Co-ops Confront Solar Eclipse Frenzy

A mix of caution and excitement is in the air as preparations are underway, reliability issues unlikely

Berkeley Electric Co-op employees show off the some 2,000 pairs of eclipse-ready glasses given to co-workers, retirees and the public. (Photo By: Micah Ponce)
Berkeley Electric Co-op employees show off the some 300 pairs of eclipse-ready glasses given to co-workers, retirees and the public. (Photo By: Micah Ponce)

During the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, state officials are expecting 1 million tourists to flock to Oregon—and about half could congregate in sparsely populated central Oregon, home of Central Electric Cooperative.

The Redmond-based co-op serves Madras, population 6,729, the nation’s top-ranked location to view the rare spectacle. Epic crowds could clog the region’s two-lane highways, resulting in traffic jams for the ages, which could hamper power restoration efforts in the event of outages.

“Our co-op is not treating this as a celebratory event,” said Dave Markham, the co-op’s president and CEO. “While many businesses are taking advantage of turning a significant profit on this event, our biggest concern is our line personnel being able to restore power outages and response times for emergency events that require power disconnection.”

Central Electric’s case is extreme, but it is common to co-ops in 14 states that are making preparations for the 70-mile wide, 3,000-mile-long path of totality where the moon will block out the sun.

“There’s a real issue of people stopping on the bridges to watch the eclipse,” said Leisa Stilley, director of communications and public relations at Moncks Corner, S.C.-based Berkeley Electric Cooperative. The co-op serves several islands accessible only by bridge, including Johns Island and Kiawah Island.

“We do have district facilities on the islands, but if people clog the bridges, that could be a problem,” she said.

Followed by a Moon Shadow

Rays of sunlight emerge behind the moon as it eclipses the sun. A 70-mile wide path of totality will include 14 states and many electric co-op territories. (Photo By: Getty Images/iStockPhoto)
Rays of sunlight emerge behind the moon as it eclipses the sun. A 70-mile wide path of totality will include 14 states and many electric co-op territories. (Photo By: Getty Images/iStockPhoto)

The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017 will begin on the Oregon coast as a partial eclipse at 9:06 a.m. PDT and will end later that day as a partial eclipse along the South Carolina coast at about 4:06 p.m. EDT.

Working with Oregon officials, Central Electric has drafted an emergency response plan that will stage materials and vehicles in “strategic locations so that we can respond quicker to outages,” said Markham.

The plan also calls for extra crews and extra supplies, including fuel for vehicles should gas stations run out and propane for buildings’ backup generators—just in case.

“Vendors have told us they’re not making deliveries that week, so we’ve beefed up stocks of basic supplies” said Jeff Beaman, Central Electric’s member services director. “We usually don’t keep large inventories of some materials on hand, and there will be little margin for error.”

Industry-wide, the solar eclipse “is unlikely to cause any reliability issues” to the bulk power system, according to a white paper issued by the North American Electric Reliability Corp.

Of the nation’s 1,900 photovoltaic installations in the eclipse’s path, there will be some impact, but it appears manageable, according to the Energy Information Administration.

“However, relatively little solar PV capacity lies in the path of totality,” which crosses only 17 utility-scale solar generators, mostly in eastern Oregon, according to EIA.

During the eclipse, electricity generators in areas of totality will have to increase output from other sources to supplement the decrease in solar power, EIA added.

PJM Interconnection expects a temporary loss of solar power in varying degrees of up to 2,500 megawatts, but said the reduction is manageable.

“While this is an anticipated event, we routinely plan and prepare for unpredictable events or things that can’t be forecast far in advance, such as severe storms and heat waves,” said Andrew L. Lott, president and CEO of the grid operator.

Commitment to Community, Solar-Style

Platte-Clay Electric Co-op’s Chase Tyne will drive a truck with a 60-foot reach to help a Smithsonian video crew livestream the eclipse from Liberty, Mo. (Photo By: Cheryl Barnes)

At the tail end of the eclipse in the United States, Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative gave away about 2,000 pairs of approved glasses to employees, retirees and members.

“We’re pretty excited as the eclipse will pass directly through our service area. We want to allow employees to enjoy what will be for many a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Troy Simpson, vice president of member services at the Lexington, South Carolina, co-op.

“We’re trying to help the communities we serve take it in,” said Dave Deihl, general manager of Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative in Kearney, Missouri. The path of totality runs directly through the co-op’s service area, west to east.

Platte-Clay distributed 1,000 pairs of eclipse glasses to members and is switching off multiple automatic security lights in a local park that’s holding a public viewing party.

“We’ve had calls from members who want us to turn off their security lights,” said Jared Wolters, the co-op’s engineering manager. “Once the eclipse starts, lights will come on. That would have required us to turn off thousands of lights, each one individually, which we can’t do.”

Finally, the co-op will loan a bucket truck to video crews from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum for live webcast of “Stem in 30,” a weekly program for middle schoolers.

The truck’s 60-foot reach will “make a cool visual of hundreds of kids watching” from the Liberty middle school where the show will take place, said co-host Marty Kelsey.

At the wheel of the truck will be Chase Tyne, apprentice lineman, who will turn 21 the day after the eclipse. “I had no idea that the Smithsonian would be coming to Liberty to do a live webcast,” said Tyne. “So when we were asked about helping out, I volunteered.”

“In a way, that’s a great birthday present, along with the eclipse,” said Tyne. “It’s going to be a good week for me.”

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.