Helping Hands from Outage Restoration Teams

By Mona Neeley, CCL Editor

Being part of a large network is never more important than when a natural disaster hits an electric cooperative. Take, for example, when the monstrous and destructive East Troublesome Fire swept through Grand County and Mountain Parks Electric’s service territory in October. The 60 employees of the area’s local electric cooperative were not on their own.

MPE is a small, local, independent organization that serves Grand and Jackson counties as well as parts of Larimer, Routt and Summit counties in the central mountains of Colorado. But the co-op is not totally on its own when disaster strikes. It is part of a network of electric co-ops that all adhere to the sixth cooperative principle: cooperation among cooperatives.

With a call to the Colorado Rural Electric Association, the electric co-ops’ statewide trade association, the word was out that MPE needed assistance. Just a couple days later utility trucks from electric co-ops across the state rolled in to Granby. Crews of lineworkers were there to assist MPE in getting the backbone of its system back on line so that the local crews and hired contractors could then methodically replace and repair individual services and infrastructure.

Crews from neighboring electric co-ops assist in getting power lines restored after a summer storm on the eastern plains.

The same thing happened back in June when the derecho made meteorological news as it ripped across Colorado with its thunderstorms and extreme wind gusts. Tens of thousands of Colorado electric co-op consumer-members were without power in territories served by Highline Electric Association in Holyoke, K.C. Electric Association in Hugo, Morgan County Rural Electric Association in Fort Morgan, Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association in Fort Collins, Southeast Colorado Power Association in Lamar, United Power in Brighton, Y-W Electric Association in Akron and Yampa Valley Electric Association in Steamboat Springs.

But as soon as the windstorm was over, electric co-ops across Colorado and western Nebraska that had not been affected by the storm stepped up to assist in safely getting the lights back on for these co-ops. Neighboring co-ops that could spare a crew, sent it to help. Contractors, who supplement co-op crews on projects throughout the year, made their crews available.

That quick response from other co-ops comes from a combination of a centuries-old co-op tradition and agreements among electric cooperatives.

Lineworkers prepare to get the poles and lines back up in a neighborhood affected by the East Troublesome Fire.

This help is needed, especially by smaller co-ops, because these large natural disasters (such as wildfires, derechos, ice storms, blizzards and tornadoes) that cause devastation is more than many local electric co-ops can quickly repair on their own. When multiple areas in a co-op’s service territory are without electricity and there are only four or five crews available to restore the system, electric co-ops depend on other co-ops in their state and national network for assistance.

The residents of Grand County saw crews from Highline Electric, Gunnison County Electric Association in Gunnison, Southeast Colorado Power Association, United Power and White River Electric Association in Meeker arrive October 26. They came from all corners of the state as part of a plan called a “mutual aid agreement.” And San Miguel Power Association in Nucla arrived a couple days later, once it was determined that more help was needed.

“It is a natural extension of who we are,” says Kent Singer, executive director of CREA. “Helping each other is something we do naturally as part of our co-op family and our culture.”

An agreement is one thing, but success means carrying it out effectively. To that end, electric co-ops rely on planning and shared experiences, says Dale Kishbaugh, CREA director of safety and loss control. Colorado’s electric co-ops spend time planning for disasters, talking through the what-ifs of problems and sharing experiences with each other as they meet regularly to keep procedures updated.

The response to the East Troublesome Fire came together relatively quickly after that fire took a turn and developed a speed no one expected. Once it burned through the system and MPE knew where it lost its lines, the response was quick but planned, with the idea that when mutual aid crews arrived the work could begin and materials would be available.

With other natural disasters, even with other wildfires, that planning can often start before the disaster actually strikes. For example, weather predictions can give a co-op notice of a possible blizzard or ice storm. Then materials can be readied and preliminary assistance can be arranged.

Another example is the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest fire in Colorado history, which ignited in August and was still only 92% contained at magazine deadline. While dangerous and, at times, unpredictable, it burned at a slower pace than the East Troublesome Fire. This gave Poudre Valley REA crews opportunities to prepare for where the fire might burn through its system.

Before the fire arrived, PVREA lineworkers wrapped poles in high-risk areas with fire protection materials. They met regularly with incident command to determine where the electric system might be affected and where the co-op might need to de-energize lines. Once the fire burned through an area and it was deemed safe to enter that area, PVREA crews and contractors got right to work replacing burned poles and restringing power lines. They were prepared and, this time, PVREA did not have to rely on the mutual aid agreement. But that agreement was there and could be used if needed.

No electric co-op has to go it alone. Each independent, local co-op is part of the electric co-op family, part of a statewide and nationwide network of electric co-ops, all ready to lend a hand to get the lights back on safely wherever they go out.

