Month: May 2021

Co-ops Apply Lessons Learned From Catastrophic Wildfires

Nearly 60,000 western wildfires destroyed more than 10 million acres in 2020, making it one of the worst seasons ever. As another begins, battled-tested electric cooperatives are readying strategies to prepare and mitigate damage.

“It comes down to prevention and protecting our members,” said Dave Markham, president and CEO of Central Electric Cooperative in Redmond, Oregon.

Unlike tornados that devastate in single short spurts or hurricanes that may be predicted weeks in advance, wildfires can spark at any time and often go unnoticed until dangerously out of control. These fires gain strength and size as they consume woody debris and other fuel in their path and can spread destruction for weeks or even months.

In northern Colorado’s drought-plagued mountains, Poudre Valley REA experienced its greatest devastation ever from wildfires in 2020: 400 distribution poles and 20 miles of power line were destroyed, and a substation was severely damaged.

As what came to be known as the Cameron Peak Fire began to spread in August 2020, the co-op worked simultaneously to support first responders, protect infrastructure and restore electricity.

“Preparing for the fire and restoration was challenging due to the fire’s unpredictable nature,” said John Bowerfind, chief operating officer at the Fort Collins, Colorado-based co-op.

“We created and followed our plan while remaining flexible, with the ability to pivot and change course as the fire conditions changed.”

That meant lots of communication with fire authorities and members about when an area would be repaired and re-energized. The co-op used social media, livestreamed events and local media coverage to share the latest developments.

Poudre Valley REA lost 400 poles and more than 20 miles of power line to wildfires in 2020. (Photo Courtesy: PVREA)

The blaze began about 15 miles from the Red Feather Lakes community served by PVREA. It roared into the co-op’s service area in waves, appearing to recede then raging back in short bursts when the weather turned drier and windy. The wildfire was not fully contained until December.

Fire incident command called for the largest public safety power shutoffs PVREA had ever experienced. Because the co-op had asked suppliers in advance to have materials readily available, damaged segments were repaired and lines were re-energized quickly.

“Every natural disaster is different—our response plan provides a starting point and must remain flexible,” said Bowerfind. “We were planning for the restoration and rebuilding efforts before facilities were destroyed by the fire.”

In Oregon, more than 1.5 million acres burned in 2020, making it one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in the state’s history. Flames along the Cascade Range whipped by 70 mph gales threatened CEC territory, but the co-op was spared when winds diminished.

“We dodged a potential catastrophe,” said Markham. “But we realize it is getting drier and hotter and there are more dead and dying trees.”

With more than half of CEC’s service territory across federal lands, Markham has testified before Congress on how delays in approvals for right-of-way upgrades, maintenance and improvements can have serious consequences. It took over a year to receive approval from the U.S. Forest Service to replace 131 aging power poles and remove encroaching vegetation along a 13-mile overhead power line route on federal land, he said.

“We are in a significant drought,” he said. “Going into summer, this is the time of year we will get lightning storms.”

CEC’s wildfire plan covers inspection and maintenance, operational practices, situational and conditional awareness, and response and recovery. Brad Wilson, who as director of operations and engineering heads the co-op’s wildfire mitigation efforts in the field, calls the plan “a living document.”

“While we will annually review the plan and update as needed, events in real-time may require some flexibility in its execution,” he said.

Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.

New laws fund broadband expansion

Rural Kentucky’s long and frustrating wait for high-speed internet broadband service is getting a historic boost thanks to legislation approved by the Kentucky General Assembly. 

House Bill 320 allocates $250 million for last mile broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas and allows electric cooperatives to add broadband service, if it is in the best interests of co-op consumer-members. House Bill 382 earmarks an additional $50 million for broadband expansion designated for economic development purposes. 

“Those of us from the rural areas of this state have waited and waited and we’ve become impatient,” says House Speaker Pro Tempore David Meade (R-Stanford). “And it’s time to do something. The funds are here. The need is evident. So, let’s strike while the iron is hot.”

Sponsored by Rep. Brandon Reed (R-Hodgenville) and Rep. Jason Petrie (R-Elkton), House Bill 320 permits a local electric co-op to assess the practicality of offering broadband service through a subsidiary. Until now, 19 of Kentucky’s 24 local distribution cooperatives were not permitted to provide broadband service to their consumer- members.

The legislation does not mandate that an electric cooperative provide broadband service. Instead, each co-op can determine whether entering the broadband business could be accomplished without jeopardizing the co-op’s primary objective of providing safe, reliable and affordable electricity to its members.

“Throughout every discussion, co-ops have insisted that any broadband expansion should not result in electric cooperative consumer-members paying more on their current electric bill,” says Chris Perry, president and CEO of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives.

