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Battling the Elements

How electric co-ops prepare for extreme weather

January-February 2024

Extreme storms have long put power lines and electric cooperative crews to the test.

by Scott Flood, Contributing Writer

From the earliest days of electricity, weather has presented the biggest challenges to reliability and safety. Severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, heavy snowfalls, flooding and wind events have long put power lines and Virginia’s and Maryland’s co-op crews to the test.

If you’ve thought 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.

While scientists and policymakers debate the causes of increasingly 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 members’ homes, farms and other businesses. Co-ops have been upgrading equipment and connections to the nation’s electric power grid so they can better withstand disaster-level events. They’re also taking steps to prevent damage from happening in the first place.

Severe weather events have always presented the biggest challenges to power reliability and safety. Electric co-ops take proactive steps to prepare lines and equipment for severe weather damage.

For example, you may have noticed an 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. Everyone is sometimes sad to see favorite trees trimmed, but many of the outages co-ops handle every year happen when trees tangle with power lines.

As drought conditions contribute to wildfires in places where they’ve previously been rare, we also need to plan for the possibility of similar fires in our area. Keeping vegetation away from power lines and equipment helps us prevent wildfires and limit their spread.

Hardening infrastructure will also include a long list of other strategies. Co-ops are paying more attention to the condition of the system. If one power pole is damaged or otherwise weakened, strong winds might bring it down and leave a big area in the dark. That’s why co-ops keep an eye on all poles and install more durable replacements when necessary.

When crews aren’t fixing problems, they’re working just as hard to prevent them from happening. Those poles and the wires connecting them are frequent targets for lightning, so they can protect the local power grid by installing devices that safely divert surges caused by lightning strikes.

Power outages are just one way extreme weather can affect 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.

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 for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.