loads. The co-op will convert 5.5 miles of aging overhead lines to underground and upgrade another 1.5 miles of existing overhead lines. Like all approved projects, Jackson will fund one-third of the $962,950 cost, or $320,984.

Eau Claire Energy had two applications approved, both scoring among the top five.

One project will help the co-op rebuild 10 miles of outdated overhead copper weld lines to bring them up to current construction standards. The other project will upgrade one-third of the co-op’s traditional reclosers (high-voltage, automatic electric switches typically found on top of distribution poles) with smart technology reclosers.

“By rebuilding lines to our current construction standards, we are ensuring more reliable service for our members, especially during severe weather conditions like the storms we experienced in May,” Obrycki said. “The installation of smart reclosers will also allow us to quickly isolate and address outages, minimizing disruption and improving overall grid stability.” The total cost of both projects is $1.75 million. After the grants, the co-op will pay about $580,000.

East Central Energy also submitted a top-five application and was awarded $757,680 in grants for a $1.1 million project to replace and modernize equipment in their substation that serves the Dairyland community in Douglas County. When completed, ECE will have an entirely new substation, which will replace equipment that has been in service since 1951.

East Central Energy Vice President and COO Andy Olson said replacing the aged transformers along with upgrading the technology related to fault protection, voltage regulation, remote control, and distribution automation will allow for a 150% increase in capacity to serve load in the surrounding area, which paves the way for future business expansion, residential load growth including EV adoption, and greater ability to back feed the adjacent substation load in outage situations.

“As an 88-year-old electric provider, we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to make improvements to our system because reliability and safety are vital to the rural way of life,” Olson said.

Dunn Energy secured a $77,000 grant. “This grant will help us purchase a substation breaker for one of our most critical substations at the southern end of our system,” said General Manager and CEO Jesse Singerhouse. “With this breaker, we will eventually be able to see more real-time load data that will help our operations staff during outage restoration. The other portion of the grant we are receiving is for training and education of our staff on smart grid implementation.”

Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative, which also has two approved projects, plans to use the funds for one project to tie its Wittenberg and Groenier substations together. President and CEO Lila Shower says it will be a “game changer in reducing outage lengths.”

“We currently have a feeder that supports the Ho-Chunk Nation and one very large dairy. This grant will allow CWEC to back feed this feeder from another substation in the future to restore power efficiently,” explained Kevin Kurtzweil, vice president of operations.

Central Wisconsin’s second project includes converting and upgrading 2.5 miles of overhead line to underground line, which will reduce outages to the embattled Stockbridge-Munsee Band, which was still in storm recovery one year after that 2022 tornado hit.

“It’s just a matter of time until that area gets hit with another storm, just like the one that occurred in 2022. The current line is overhead three phase and is the only feed into the reservation. This grant will allow us to bury three-phase cable, therefore no trees or broken poles to contend with in the future,” said Kurtzweil.

Shower added, “The Stockbridge Munsee tribe has a deep reverence for trees and plant life. By converting the overhead line to underground, it will greatly reduce the need for vegetation management in this area, which is also very costly.”

The cost of both projects is almost $2 million. The grant funds will cover $1.3 million.

All of the GRID grants are still subject to final sign-off by the Department of Energy, which is expected to happen by the end of July, and there is more opportunity to come.

This was the first of what will likely be four rounds of program awards, but it’s unclear if the PSC, which has replaced two of three commissioners since it last developed rules for the program, will continue to prioritize smaller utilities and their members.

WECA will continue to advocate because the challenges electric cooperatives face are clear. Aging infrastructure cannot withstand the now-growing demand for electricity due to the clean energy transition, electrification, and data center growth, especially when the state sees a year’s worth of tornadoes in a single month.

“All of these projects will help to upgrade and modernize electric cooperative infrastructure, and that is what this program is all about,” Clay said. “Ultimately, it will help co-ops make the improvements they need to keep the lights on in rural Wisconsin.

“We would not have been able to complete either of our projects without the Grid Resiliency Grant opportunity,” Shower said. “It is like a dream come true for CWEC and its membership.”—Julie Lund (Photos courtesy of Chippewa Valley Electric, Central Wisconsin Electric, and Eau Claire Energy Cooperatives)