Mona Neeley is the publisher and editor of Colorado Country Life magazine.

NRECA’s Essence Tool Guarding Grid

By Cathy Cash, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

It was the perfect setup: remote, rustic and with a real electric grid ripped by sabotage.

The question for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association was how Essence, a tool it developed to monitor the grid, would facilitate a so-called “blackstart,” restoring power amid a ruined transmission network where cyber mayhem lurks.

To find out, NRECA’s chief scientist Craig Miller and senior research engineer Stan McHann, along with other electric utility technology experts, participated in a drill organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on Plum Island, New York.

The 840-acre island, about three miles off Long Island’s coast, has its own utilities and a dozen high-voltage substations. It holds shuttered federal defense facilities dating back 100 years and a midcentury laboratory to test diseases in farm animals.

“It was not a tabletop exercise. It was a physical problem with small substations and utility control centers. We needed to restore power to them and synchronize them to the grid,” Miller said.

DARPA created Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS) to explore ways to resolve prolonged outages wrought by disasters like earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes or cyberattacks, where networks are destroyed and utility crews are gone.

November’s RADICS exercise was a key test of the technology.

“DARPA is very interested in Essence as part of the solution to deal with catastrophic failure of the grid across a large region of the country,” Miller said. “This exercise focused on how Essence can help restore a massive outage.”

Essence provides a constant monitor of activity on the electric grid. Sensors gather thousands of data points and anything abnormal shows up quickly.

“Essence tells us what’s up and what’s not and what’s behaving accurately or atypically. It monitors voltage for stability and the physics of the grid. ‘Malware’ could show up and it detects it instantly on the network,” he said.

NRECA plans to release Essence to potential commercialization customers for evaluation in April, Miller said. Before that, adjustments will be made to make the tool more “utility-friendly” by delivering only the most salient information to utility staff, enabling them to respond faster to grid incidents.

NRECA has been working with electric co-ops in developing Essence to provide “situational awareness on both the electrical and the cyberfront of the grid,” Miller said. Through tests with co-ops, the tool has prevented cyberattacks, overloading of transformers and possible fires.

That’s what co-ops face every day: the reality of keeping the lights on while keeping threats at bay.

NRECA was involved in each of RADICS’s four exercises, but Miller said the recent Plum Island test brought “a new intensity.

“It tasked us with learning what the utility people want to know and when. There were no coffee breaks. You did not get lunch. You were under pressure,” he said.

Pummeled with wind and rain, McHann, the only member of the NRECA team on Plum Island, arrived by ferry and hiked the island to install Essence equipment on substations and perform local analysis of devices and sensors. He had to pack enough gear and food in case inclement weather kept him on the test site overnight.

On top of the sheer physical reconstruction of the grid, participants also had to battle cyberattacks that pushed misinformation and fouled communications.

“Whatever DARPA threw at us, we had to keep that critical asset electrified,” McHann said. “Our job is to take those hard problems, break them down and design technology to solve them. It was not a simulated environment. It was a very real environment.”

As part of the exercise, one goal was to maintain power to a building that had previously been used for government research. “The building had been abandoned and sealed for over 50 years. Our job was to ‘restore power’ to it,” said Miller, who worked from a control center in Long Island.

Red, yellow and green “air dancers,” often seen flailing at car dealerships, puddled beside buildings targeted for power restoration. “When power came on, they stood up,” said Miller. “It was fun.”

Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.

Eastern Colorado Co-op SCADA/AMI Team in Capable Hands

Reliability and timeliness are what drives Fort Morgan-based Morgan County Rural Electric Association’s SCADA/AMI team. Led by Ray Mann, the team monitors outages through the system, which allows the co-op to proactively deal with power outages quickly — in some instances, even before the member knows the power is out.

SCADA — supervisory control and data acquisition — is a control system architecture that uses technology such as computers and other peripheral devices including programmable controllers to interface with electrical substations. AMI — advanced metering infrastructure — are electrical meters in homes and businesses that measure electrical consumption, and also can communicate with the MCREA network to report measurements. The hardware and software monitor the electrical infrastructure throughout MCREA’s service territory and communicate system status to the control center at MCREA headquarters.

Not only does the system technology restore power quickly, the issue can often be resolved without having to send a serviceman or lineman to the location of the outage. This has the potential to cut vehicle use and fuel consumption, as well as save the cooperative labor costs.

Mann reports that even with the upgraded technology, communication from co-op members is still extremely important, especially in widespread outages. MCREA even has a texting service for members to report outages, which further promotes their innovative approach to serving co-op members.

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