When a big storm knocks out power for you and your neighbors, there is a good chance help is already on the way from electric utilities near and far.
That lightning-fast response comes from a combination of a centuries-old tradition; the latest in weather-forecasting technology; an ingenious contract among electric cooperatives, PUDs and municipal utilities; and lineworkers’ spirit of dedication, pride and adventure.
When an especially severe natural disaster causes a power outage, the devastation can be more than your local electric utility can quickly repair on its own. That’s when other utilities swoop in from next door and, sometimes, from other states.
Perhaps you’ve seen them. They arrive in caravans of utility vehicles with military-like precision as part of a plan called a mutual-aid agreement.
A Simple, One-Page Contract
The origins of the mutual-aid agreement can be traced back to 1844—even before there were electric utilities—when the first formally organized cooperative created a set of operating principles that included “Cooperation Among Cooperatives.”
When electric co-ops were formed in the 1930s, they used that handshake-style working arrangement to help each other with repairs after severe storm damage.
In the early 1990s, the Federal Emergency Management Agency requested a more legalistic accounting for the aid it provided electric utilities after natural disasters.
Electric co-ops, represented by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, got together with FEMA and the American Public Power Association—the organization for city-owned utilities and PUDs—and produced a one-page contract. The contract says when one utility helps another, it will charge reasonable rates for crews and equipment.
The simplicity of that arrangement fits the tradition of utilities cooperating with each other, says Martha Duggan, NRECA’s senior director for regulatory affairs.
A contract is one thing, but success means carrying it out effectively. To that end, electric utilities rely on their decades of experience. They share that experience and meet regularly to keep procedures updated.
The response to your power outage can start days before it even happens, with utilities tracking weather patterns that could knock down poles. They organize themselves under their own state associations, planning for how many line crews might be needed and where they will come from, even making hotel reservations to house crews.
Barry Moline is executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association in Sacramento. Before joining CMUA in 2017, he spent 21 years as executive director of the Florida Municipal Utilities Association. For emergencies, he also was the statewide mutual-aid manager for all publicly owned electric utilities.
“Mutual aid gives a small utility the resources of a giant utility,” Moline says. “When there’s an emergency and power needs to be restored quickly, few can handle the resource demands with their existing staffing. Mutual aid allows every utility to obtain resources to restore power as quickly and safely as possible, so our communities can get back on their feet.”
Staff and members of Consumers Power Inc.—a 23,000-meter distribution cooperative based in Philomath, Oregon— saw the value of mutual aid last September when wildfires torched nearly 400,000 acres and destroyed or damaged about 850 homes. Four other Oregon cooperatives answered the call for help.
In a letter to the CPI Board of Trustees, CEO Roman Gillen explained what he saw while touring the scorched territory. In addition to smoking ruins, small flames licking the hillsides and thick smoke, there was hope.
“I saw a brand-new electric system—tall, straight poles with straight, properly sagged wire between them—and all of it sprang up virtually overnight,” Gillen wrote. “I saw a lot of proud but tired faces that have spent days and many nights breathing that polluted air as they labored up incredibly steep, treacherous hillsides carrying their equipment and lugging the materials they need to work their magic.”
The value of mutual aid was apparent.
“I heard expressions of gratitude from the emergency management people who live in the area for the organized, professional, cooperative, efficient and effective process that the combined electric cooperative crews established as they worked quickly to restore power throughout the affected area,” Gillen said.
Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association Executive Director Ted Case says it is the best example of mutual aid he can think of.
“The call went out and within a couple hours, Roman had the help he needed even though the conditions were going to be horrible—the worst air quality in the world,” Case says. “No one hesitated to say yes.”
While there are differences in how publicly owned utilities and investor-owned utilities are managed, the bottom line is the same during times of crisis.
“We learn we have a lot more in common than we have differences,” Moline says. “It’s amazing the bonds that lineworkers create across utilities, utility sectors and utility ownership types.
“Lineworkers hate power outages because they love their communities and don’t want anyone to suffer. They feel a certain sadness when there’s a power loss, and tremendous satisfaction when power is restored. The brotherhood among lineworkers, and then subsequently their managers—all the way to the top—is especially obvious with mutual aid. Their motto is, ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed.’”
Storms of Another Kind
While consumers in the West are accustomed to heavy rains, fires and—in some territories, snowstorms—our friends to the east face a different kind of threat from Mother Nature: hurricanes.
Sally made landfall just west of the Florida/Alabama line September 16 as a Category 2 hurricane, knocking out power to 95% of Escambia River Electric Cooperative’s members.
Sally’s torrential rain and winds of 105 mph ravaged the area for hours, leaving broken utility poles, downed power lines and flooded destruction.
In anticipation of the storm, EREC—based in Jay, Florida—activated its emergency response plan, which included coordinating additional utility line crews to assist with power restoration through EREC’s statewide cooperative association.
Crews from four utilities in Florida and two in Mississippi arrived to help EREC line personnel restore power. This alliance represented a massive effort and brought members back online in record time, with service restored September 21.
Escambia County sustained significant damage to transmission lines feeding two of its substations. EREC’s generation and transmission provider, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, repaired those lines so substations could be energized as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, EREC and the responding crews worked to repair the distribution system. Once the substations were energized, hundreds of members came back online immediately.
Rebuilding a power system following a hurricane requires all hands on deck.
“I was so impressed with the determination of our linemen, assisting cooperative crews and support staff,” says EREC CEO Ryan Campbell. “Power restoration is a team effort. To have the amount of destruction we did following the storm and have every members’ power restored in five days is phenomenal. The line crews worked extremely long hours in difficult terrain, and they did not stop. It is a true testament to the perseverance and strength of our linemen.”