EAST MONTPELIER — Washington Electric Cooperative has received $8.13 million in federal funding for infrastructure maintenance of its electrical network.
WEC will use the funds to perform routine maintenance and “harden” its electrical network and enhance “smart grid” technologies that allow WEC to communicate with customers about outages and peak-load programs, according to co-op officials.
The funding is part of $1.4 billion from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for projects in 21 states to build and improve rural electric infrastructure. It was announced Friday.
USDA will provide financing through the Electric Loan Program for projects on 6,886 miles of line to strengthen reliability in rural areas, according to a statement released the department. The loans include $255.8 million for investments nationwide in smart grid infrastructure that uses digital communications technology to detect and react to local changes in electricity usage.
“Modern and reliable electric infrastructure has been a cornerstone to rural prosperity since the Rural Electrification Act of 1936,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “This funding we are providing is critical to rural communities and reflects President Trump’s commitment to increasing prosperity across all of rural America. When rural America thrives, all of America thrives.”
Patricia Richards, general manager of WEC, welcomed the news.
“We are borrowing funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and as a cooperative that was our original funding source in the late 1930s when we came online as an entity,” Richards said. “So we borrow from the USDA on a regular basis and the funds will be used for maintenance purposes — regular maintenance in terms of replacing older poles, wire that met its useful life and doing planned upgrades to our system.”
Richards said the work would take place through a four-year period and would focus primarily on existing infrastructure.
“For example, we will go and check on our inventory of utility poles that we hang wires and transformers on, and we will do core samples of those poles to check the health of them to make sure that they can still stand in terms of weight,” Richards said. “There is a certain number of poles that need to be replaced, so a lot of the funding goes toward our construction work plan, which is the maintenance of our entire system.”
Richards said the funding of smart grid technologies would also help WEC stay in touch with customers during emergencies and peak periods of electrical use.
“That will be work relative to our outage management system, so improved communications to our members during outages, the ability to manage consumers loads that participate in peak-load programs — basically a two-way communication stream with them — and general infrastructure and software improvements,” Richards said.
WEC serves about 10,800 customers and manages about 1,322 miles of line in Orange, Orleans, Washington and Caledonia counties.
News of the funding follows last week’s windstorm that knocked out power to thousands of customers in Vermont, including WEC customers.
“We still have 91 customers out but at the height of the storm we were 5,800 customers out, so we’ve restored power to many,” Richards said on Tuesday. “I know it’s hard to be last on the list to be restored and some of these folks have been out several days but we’re making our way through and we should have everyone online (Tuesday).”
Responding to reports that cable customers also had been adversely affected by storm damage in the WEC region, Richards said that cable companies use the same poles that carry WEC power lines but are independently responsible for maintaining cable service to customers.
“They connect to our poles but they’re responsible for putting up their wires after a storm,” Richards said.
Richards paid tribute to power line workers who work in difficult and dangerous conditions to respond to emergencies like last week’s storm.
“Our outside staff and crew are very dedicated, they work extremely hard and staff inside the building work extremely hard, and we’re just appreciative that our members are patient with us and we’re able to get people back online as soon as we can,” Richard said. “WEC serves a very rural and rugged terrain and we’re working hard to harden the system to make it more resilient during these extreme-weather events.”
Richards warned that increasing damage to the electrical infrastructure was a result of climate change and urged customers to prepare for outages.
“These weather events are increasing, not decreasing, in their extent and the extremeness of them,” Richards said. “We really encourage people to have a basic plan so that in the event the power goes out you have some idea what you’re going to do.”