Supported by a grassroots campaign of Kentucky’s electric cooperatives, the bill did not include any changes to existing pole attachment regulations that would have led to electric rate increases. A lobbying effort by the telecommunications industry was pushing for changes that would shift pole attachment costs to electric ratepayers.

House Bill 320 requires the Kentucky Public Service Commission to draft updated pole attachment regulations by the end of the year. Kentucky’s electric cooperatives are having good-faith discussions with the Commission, with the shared goal of speeding up broadband expansion while preserving the safety and reliability of both the public and lineworkers.

Of the $250 million of federal coronavirus relief funds in House Bill 320, $50 million will be allocated before April 2022. Funds are specific to provide broadband service to unserved and underserved areas of the commonwealth. 

“Some of our areas have three to four homes per mile, and those areas will never be enticing to those large communication companies to service,” Meade says. “We’ve seen that year after year as we have been up here passing legislation to deregulate telecom companies and to establish avenues for additional money to entice them to expand to that last mile.”

Spearheading the legislation in the Senate, Senate President Pro Tempore David Givens (R-Greensburg) says lawmakers were “planting the seed” and could make more decisions about funding in the future.

“It moves broadband forward in the Commonwealth of Kentucky with significant investment,” Reed says.

Kentucky’s electric co-ops live up to their name

Whether it’s a pair of shoes for a child who has none or money to help fight cancer or bottled water when the local supply isn’t sufficient, Kentucky’s electric cooperatives are addressing pressing needs in multiple communities by joining with East Kentucky Power Cooperative’s Good Giving Committee. 

“EKPC has always been a good corporate sponsor,” says Jerry Purvis, who has served as executive sponsor of the Good Giving Committee for the past six years and is the co-op’s vice president, environmental affairs. “We look at what we can do that serves our counties and really makes a difference. We wanted to make sure that any collected money—all of it—went to them.” 

Breast cancer awareness was the committee’s first major project. The committee donated to the Susan G. Komen fund for the fight against breast cancer. Next was helping patients at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center by donating profits from a chili cook-off. Former Markey patients helped deliver checks to UK. 

The East Kentucky Power Cooperative’s Good Giving Committee in 2014, its first year. Photo: Scott Mandl 

More teamwork 

Each year, Clark Energy Cooperative helps sponsor A Day of Giving under the theme of Operation Happiness. The Good Giving Committee helped Clark Energy distribute food boxes to adults and children in Clark County for five years. 

In Martin, which is served by Big Sandy RECC, the water supply was compromised, so that cooperative joined with the Good Giving Committee to deliver five pallets of bottled water to the middle and high schools. 

Cumberland Valley RECC provided school supplies, clothes, shoes and coats for children in need through the Knox County School District’s family resource centers. 

Teri Lacy is the new leader of the Good Giving Committee, now in its sixth year, and David Crews is the new executive sponsor. 

“I am always amazed at how EKPC employees answer the call to those in need,” says Teri. “I think it’s part of the DNA of a cooperative employee. We know that we don’t just serve a business, we serve the people that need our business. Many of our customers face challenges we take for granted. Not being able to rely on clean water, or having school supplies for children, or cleaning up after devastating weather are life-sustaining issues. If we can help, we are going to.”

-Debra Gibson Isaacs

Kentucky’s lakes and shorelines are waiting

IT’S FINALLY THAT TIME of year again—time for us to head to the beautiful lakes throughout Kentucky. From one end of the state to the other, Kentucky offers an abundance of options for boaters. 

There is nothing that I love more than visiting with friends and family on the peaceful waters of Kentucky lakes. Dale Hollow, Grayson, Nolin, Cave Run, Barkley and Kentucky Lake are the ultimate for fishing and fun. 

One of my favorite memories is the night my wife, Kim, and I spent with one of her high school friends on a houseboat at Green River Lake, above, just outside Campbellsville. Dr. Kellee Frogge and her husband were gracious hosts. It’s crazy how fast time passes, how we sometimes lose touch with friends whose stories are woven into the fabric of our past.

I don’t think there’s anything better in Kentucky than watching the sun set across the water while sharing laughs and stories with friends and family. 

In the magazine this month, there is a story about Kentucky’s beaches (page 49). Many people don’t think about beaches when visiting our state, but we have our share. I think Kentucky offers the best of all worlds. Our tremendous parks, pristine lakes and friendly people make our state the perfect place to spend a day at the beach. 

I hope as you begin making plans for this summer you’ll consider visiting Kentucky’s amazing outdoor spaces. 

There still will be safety concerns as we get vaccinated for COVID-19 and venture back into the world. For that reason, staying close to home and visiting with people who are special in your life could become the perfect vacation. 

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” —Henry David Thoreau