A rural Vermont utility crew confronts a surprise outage, and a changing climate
Last week there was a storm of wet heavy snow in areas throughout Vermont, with power outages all around the state. Independent producer Erica Heilman stopped by the Washington Electric Co-op to find out what it sounds like from the inside.
Washington Electric Member Services: "Good afternoon, Washington Electric. Can you hold for just one moment please? Sure. What's the last name on the account?"
This is the sound of a power outage in mid-April. Because of snow.
Washington Electric Member Services: "We certainly advise you to prepare as though that you're going to be without…"
The Washington Electric Co-op is based in East Montpelier, but its members live in 41 towns all the way from Greensboro to Tunbridge. Mostly they cover the most rural and hardest-to-reach places.
Here's director of engineering and operations Dave Kresock, about 14 hours into the outage:
Dave Kresock: "Today's problem was the wet heavy snow. We had crew out last night at about 1:33 in the morning. And then about six o'clock this morning, that's when the you-know-what hit the fan. And at peak earlier today, we were a little over 2,700 members out. But the thing that's unique about this one is rather than just one big outage at a substation, say, it's a lot of little ones everywhere throughout our territory.
"So basically, it's the 'tree effect.' Think of it as a large tree that, you know, the base of the trunk is a substation, the main line is the trunk. And then as it branches out at all the side roads, and you know, cross country to different homes and areas. If that tree is cut off, everything else is going to be dead."
"There is a learning curve. I think people who move to Vermont … they like the quality of Vermont, the ruralness. But I think a lot of people tend to fall back to where they came from. And they want to see those big city kinds of things, you know, that just don't exist in Vermont."
Erica Heilman: "Have you noticed that there's a certain learning curve among your newer customers who maybe are coming from out of state?"
Dave Kresock: "Yes. Yeah. There is a learning curve. I think people who move to Vermont … they like the quality of Vermont, the ruralness. But I think a lot of people tend to fall back to where they came from. And they want to see those big city kinds of things, you know, that just don't exist in Vermont."
This is member services supervisor Susan Golden.
Erica Heilman: "What do you hear back here from customers?"
Susan Golden: "Frustration, obviously. A lot of times people don't understand why an outage like this happens. It doesn't look that bad out, the snow wasn't that deep and that sort of thing. And also why they can't just be brought up immediately.
"The fact that we had close to 2,600 folks out and a lot of isolated outages make it slow-going. So when you start telling people that they could be out for three days, they're not happy."
Louis Porter is the general manager of Washington Electric. He cleared away some cups and work gloves and some chainsaw oil from the front seat of his truck, and we drove out to one of these far-flung outages in Moretown.
Louis Porter: "So the Co-op, like a lot of rural electrical co-ops, was founded because the for-profit power companies serve the areas where there was the densest population, where you could make more money for less investment in poles and wires. And so after a lot of those territories had been built out, the folks who are sort of left behind — and in this part of Vermont, a lot of farmers — got together and decided to start their own electrical utilities to provide service to themselves.
"And so you have these areas where there are relatively few customers or members per mile, serving electricity to these hard-to-reach areas with few customers per mile to pay to support those power lines and poles. And, there's 35 or 36 people responsible for keeping electricity going 24/7 to about 12,000 households in 41 towns. So that's, yeah, you can imagine that's a lot different situation than Burlington Electric Department."
"We're simultaneously occupying a very old kind of stodgy business on one hand, and then the other hand, trying to adapt and make it possible to do all the things we want electricity to do for us, particularly given the threat of climate change."
Erica Heilman: "So the obstacles that residents don't visualize or imagine are … what?"
Louis Porter: "Well, just the small number of members per mile is a big one. But another one that people don't think about is when the farmers got together to make this co-op, they strung the lines in the shortest possible distance.
"So a lot of times that's not next to the road, you know, that's through woods and fields. And when they strung them all with horses, that wasn't a big deal. But it means that linemen for Washington Electric Co-op have to snowshoe or, or snowmobile or ATV out there, and then they've got to climb the poles instead of using a bucket truck. It's interesting because we, and other electric co-ops, are simultaneously living at kind of the forefront of this revolution in energy. Distributed generation through net metering and battery backup and electric vehicles and smart electric systems for your home and heat pumps, hot water heaters and all the rest of it.
"But at the same time ... there's physical realities. The wire has to be connected to the next pole and the next pole and the next pole and the next pole in order for that electricity to get to people. So we're simultaneously occupying a very old kind of stodgy business on one hand, and then the other hand, trying to adapt and make it possible to do all the things we want electricity to do for us, particularly given the threat of climate change."
We arrive at some downed wires, along a way-out road on a way-up hill in Moretown. There was a burning tree and downed lines snaking around on the ground in the slush. Amos Turner, the construction foreman, was there with his team planning the repair. I asked Amos to describe these rural areas he services and the members he serves.
Amos Turner: "So you get outside of what you want to call them — like metropolitan areas — the attitude changes. It's a little more relaxed, and the people are a little more understanding. And I think a lot of them still kind of remember how the co-op came about, you know, serving those who no one else wanted to. That's why we're here."
Erica Heilman: "So you also are connected to that idea … that that’s what the co-op is …"
Amos Turner: "Oh sure. Yeah. We’re member-owned. I mean, you're a member. You're my boss."
Erica Heilman: "I am."
Amos Turner: "You know, Louis is a member. Donnie is a member. You know, we don't take that for granted. We realize that what we're doing isn't so much just the big conglomerate of somebody trying to make a dollar. We're trying to provide a service to rural Vermont, or Vermonters, you know. So that's a good thing."
"We realize that what we're doing isn't so much just the big conglomerate of somebody trying to make a dollar. We're trying to provide a service to rural Vermont, or Vermonters, you know."
Amos Turner: "That don’t look bad Donnie!"
Louis Porter: "How many car pole accidents do you get in a year?"
Amos Tuner: "They go in spurts."
Louis Porter: "Oh really?"
Amos Turner: "Yeah."
Louis Porter: "Fourth of July?"
Erica Heilman: "Prom?"
Amos Turner: "No, I've never been to a prom one. God, that would be sad."
Erica Heilman: "Yeah. I have a son who’s going to prom soon, so …"
Amos Turner: "Tell him not to run into any poles."
Louis Porter: "I got other prom advice but I won’t give it."
Amos Turner: "All right. We're gonna put the power back on."
Erica Heilman: "Thanks."
Amos Turner: "You're welcome."