Q&A with Vern Johnson
Remember the January 2019 polar vortex? Several co-ops experienced power outages. We asked Vern Johnson, COO and VP of Operations, to answer a few winter outage questions.
Why do winter power outages happen?
In the winter, outages typically come down to three things: precipitation, wind, and temperature. When ice and snow accumulate on trees, or when winds are high, tree branches can bend and break onto power lines. And very cold temperatures cause metal (such as power lines and line connections) to contract and sometimes break.
Why don’t we just bury the lines to prevent these outages?
While burying power lines would protect them from ice and wind, frost can still disrupt power. Soil movement from frost heaves can break underground power lines. And don’t forget, it takes a lot longer to locate and repair outages on underground lines.
Do we supplement with wind and solar during cold snaps?
You may remember hearing that wind turbines were shut off proactively to prevent damage to them during last winter’s polar vortex, so wind energy is not always feasible. As far as solar, we tend to have pretty cloudy winters in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Cold weather can halt energy production at wind farms and, as we saw last January, even restrict the availability of natural gas. This makes power plants like Coal Creek Station—operated by our power supplier, Great River Energy—particularly important.
How can I prepare for a winter outage?
We depend on electricity for heat and hot water. During extreme weather, however, reliable electricity means so much more. If you rely on electricity for a medical device (like an oxygen machine), make it a point to have alternative plans. If you use a generator during an outage, make sure it’s properly ventilated and ensure the building is disconnected from our system by opening an approved transfer switch. Finally, keep plenty of food, medicine and bottled water on hand. Items like trail mix, canned fruit and crackers can make for a tasty meal in a pinch.