Practical and Honest: WEC’s Pledge For Addressing Outages (GM Report)

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WEC General Manager’s Report

By Louis Porter

With increasingly severe storms causing more damage to electrical infrastructure across Vermont, I hope to have a conversation with WEC members at our Annual Meeting about winter outages, and how we as members respond to them, both individually and collectively through our Cooperative.

Outages, particularly those in the winter, are understandably one of the greatest concerns for WEC members. This is true now more than ever, with the increased damage from storms, with more members working or going to school from home, and with greater reliance on electrical power for heating, transportation, and other needs.

We at WEC are making changes in our operations, our system, and our technology that will help reduce the severity and duration of outages. Having heard from members that they would like to know more about when their power will return, we have begun putting such restoration estimates on our outage maps when we have enough information, although we know it is difficult to make such estimates accurately. 

We are now using electronic communication and computer systems more than in the past, both to communicate with crews in the field and to manage our knowledge of and response to outages. Over the next few years, with help from a state grant, we plan on installing a new metering system which will provide us with better, faster, and more complete information about what is happening on our system.

On our grid we are making changes as well, such as working towards federal funding to upgrade lines which are particularly problematic, using different types of lines and construction, and exploring grant funding to install battery storage. WEC already places lines underground in some areas, and we will continue to do so where it makes sense, although our territory can make this approach challenging.

Members have also told us that during major outages, they are more concerned about how long it takes to restore power than the cost of restoring it. In major storms over the last two years, we have made greater use of outside crews, allowing us to turn the power back on sooner. This comes at a cost, however. We have spent close to $1 million or more in each of the last two winters on restoration efforts. As members know, electric bills are where we pay for these costs.

Members have told us that during major outages, they are more concerned about how long it takes to restore power than the cost of restoring it.

One thing we do not plan on doing is hiring crews ahead of time in anticipation of outages. While this could be helpful in big storms when utilities around the region are competing to contract available crews, given the size of our territory it is likely that we would at times hire such crews ahead of time but not have the damage necessary to utilize them. As one example, in a pair of storms in January of this year we anticipated major damage, but both times the weather hit all around our territory, causing outages for other utilities, especially Vermont Electric Cooperative, but not in WEC’s territory. If we had hired outside crews ahead of time we would have spent a lot of members’ money needlessly.

Individual and collective outage preparation in our part of Vermont

I also want to be honest about a reality that I think we need to collectively be prepared for. A rural electrical utility, with among the lowest number of members per mile of line in New England, serving a mountainous, tree covered territory, is going to experience outages and some of those outages will last a substantial amount of time. As your cooperatively owned utility, WEC has a responsibility to prepare for and respond to those events. But members have their own responsibility to individually prepare for them as well, for their own sakes as well as their family and their neighbors.

WEC exists because our part of Vermont was, and remains, rural, with miles of forests and field often separating houses and farms. We all live here because we love that landscape, and because, perhaps paradoxically, we love the deep connections between people when they live scattered across rugged, weather-dependent, country. But living in such a place comes with its own costs and challenges. Services, including roads, law enforcement and emergency assistance, communications and certainly electrical power, are different here and place demands on us collectively and individually.

That means planning and preparing for storms which are going to knock out power for lengthy periods, up to days at a time. Long-standing members of WEC know that living in the country requires a level of self-sufficiency foreign to those who live in urban or suburban areas. It means having an alternative source of heat, having food and water, and having a generator if uninterrupted electrical power is essential. Most important of all, it means having a plan to help neighbors who may not be able to take care of such things themselves. 

I hear from members occasionally about Green Mountain Power’s plan to make massive investments in their system to reduce outages. The Vermont utilities have great working relationships with each other, including with GMP, and we will carefully watch and learn from their approach. Some of what they do will make sense for us to emulate and some will not for cost or other reasons.

WEC’s territory is uniquely rural, but the challenges of being a rural utility customer are not. While we had a massive outage on Christmas of 2022, both GMP and VEC have experienced outages that lasted many days in the last year or so through which the WEC system came through relatively easily. So much depends on where and how the weather hits, what kind of impacts it causes, and how long storms last.

So come to our Annual Meeting, held this year at the Barre Auditorium to provide additional space, and let us know what you think and what you would like us to do. WEC member and weather guru Roger Hill will come and tell us what he has learned about weather, power lines, and how they interact, and we will have a discussion about how individual members and our communities can prepare for these difficult and disruptive events.

I won’t promise that WEC members will not experience outages or that there will not be outages that last for extended periods of time because I don’t think that is realistic. I can promise that we will hire the most dedicated people to work for you, that we will use all practical approaches to prevent and restore outages, and that we will be honest with you about the cost and the success of those measures.