The Next Generation of Lineworkers

By Justin LaBerge

Becoming a lineman involves years of training and experience.

Becoming a lineman involves years of training and experience.

Over the next five years, America’s electric cooperatives expect to hire nearly 15,000 people to fill jobs ranging from information technology specialist to lineworker. Investor-owned utilities, municipal power systems and private power line contractors will also need thousands of skilled workers to keep our nation’s energy grid running safely and reliably.

Despite high demand, good pay, excellent benefits, opportunities to advance and a stable long-term outlook, America is facing a shortage of lineworkers.

To address this looming shortage, energy companies, including America’s electric cooperatives, teamed up to create the Center for Energy Workforce Development. Even celebrities took notice. Mike Rowe, who gained fame as host of the Discovery Channel’s series “Dirty Jobs,” created a foundation to raise awareness of the great career opportunities offered by skilled trades that are too often overlooked by guidance counselors and eager parents.

Trade groups and celebrities can raise awareness of an issue, but it takes more than awareness to keep the lights on. Training programs are the vital link to help motivated individuals become our nation’s next generation of lineworkers.

No “typical” student
In Colorado, we have some notable lineworker training programs, such as Mesa Hotline School and Western Colorado Community College, both in Grand Junction, and Rocky Mountain Lineman School in Trinidad.

Electrical LineworkerAt lineworker school, students learn about safety, underground and overhead procedures, installation, repair, operation of equipment, pole climbing and more important aspects of this skilled profession.

A common thread through these programs is that they attract students from all walks of life. Many are young people who recently graduated from high school. Others are older and have more experience.

The older students tend to be a mix of individuals looking for a better job with advancement opportunities, workers who were laid off from manufacturing jobs and veterans who recently completed their military service. No matter their background, all students in these programs must love the outdoors and have a strong work ethic.

The tuition assistance options for lineworker programs are almost as diverse as the students themselves. For apprentice lineworkers already employed by co-ops, the tuition for these programs is often paid in full by the co-op. Returning veterans can use GI Bill funds, and many states have additional programs to help veterans enter the civilian workforce. Manufacturing workers who lost their jobs to companies overseas might be eligible for job-retraining funds.

In addition to these specialized types of financial assistance, lineworker training programs typically qualify for all the traditional education funding sources, including scholarships, grants and student loans.

Even those who rely on loans and their own funds to pay for their lineworker education will benefit from the much lower costs of community colleges as compared to four-year schools and private, for-profit colleges.

Genuine opportunity
In a September 26, 2015, column published by Education and Career News, Mike Rowe wrote: “Every day, millions of people looking for work fail Electrical Lineworkerto consider a host of genuine opportunities, in part because they don’t appear on our collective list of ‘top jobs.’ Job satisfaction is important, but ultimately, vocational happiness has less to do with what you do than with who you are. In other words, character — like opportunity — won’t be found on a list.”

Few organizations value character as much as America’s not-for-profit, member-owned electric cooperatives, and lineworker is just one of the many “genuine opportunities” they offer.

Justin LaBerge writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Reliable Electricity is Becoming Even More Reliable

Our electricity is on almost all the time. You know that. But you might not know the amount of time it’s on is getting better every year.

Electricity has become so reliable that the numbers for a typical American home sound crazy. For most people, the total amount of time without power because of an outage is less than two hours a year. That means their electricity is on 99.977169 percent of the time.

“You can’t have 100 percent reliability all the time on something as large as an electric distribution system,” says Tony Thomas, principal engineer at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. And although the U.S. electric service on-time number is just a decimal point from perfect, Thomas says, “Reliability has been getting much better.”

To understand the improvements in electric utility reliability, you need to be introduced to what Thomas says are known as “the three sisters”: the acronyms SAIDI, CAIDI and SAIFI.

