When major storms occur, electric cooperatives have always depended upon other co-ops in the network to help handle widespread outages. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed that—but does present logistical challenges for mutual aid efforts.

“There have been numerous discussions about transportation, lodging, crew assignments, meal preparation and distribution and increasing reliance upon crews from neighboring co-ops,” said Martha Duggan, NRECA’s senior director of regulatory affairs.

Duggan said co-op officials from statewide associations began working on approaches to mutual aid that addressed public health concerns when the pandemic took hold earlier this year.

“Several statewides have already adopted travel restrictions requiring that mutual aid crews be housed in their home states,” says Duggan. “When feasible, visiting personnel are being housed in individual rooms, and clean linens are distributed at a central location in the hotel to reduce the need for hotel staff to visit rooms.”

Early season hurricanes and the Aug. 10 derecho that swept across several Midwestern states have triggered regional responses, mobilizing co-op crews and contractors to assist with power restoration and repair storm damage in hard-hit areas.

When remnants of Hurricane Isaias moved through Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative’s service territory, tropical storm-force winds knocked out power to about 4,600 of the New Jersey co-op’s members, triggering a mutual aid response that involved crews from five co-ops in Pennsylvania.

“Our people stayed socially distant from mutual aid crews brought in from other jurisdictions,” said Claudia Raffay, SREC’s director of marketing and member services. “Each crew was assigned a point of contact who shadowed them on every work assignment and helped guide them around our territory.

“That person might have been a staker, not involved in actual restoration work, who kept in communication with visiting crews to make sure they had the equipment and materials they needed.”

Raffay said the social distancing and crew sequestration measures that the co-op has employed throughout the pandemic have been the basis for hosting its mutual aid response crews.

Similar approaches were employed in New England, where New Hampshire Electric Cooperative received help from several utilities in the region as well as co-ops from as far away as Virginia.

“At the peak of outages Aug. 5, we had 37,000 of our 85,000 members without power— about 40% of the membership,” said Seth Wheeler, spokesman for the Plymouth, New Hampshire-based distribution co-op. “This was a destructive storm that caused about 2,000 separate outages, nearly all of which were due to trees and limbs falling on wires. Despite the challenges, we restored power to all members within three days.”

Co-ops and their statewide associations have not only been talking to each other about seasonal reliability challenges exacerbated by the pandemic; they’ve also been sharing information from others in the utility industry.

“Much of how things are done during COVID-19 have been worked out over more than six months with a joint effort of the Edison Electric Institute, the American Public Power Association and NRECA,” said Wheeler.

Those associations work with federal interests such as the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council to identify grid risks and solutions, which now include pandemic response measures.

“As storms have hit different areas of the country, lessons learned are shared amongst this group,” Wheeler said.

Additional considerations are being given to concerns raised by co-ops dispatching visiting crews to help in distant areas. Those arrangements have included rules on lodging, feeding and assignments.

“We’ve been moving crews as a unit and documenting where everyone has been in case contact tracing is needed,” said Wheeler. “Once a lineman is on a pole, he’s in less COVID-19 danger, so we focus on the parts of the job that bring people together: early morning safety meetings, meals and lodging.”

The derecho that moved through parts of the Midwest earlier this month caused substantial damage in Iowa. During its initial damage assessment, Central Iowa Power Cooperative reported 575 transmission structures damaged or destroyed and over 100 substations serving its member distribution co-ops out of service.

“We realized that the material needed for restoration was 10 times more than the inventory we had on hand,” said Dawn Sly-Terpstra, vice president of member relations for the Cedar Rapids-based generation and transmission cooperative. “CIPCO received mutual aid from G&Ts in Iowa and nearby states.”

Equipment and lineworkers from Dairyland Power Cooperative, Corn Belt Power Cooperative, Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative and Northeast Missouri Electric Power Cooperative began arriving in CIPCO’s territory after 100 mph winds subsided. A contractor from Minnesota already working with CIPCO converted work to power restoration.

“Most of them stayed all week,” said Sly-Terpstra, “They worked through some hot Midwestern August days.”

Distribution co-ops also received help rebuilding parts of their damaged systems. About 58,000 meters served by eight distribution co-ops were knocked out by the storm.

“All of Iowa’s electric cooperatives offered mutual aid to those in need,” said Scott Meinecke, director of safety and loss control for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives. “Electric co-ops from Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin also helped with the massive restoration effort.”

In many instances, crews from neighboring states or less affected co-ops worked outages in areas as close to their home territories as possible, reducing the need for overnight stays. They also maintained contact with the host co-ops they were assisting by cellphone or teleconferencing for social distancing purposes.

About 200 co-op lineworkers were involved in the initial restoration effort, and local crews are expected to spend the next several weeks making permanent repairs on their systems.

Pandemic precautions have had some impact on the general pace of restoration following major outages. Work briefings are being conducted at jobsites, fueling and yard pickups are being scheduled to maintain social distancing, and box meal distributions have replaced group feedings.

“When you have to disperse crews and handle most communications electronically, it can slow the pace of restoration, but it helps reduce the risks,” said Gerald Gordon, vice president of safety and loss control for the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi.

Co-ops in the state took that into consideration when they worked to complete restoration after more than 40 tornadoes strafed the state over Easter weekend in April. Safety, loss and training officials in other states have urged co-ops to disclose some of the changes to members.

“We’ve got to make sure members understand that crews may be traveling more and spending less time on restoration, so some of the work could take longer,” said Larry Detwiler, director of loss control, safety and compliance for Kansas Electric Cooperatives. “Restoring power safely means keeping the crews doing the work safe, too.”