Anatomy of a power outage

A stray lightning bolt connects a menacing cloud with a power pole about a mile from your home. Your lights flicker briefly before going out. Things become eerily quiet as all your home’s devices equipped with motors and fans stop providing their constant symphony of background noise.

You’re experiencing a power outage, so you reach for your phone and call your electric co-op. Good move. Sometimes, consumer-members don’t call, because they assume their neighbors will. However, the more who do call, the more quickly the co-op can pinpoint the outage location.

Back at the office, the co-op’s grid system operator notices the sudden pause at the moment 300 million volts of lightning dance around a transformer, and they triangulate the location of the outage. The system estimates 500 members are in the dark as a line crew steers their trucks in that direction.

Thirty minutes later, the lineworkers slowly drive along a stretch of road, keeping one eye on traffic while inspecting every pole, wire and transformer. In another 8 minutes, they stop and step out for a closer look. The mystery is solved with one glance at the burn mark across the surface of the transformer. Readying the truck and ensuring it’s safe, they move closer to the line.

If you watch the lineworkers, you might mistakenly assume they’re not motivated. After all, you’re dealing with a power outage. You want it to end as soon as possible, and it looks like they’re simply taking their sweet time while you’re missing the ballgame. But there’s a reason the lineworkers aren’t rushing or running around.

Those power lines carry high-voltage electricity. It’s safe when all elements of the system are in good working order, but it’s potentially deadly when that’s not the case. Lineworkers approach what they do deliberately, efficiently and, most of all, safely. Every action they take is carefully planned so they can spot potential hazards. When performing tasks, they follow standard procedures and safety requirements to ensure the repair is effective and sound. Working that way may take a little extra time, but it means they’ll make it home safely at the end of the day (or night).

Less than an hour after finding the cause of the outage, the lineworkers load their tools and gear back onto the trucks. This time, the problem was easy to spot, the repair was fairly straightforward, and the weather cooperated. But no two outages are exactly alike. The next one could be in severe weather or on a remote segment far off the main road. It could involve a fallen tree that needs to be cut with chainsaws or a broken utility pole that needs replacing. It doesn’t matter, because lineworkers will get to the location and fix the problem as quickly as safety allows.

Driving back to the co-op, the lineworkers watch the passing homes and smile, because the warm glow coming from the windows means the power is on again. Some members in their yards wave as the trucks pass by. They may not know why the electricity went off or what was involved in bringing it back, but thanks to the lineworkers and employees back at the co-op, life is back to normal.