Those stand for different ways to measure how power outages affect consumers. Here’s what they mean:

SAIDI shows how long an average customer goes without power during a year. It stands for System Average Interruption Duration Index. It’s calculated by dividing all of a utility’s power interruptions by the number of customers that utility serves. Analysts caution against citing a national SAIDI average because of the huge differences in utilities across the country and how data is collected. But a report from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers puts the typical customer as being without power 115 minutes a year.

SAIDI numbers do not include extremely long or short outages, since they could drastically skew the results among utilities and make the numbers less useful. Extremely long outages, like those caused by a major storm, can sometimes last more than a day. The short outages that are not included in SAIDI are, for example, cases like a utility circuit breaker quickly opening and closing.

SAIFI shows how often the power goes out for each customer. It stands for System Average Interruption Frequency Index. It’s calculated by dividing the number of customer interruptions by the number of customers.

CAIDI shows the average time it takes to restore power after an outage. It stands for Customer Average Interruption Duration Index. It’s calculated by dividing SAIDI by SAIFI.

All three of those reliability measures improved over the past few years, according to IEEE reports. The amount of time a utility customer was without electricity for the year (SAIDI) declined about 20 percent in the most recent four years of figures — from 143 minutes in 2011 to 115 minutes in 2014.

The number of outages per typical consumer in a year (SAIFI) went down from 1.16 to 1.07. And how long each of those outages lasted (CAIDI) declined from 117 minutes in 2011 to 104 minutes in 2014.

Thomas credits advances in utility technology for those improvements.

More and more mechanical electric meters are being replaced with automated meters that do more than just measure the bulk use of electricity coming to the meter at your house. They can also monitor whether electricity is delivered to your house at all, as well as the voltage quality of that electricity.

“With automated meters, utilities can know a consumer is out of power before the consumer knows it,” Thomas says.

Another step toward utilities spotting and solving outages faster is the more widespread adoption of high-tech monitoring systems. These SCADA systems, or Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems, are typically set up as several computer monitors in a control room, each showing a different view of the utility’s service area, including weather maps and detailed schematics of each power line, substation and home or business served.

“Prices have dropped for SCADA systems, just like for all software in the last few years,” Thomas says. “Utility technology has gotten a lot better in the last 10 years.”

Thomas credits electric cooperatives with making special use of technology to overcome the barriers of long distances between members. Outages and other routine changes in power flow can be more quickly and easily addressed remotely, without having to make a long drive to a home or substation.

“Rural electric co-ops have done an amazing job of adopting technology and putting it to use,” Thomas says. “And all this technology just translates into better operation of the electric system.”

Colorado Rural Electric Association Executive Director Kent Singer agrees: “Co-ops have a great track record when it comes to keeping the lights on.”

But what about the future? “Co-ops will be challenged to continue this amazing level of service as more intermittent sources of electricity are integrated into the grid,” Singer said. “That will not be easy.”

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, based in Arlington, Virginia.

Solar Energy Heats Up

By Paul Wesslund

Solar energy is really heating up. Use of photovoltaic cells to make electricity grew 30 percent each of the last two years. Experts expect that pace to continue because of falling prices for solar equipment and December’s three-year extension of federal tax credits for solar energy.

As with any new and booming technology, solar brings promise and problems. On the upside, making electricity from sunlight would seem to solve the need for energy. But the sun doesn’t shine all the time we want power, the equipment can be expensive and the nation’s electricity transmission system was not designed for the widespread use of solar energy.

“We’ve seen very quick growth already,” says Andrew Cotter, program and product manager for renewable and distributed generation at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “And we’re going to see more of it.”

Electric co-ops are among the leaders in testing how community solar technology will work in the real world.

“The consumer-owned cooperative business model is promoting the growth of solar,” says Tracy Warren, senior communications manager at NRECA. “Co-ops are getting involved in solar energy because their members are asking them about it.”

The country will need more solar. U.S. energy experts say we will not be able to meet national energy goals — achieving energy independence and meeting new requirements connected to the government’s Clean Power Plan — unless we increase our solar energy capacity.

