BISMARCK, N.D. - Ice storms are an unplanned event, but in rural North Dakota, Rural Electric Cooperatives (RECs) have come to expect such storms as one of the hazards Mother Nature can dish out each winter. "It is a fact of life these outages will happen." according to Gary Allen of Northern Plains Electric Cooperative. "When ice comes into the mix, the combination of wind and ice can bring the entire system to its knees."
As RECs strive to provide uninterrupted service to customers, complications arising from severe storms can create unique challenges. Ice storms may present loading, a condition in which ice encircles lines the size of your little finger with 1" to 3" of ice. This weighs down lines previously compromised by stretching, or may actually fracture the lines where splices are located. Ice can also build on poles and when combined with high winds snap them like toothpicks.
Northern Plains Electric Cooperative and Dakota Valley Electric Cooperative have been trailblazers in undergrounding wires in recent years. Three separate projects have resulted in burying several miles of lines that have been problematic and required costly repairs on several occasions. By burying the lines there is no longer the concern that they will come down in an ice storm, or any of the other type of inclement weather that North Dakota can dish out.
The projects were funded by the FEMA's Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, a national competitive grant program. Several more RECs will look to follow that lead after damage that occurred following severe storms in January and April of this year. This time, mitigation funding is available as part of the federal disaster declarations and the competition for funds is only within the state.
Such efforts have paid real dividends for the state. According to Mitigation Specialist Ray Morrell of the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services for every $1 spent on mitigation projects in North Dakota $7 is saved in future losses averted.
Mitigation allows for repairs and/or improvements outside the scope of a normal operating budget. Replacing lines within a normal operating budget could potentially take away from something else important that needs to be done. Additionally, mitigation serves to reduce future problems.
"Mitigation offers peace of mind to consumers, wherein they enjoy a cost savings benefit, can expect minimal downtime, a reduction of repair times and improved reliability," said Allen.
Don't expect to see visible sign of the mitigation project. Rather than broken and twisted utility poles, chances are what you will see are delighted farmers who have regained usable land, unobstructed by poles and guy-wires and now filled by waves of alfalfa, wheat or colorful canola fields.