Morrell Falls, Montana

A Proactive Approach to Outages

Posted: August 3, 2020
Mark Hayden
Mark Hayden, GM

As a member-owned utility, Missoula Electric Cooperative (MEC) strives to uphold a commitment of service excellence, while delivering safe, affordable, and reliable electricity to its members. When it comes to reliability, your Cooperative has made concentrated efforts to drastically reduce the number of nuisance outages and blinks that our members experience, year-over-year.

In the past, we solicited feedback from our members and the common consensus was to, “keep the lights on and the rates low.” This is feedback that we take to heart and work to achieve every day. At MEC, we are committed to our values and center strategic planning around our commitment of delivering the most reliable power and offering the highest quality of service to our members, because it’s what they want, need and deserve. With focus and continuous innovation and improvement, we strive to exceed our members’ expectations and add value to their lives.

When we talk about service reliability, the main goal is to reduce outages and service disruptions or blinks. Our areas of concentration over the past decade, and moving forward, are extending service to new members and businesses, maintaining our electrical network and planning and implementing system improvements to meet the needs of the cooperative and our membership.

Our SMART (Strategic Maintenance and Reliability Task force) Program, developed in 2013, was put in place to determine the causes of short, nuisance blinks and outages. This program, which involves a pole-to-pole inspection of our entire system every 10 years, has considerably reduced the frequency and length of outages. During inspection, crews install wildlife protection, replace aging porcelain cutouts and lightening arrestors, check connections and mark trees, that are encroaching on the lines, for clearing. This last step is especially important, because tree-related outages account for a significant percentage of our annual outage minutes.

Due to our mountainous service areas, trees and vegetation continue to be a primary cause of service interruptions. MEC’s Right-of-Way Clearance Program is significantly improving our service reliability. In 2018, we set an ambitious schedule and initiated the program to improve outage statistics and trim back vegetation from overhead lines, with a long-term goal of maintaining right-of-ways and cutting back trees throughout our entire system, every ten years. This aggressive approach not only helps us to improve reliability, but it greatly reduces the risk of powerline-caused wildfires.

Environmental responsibility is practiced in many ways at MEC. Not only are we focused on maintaining our electric system, but we’re also focused on mitigating the potential risk associated with powerline-sparked wildfires. A majority of our transmission lines are in, or within close proximity to, our forests, which makes our concentrated effort on SMART reliability and vegetation management even more crucial. We will continue to expand on our Wildfire Mitigation Plan and integrate new procedures, equipment and technology, to face these challenges. Forest fire mitigation has been, and will continue to be, a focus for us.

Another priority is testing and inspecting power poles and overhead lines. Each year, MEC tests and inspects 10% of the power poles on our system to identify structures that are in need of replacement. In combination with this effort, is a yearly goal to inspect 50% of our overhead lines, assess and replace aging underground cables and transition overhead to underground line, as needed.

Currently, residents of Missoula’s El Mar Estates Subdivision, are experiencing frequent outages due to underground cable failures, as they reach the end of their useful life. This project, which breaks ground in late summer, will replace underground lines, installed nearly 40 years ago.

The development and implementation of programs and annual goals, as well as a focus on system maintenance, help us continue to honor our members’ request to, “keep the lights on and the rates low.”