Electric Co-ops Prepare for Extreme Weather

By Scott Flood

Extreme storms have long-tested power lines and crews across the country. Photo by Adam Elrod, Middle Tennesse Electric Cooperative

From the earliest days of electricity, weather has presented the biggest challenges to electric grids’ reliability and safety. Severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, heat waves, heavy snowfalls, flooding, and wind events have long tested power lines and electric utility crews across the country.

If you’ve thought storm events seem more frequent and 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—even when adjusting for inflation.

While scientists and policymakers debate the causes of our wild weather, electric utilities are diligently working to prepare for it. From coast to coast, utilities take steps to harden the vital infrastructure that delivers electricity to our members’ homes, farms, and other businesses. That includes upgrading equipment and connections to the nation’s electric power grid to better withstand disaster-level events. Additional strategies are intended to prevent damage from happening in the first place.

For example, you may have noticed an emphasis on tree trimming and other vegetation management. Keeping trees and branches a safe distance from power lines reduces the potential for weather-related outages. It’s sad to see favorite trees trimmed, but many of the outages handled every year happen when trees tangle with power lines.

As drought conditions contribute to wildfires in places where they’ve previously been rare, planning is needed for the possibility of similar events in unexpected locations. Keeping vegetation away from power lines and equipment helps prevent wildfires and limit their spread.

Keeping trees and branches a safe distance from power lines reduces the potential for weather-related outages. Photo by Laura Ribas, Lewis Tree Trimming Services

Hardening the infrastructure includes a long list of other strategies—such as a coordinated schedule for assessing infrastructure. 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 it is important to keep an eye on all the 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 local power grids are protected by installing lightning arrestors to safely divert surges caused by lightning strikes.

Investments are also being made into sophisticated management systems— what some call the smart grid—capable of drawing attention to potential issues before they grow into problems. Paired with innovative technology such as reclosers, which shut off electric power when trouble occurs, these systems are engineered to keep your power flowing even in the toughest weather conditions—or when wildlife tries to make a home in electric equipment. Protecting substations and other important outdoor equipment from severe weather events has also been a focus.

Power outages are just 1-way extreme weather can affect your energy costs. Weather extremes in one part of the country can significantly impact energy availability and costs elsewhere. As winter temperatures drop in many areas, the demand for heating drives up market energy prices, and cooperatives may have to pass those higher costs along to members.

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. Photo by Katie Morris, Lamar Electric Cooperative

You and your neighbors can help limit the impact of those higher costs by shifting your energy use away from peak times. For example, instead of running the dishwasher in the early evening when energy costs are highest, set it to run while everyone’s asleep and rates are lower. The more members help reduce energy use at peak times, the less everyone will have to pay for energy.

Implementing steps to prevent damage from potential weather disasters is one more example of your utility’s dedication to ensuring your power is always ready when you need it most.