Now before you start thinking that solar power is taking over, you should know that the huge growth in solar energy starts from a small number; even with the explosion of the past few years, solar energy still generates less than 1 percent of the nation’s electricity. It will take many years of equally strong growth to even get near the portions of electricity generated nationally by wind and other non-solar renewable energy (6 percent), hydroelectric power (6 percent), nuclear (19 percent) or coal and natural gas (about 33 percent each).

The basic way that solar energy works is that when light hits certain specially-designed materials, it releases electrons from the material’s atoms, and electricity is really nothing more than flowing electrons. When these materials are manufactured into photovoltaic cells and connected, they can produce enough electricity to power a calculator, a lightbulb, a house or even several houses.

The recent growth of solar is happening in three different ways. One is utility-scale solar — large banks of photovoltaic panels that produce enough electricity for thousands of homes or businesses. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which supplies electricity to 18 of Colorado’s 22 electric co-ops, buys power from the 30-megawatt Cimarron Solar Facility for its members. When it was built, it was the largest facility of its kind.

A second growth area is community solar. United Power, an electric co-op in Brighton, pioneered this concept back in 2009 when it built a solar power facility. Interested United Power members bought a share of the electricity the solar farm produced. Now 13 of the state’s 22 electric co-ops have similar community solar facilities and more co-ops will be adding them in the near future.

The third solar category goes by the fancy term “distributed generation.” That just means that the nature of solar cells can be made in lots of different sizes that can be distributed to make electricity from a lot of different places, from a little cell that powers a handheld calculator to a panel the size of a tabletop that could operate a remote water well on a cattle ranch, without the expense of building a long-distance power line.

Rooftop solar is an increasingly popular kind of distributed generation that allows homeowners to set up a bank of solar cells on their rooftops. Rooftop solar raises some of the trickiest issues for this developing source of electricity.

One of those issues comes from home solar energy owners selling excess electricity back to the utility. Designing those reverse rates can be complicated, since they need to account for a lot of factors, including the homeowner’s need for electricity all the time, not just when the solar panels are working.

Other technical issues include safety. Lineworkers repairing what they expect is a de-energized line can’t afford to be surprised by home solar panels suddenly sending electricity back through the wires.

“There is a whole new set of safety protocols and best practices that are being developed,” Cotter says. “When home solar generation becomes part of the electric grid, it is plugging into what has been called the most complex machine in the world.”

Another area of caution involves the cost and financing. The popularity of rooftop solar created an industry of vendors making a variety of claims in their sales pitches. Cotter advises people to be smart shoppers, read the fine print and get advice from your local electric co-op. He especially advises asking whether the homeowner or the vendor is getting the benefits of the renewable energy credits known as RECs.

“Electricity is a commodity; it is all the same whether it comes from a photovoltaic system or a power plant,” Cotter says.

Cotter also says some of the claims for how soon the solar project will pay for itself are based on unrealistic projections of how much electric rates will increase in the future. “Keep an eye out for any claims higher than 2 to 3 percent per year,” Cotter says. “Every utility is different, and members interested in solar energy for their home should look to their local electric co-op as the first source of trusted information.”

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. 

Keeping Hackers Away from the Electric Grid

About 3:30 in the afternoon last December 23, operators at three electric utilities halfway around the world in western Ukraine found themselves not solely in control of their computer terminals. Someone from outside the utilities had taken over the controls and started opening circuit breakers at more than 27 substations, cutting power to more than 200,000 customers. Thousands of fake calls clogged utility switchboards, preventing people from phoning in to get information about the outage. Utility workers switched to manual operations, and it took three hours to restore power.

That’s not a movie plot. And if you missed or forgot about that news report from last year, people who run electric utilities have not. Attention to cyber security at electric utilities has grown fast in the past few years, and the Ukraine attack pushed that trend into overdrive.

