Three Ways Your Co-op Manages Physical Threats to the Grid


The threat of cybersecurity attacks on the electric grid gets a lot of attention these days, and regular readers will remember last month’s article looking at a wide variety of ways system reliability can be undone, ranging all the way from sheer happenstance to ill-advised public policy choices. Truth be told, physical damage disrupting power is far likelier to be caused by storms or critters getting into places where they shouldn’t be.

There are many physical threats to our power delivery system that your electric cooperative works hard to manage on a daily basis. From weather events to criminal activity (a couple of examples not mentioned last month: copper theft and shooting at substations), it takes proactive commitment to consistently deliver reliable service. Even something as small as a squirrel can damage infrastructure and cause power outages.

If the lights do go out, your co-op is ready to restore power as quickly as is safely possible. Here are three key ways your co-op works to keep your power as reliable as it can be:

Being Part of the Community

One of the most valuable things about being served by an electric co-op is that you also have an ownership stake in the way the cooperative operates. Electric co-ops know their communities. Co-op employees live and work in the towns and neighborhoods they serve. As a member-owner, you know many of your co-op’s elected directors and employees. And, in turn, those directors and employees are personally acquainted with or are even found on the rosters of local fire departments, county boards, EMTs, and so on.

Emergencies can happen at any time, and those relationships are important in both the urgent response to unplanned events and in preparing for more predictable events, such as winter storms or spring flooding.

An example many readers will vividly remember is the statewide outbreak of severe storms between July 18 and 20. In August, as damage estimates were being finalized, Governor Evers applied to the federal government for disaster declarations (and the financial assistance they would enable) covering 18 Wisconsin counties, many of them with an extensive electric co-op presence.

Wisconsin’s cooperatives and a few from neighboring states responded to the challenge of getting the lights back on, and it was a truly heroic effort, so widespread was the damage: some half-million feet of conductor knocked down, approximately 700 power poles broken, and about 600 transformers in need of replacement, according to the governor’s request.

In some areas several days were needed to restore power for everyone, even with 20 co-ops contributing crews and equipment for the mutual aid deployment. Some of those 20 had their own storm damage to repair before they could move on to assist others. But they came through because they’re all part of one large cooperative community, and cooperation among cooperatives is an essential principle of providing reliable electric service.

Planning, Preparing, and Practicing 

There’s a well-known saying: The question is not if a crisis will occur, but when it will occur. What constitutes a crisis can mean different things to different co-op members, depending on the role electricity plays in their daily lives or businesses. Your electric co-op tests disaster and business continuity plans regularly and takes pride in being prepared at all times. Plans not only focus on how to prevent threats, but also how to respond and recover in the event of an incident. In the energy business, activities like vegetation management or pole inspections are routine and will certainly appear that way, but they’re also strategically planned and performed to proactively reduce power disruptions.

Trees that are too close to power lines can cause major damage during a storm and may result in a lengthy outage. A memorable exampleÑone in which no storm occurredÑinvolved an Ohio investor-owned utility that paid insufficient attention to keeping its right-of-way cleared of vegetation. On a hot August day in 2003, one of its transmission lines heated up and sagged into tree branches allowed to grow too close. The system tripped off and caused cascading blackouts affecting eight U.S. states and part of Canada.

Vegetation management probably leads to more controversy than just about anything else an electric co-op is likely to do. Chances are the co-op manager listening to a member complaint about tree-trimming practices is thinking about his determination not to be the one responsible for a repeat performance of the 2003 blackout.

Coordinating with Stakeholders 

Your electric co-op places high importance on partnerships with fellow cooperatives, industry partners, and government agencies to mitigate the potential impacts of all types of threats to our systems. Electric cooperatives work closely with the rest of the electric industry, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on matters of critical infrastructure protection. That includes sharing necessary information about potential threats and working together to avoid disruptions to the extent possible.

Although the electric grid is incredibly resilient and can withstand many physical impacts, it’s also a dynamic infrastructure that requires constant attention. Your electric co-op is vigilant in ensuring grid protection from physical and cyber threats in order to safely, reliably, and affordably power your lives.