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Keeping the lights on

What you need to know about power restoration

Photo: Tim Webb
Dispatcher Ben Burton in the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) room at South Kentucky RECC. Photo: Tim Webb
Dispatcher Ben Burton in the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) room at South Kentucky RECC. Photo: Tim Webb
Blue Grass Energy Line Technician Russ Drury. Photo: Tim Webb
Farmers RECC’s Brian Caswell wades in to retrieve a de-energized power line. Photo: Farmers RECC
Farmers RECC lineworkers are silhouetted against the sky as they work to replace two broken poles. Photo: Bill Prather
Chad Ferguson and Terry McCreary of Cumberland Valley Electric restore power during flooding in February. Photo: Jarrod Mills/The Times Tribune
South Kentucky RECC crews change out a broken pole in late March. Photo: South Kentucky RECC

Your electricity just went out.

Do you call your local electric co-op to tell them, or would that just tie up the phone lines and distract them from getting your power back on?

The short answer is yes, contact them, but be patient and don’t get frustrated—they’re busy mobilizing every resource to restore your service.

There’s a longer answer, of course, and knowing more could turn you into a member of the restoration team and maybe even get power back on sooner.

No surprise, a power outage is nothing new for co-ops. They train for it, they’re staffed for it and they’ve got a system and a plan to follow. Even in the most uncertain times, like the COVID-19 pandemic, co-ops have a plan in place and are prepared to respond to get your power back on as quickly as possible.

That system has been tested over decades and is designed to keep people safe in the process. It’s grown even more effective with new technology, and it works—after all, odds are your lights are on right now. Americans on average have electricity ready at the flip of a switch 99.977% of the time.

Each of Kentucky’s 24 distribution electric co-ops follows similar power restoration steps, but uses different reporting procedures and tools. In general, here’s how that power restoration system works, along with tips that can make you part of the solution to getting the electricity flowing again.

Contacting your co-op with a purpose

What co-ops need in an outage is information—if you see a wire on the ground, they need to know immediately. But long conversations can tie up the lines without solving the problem. Tim Sharp, president and CEO of Salt River Electric, a co-op in the middle part of the state, explains it this way:

“Members will call us within five minutes of something happening, and their main questions are do you know what the problem is, and how long is it going to be? As much as we would like to answer those questions, 99 times out of 100 we have to say we don’t know. Today’s technologies allow us to know very quickly that our members are out of power, but they don’t tell us why.  

“Until we are able to determine what has caused the problem, it is impossible to give any estimate of how long it will take to fix. Members can be a great help in determining the problem if they have specific information, such as a tree has fallen in front of my house and has the wires pinned to the ground. That type of information helps us isolate the problem quicker and ultimately results in a faster restoration time.”

To know whether you should make that call, it helps to realize that the steps your co-op takes to restore power come from a basic principle of electricity: it flows. If it’s not flowing to your house, your co-op needs to find what’s stopping that flow. These days, technology makes that a lot easier.

Behind the scenes

While repairing a line still takes an outdoor crew driving a bucket truck and climbing a pole, a central part of the electric utility system looks more like the Star Trek control room. Banks of TV monitors show weather maps and real-time schematic diagrams of the power lines in the area, blinking with status reports. The dispatcher at the desk often can spot an outage in seconds. A minor event, like a squirrel shorting out the line (something that happens a lot more than you can imagine), might trip a breaker that the dispatcher can fix with the flip of a switch, solving the problem so quickly you might not even notice it.

With bigger interruptions, like a truck running into a pole or a storm knocking down wires, that dispatcher becomes more like an air traffic controller, coordinating repair crews. And that’s where the restoration effort follows the flow of electricity. The source of the problem needs to be fixed first—damage at a substation that routes electricity to a large part of the county will be repaired before attending to a downed pole in your neighborhood.

So if there’s a widespread outage, chances are your co-op already knows about it. At some co-ops, technology also can help you decide whether to call in with your questions—online outage maps and text message systems can be conduits for reporting and finding out about the cause of the outage and repair time estimates. Not all power lines have outage detection ability, so contacting your co-op is crucial. If you see that all your neighbors have power restored and you don’t, you’ll want to report it. Contacting your co-op via their website or an app is often the fastest route, especially during a major outage when hundreds of others may be doing the same thing. If you call, be patient and kind, knowing you’ll be getting a busy signal for a while.

Restoring power—safely

An important part of the restoration process is safety, says Randy Meredith, safety and loss prevention instructor with Kentucky Electric Cooperatives.

“Procedures to make sure workers and the public are protected are worth the time it takes to implement them,” he says.

Meredith conducts regular training for workers across the state, helping make sure all the steps are second nature: taking the time to put on protective gloves; placing warning markers around work zones; holding a group briefing before starting work on a job. New technology helps make safety a more regular part of the work routine as well. These days you don’t need someone standing on site with a safety checklist on a clipboard—there’s an app for that. It’s called the S.A.F.E. app, for Stop and Focus Everyday, and all workers can have one on their smartphone.

Helping out repair crews

Lineworkers might need to access land through your property or a locked gate. Letting them through will speed restoration. Don’t distract them with long conversations. Keep in mind that they’re on the job of getting the lights back on in your house.

Planning ahead

Make sure your co-op has your updated information, like the correct name on your account and the correct address for all of your accounts—you don’t want a repair crew looking at the wrong building, or mistakenly traveling to your lake home. 

Don’t wait until an outage happens: check with your co-op ahead of an outage for the best way to let them know. Keep power line rights-of-way clear—keeping trees away from electric lines can prevent an outage from even happening.

Check with your co-op for correct installation procedures for standby generators. Improper use of generators can endanger line crews by feeding power back into a wire that workers thought was de-energized, or damage circuits in your home.

One sure thing

One certainty is that the workers at your co-op want your power back on as much as you do. As Kentucky Electric Cooperatives’ Meredith puts it, “Employees at the cooperatives know they’re there to get the lights back on and restore life to normal. That’s their reward. It’s their desire. That’s what they’re driven to do.”

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