“It’s garnered a lot of attention from the federal government and throughout the industry,” says Barry Lawson, associate director of power delivery and reliability for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

A big part of Lawson’s job is helping the nearly 1,000 electric co-ops in the country understand digital-age dangers and ensuring that they know how to protect and secure the power supply, electric grid and co-op members and employees from internet mischief.

Electric co-ops show they do understand the importance of cyber security, says Cynthia Hsu, cyber security program manager for business and technology strategies at NRECA.

“Electric co-ops were the first utilities to test and use the U.S. Department of Energy’s cyber security self-assessment tool,” Hsu says. “They are often on the cutting edge of implementing best practices to improve their cyber security capabilities.”

While the Ukraine cyber attack has been studied in-depth by U.S. utilities and the federal Department of Homeland Security, most analysts see a large-scale attack by hackers as unlikely to succeed in this country. The reports characterize the Ukraine attack as extremely well planned and coordinated, but not technically sophisticated.

The Ukraine incident actually started as early as March of last year when utility workers received emails with Microsoft Office documents, such as an Excel spreadsheet, from the Ukrainian parliament. But the emails were not from the Ukrainian parliament. When workers followed the email instructions asking them to click on a link to “enable macros,” malicious malware embedded in the documents, called BlackEnergy 3, secretly infected the system. Among other capabilities, BlackEnergy 3 can enable an adversary to observe and copy all the keystrokes made on the infected computers, giving hackers passwords and other login information needed to access the utility’s operations control systems.

Defenses against that kind of attack are pretty basic, and you probably even heard the warnings yourself: Don’t click on any links or attachments unless you were expecting the message to be sent to you. Utilities are increasing their efforts to enhance and formalize their security plans, processes and controls. New cyber security standards require upgraded levels of training for utility operators, multiple layers of security to shield operational and control systems from the internet and even stricter procedures for visitor access — physical and electronic — to control rooms. These utilities are regularly audited for cyber security compliance, and regulators, such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, can levy strict penalties for not following standards.

NRECA’s Lawson describes an example of one type of security technology: a security token — a physical device operator’s would carry with them that changes their password every 30 seconds.

NRECA also worked with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop software called Essence, which constantly monitors a utility’s system for even a microsecond of irregularity that might indicate some kind of hacking attempt or malware is interfering with the system.

With all that attention on keeping the electricity flowing, there’s also another major cyber threat receiving high-priority attention from electric co-ops: protecting data and critical utility information to avoid identity theft of members’ information. Lawson says some co-ops hire firms to periodically try to hack into their computer systems so the co-op can identify and fix the holes in its security.

Lawson describes a scary world of cyber terrorists, organized crime, issue-oriented groups or just kids in their basements seeing what kind of trouble they can cause on the internet. At the same time he compares those high-tech threats to risks posed by hurricanes or the everyday need to pay attention to safety at the electric cooperative. Co-ops regularly use risk assessment and management practices to balance a wide range of threats to their systems.

“Physical security and cyber security are becoming just another cost of doing business,” Lawson says. “You’ll never be 100 percent secure, and all you can do is try your best to keep up with the bad guys. It’s a fact of life in these days and times we’re living in.”

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

EnergyWise Works with State to Develop Efficiency Project

Over the last several weeks, CREA and several of our co-op members have met with various state and federal agencies to develop a pilot energy efficiency project as part of CREA’s Colorado EnergyWise Project. The pilot program will be known as the Colorado Dairy and Irrigation Efficiency Program and will involve four co-ops at the pilot stage (Morgan County, Poudre Valley, United Power and Highline Electric).
Our co-ops will be partnering with the state’s Colorado Energy Office to perform audits of the operations of co-op member-owners with the goal of installing energy-saving equipment at selected dairy barns and irrigation systems. Using a grant from the Department of Energy, the Colorado Energy Office will fund 12 audits and from those audits select farming operations where it makes sense to install new motors or lighting to improve energy efficiency.