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Co-op gathers members together for a cookout, connections, and engineering demonstration on a sunny September day

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September 10 was hot and sunny. But with almost 150 members expected for lunch, the grills were busy at WEC’s Operations Center, cooking burgers and chicken from local farms.

Typically, WEC hosts the Annual Meeting of the membership in early May, and holds a community meeting in one of the 41 towns it serves during baseball playoffs. In recent years, the Annual Meeting has been held in the Operations Center, which can hold hundreds in a space most members never otherwise get to see. The Operations Center is home to all the big trucks and equipment, an unelectrified span of poles and wires line crews use for practice, and a huge mural showing WEC’s landscape through the changing seasons.

But there hasn’t been a Co-op gathering since the community meeting held in Cabot in October 2019. As COVID restrictions began to lift this summer, WEC leaders saw an opportunity. The September cookout had no agenda as far as discussing Co-op business – this was a casual event. This was a time to meet new staff and board members, to talk with neighbors long unseen, to see bucket truck and electric vehicle demos, to enjoy good food and music together.

The staff and Board tasked with welcoming had all arrived in their positions at the Co-op since the last gathering. Apprentice Lineworkers Ryan Martel, Dylan Gagnon, and Christian Gagne, and Lineworker & Equipment Operator Donnie Singleton, cleaned and set up the huge garage, Board members Betsy Allen and Susan Alexander greeted guests and handed out name tags. Administrative Assistant Rosie Casciero ran the show. Outside, Engineering & Operations Director Dave Kresock and General Manager Louis Porter worked the blazing grills with support from former Board member Roy Folsom. Molly Porter lent a hand with just about everything, there to help her brother, the GM, throw a party.

Longtime Board and staff were also present, including President Steve Knowlton, Treasurer Don Douglas, and Mary Just Skinner; and Member Services Director Susan Golden, Plant Accountant Dawn Johnson, and Products & Services Director Bill Powell. Also present were Barry Bernstein and Annie Reed, who both recently stepped off WEC’s Board, and served for many years as President and Secretary, respectively.

After the assembled members had some time to eat and visit with each other, Porter and Knowlton gave brief remarks. “It’s good to see everyone in person after a long time of only seeing you on computer screens,” acknowledged Porter. He grew up with WEC electricity, and commented that he’s proud to be leading an unusual organization like WEC, which only exists because people “banded together to provide a service in a territory commercial entities declined to serve, and to do it in a transparent and democratic way,” he said. “I think that’s pretty neat.”

Knowlton spoke about the change in staff and on the Board of the Co-op, remarking on the service of former staff and Board, welcoming new additions, and warmly acknowledging internal moves. Teia Greenslit, he said, “a WEC stalwart” in the finance office for many years, is now Director of Finance & Administration. Dawn Johnson has moved from a front-facing role to Plant Accountant, “but is still the backbone of WEC,” he said.

Faces may change, but WEC is still the same WEC, he said, with the same values and mission: reliable power, at reasonable rates, with low environmental impact.

The music started, led by multi-instrumentalists Patrick Ross and Doug Perkins, whose live performances over Zoom provided the entertainment for two virtual Annual Meetings. Outside, the Apprentice Lineworkers began a gloving demo – showing how they can use a new tool called rubber gloving to work safely on an energized line. Dave Kresock commented, “We’ve been doing it for about three months and I can’t tell you how many outages we haven’t had to take.” Historically, WEC never worked on energized lines, he explained, so the power went off for all kinds of maintenance work. But, he said, some work can be done on energized lines, like taking out a transformer, as long as all safety precautions are in place. With a new policy and training, the practice means outages are down over last year. Sometimes, change really is good.

Monique Hayden, former Board member of Williamstown, took a behind-the-scenes tour of the warehouse with the lineworkers and was delighted to watch the gloving demo: “This allows them to work on hot lines so they don’t need to shut the power off. It’s a benefit to them. It’s a benefit to the customers of WEC. It’s a win-win-win. They’re so excited about that. It’s important to have that buy-in from employees,” she said. WEC boasts an outstanding safety record, and the crews work in all weather – wearing heavy gear in the hot sun, and going out on cold wet winter nights, she added. “We should all think about them when we turn the lights on. It was so good to talk to the guys about this.”

After the gloving demonstration, the lineworkers moved on to plucking a piece of equipment called a cutout from the top of a pole with a tool resembling a metal lobster claw on a 30-foot stick. The cutout is a tube about eight inches long, with a tiny fuse inside. Dave Kresock asked, “Can you imagine doing that in 30 mile an hour winds during a freezing rainstorm?”

The tool is called an extend-o-stick and it’s somewhat heavy – especially if you have to hold it up over your head in order to reach. You’re supposed to hook and retrieve the cutout with it and replace it the same way.

Once the cutout was at ground level, Apprentice Lineworker Ryan Martel showed it off. 

Kresock explained that a cutout is a protective device that, like a breaker in a house, opens when a line is overloaded. “It protects people from getting hurt and equipment damage by opening. This is often the loud bang folks hear when it does blow. It also gives line crews a visual indication as to where the trouble is during an outage and speeds up restoration,” he said.