Given the incessant news out of Washington highlighting partisan bickering and gridlock in Congress, it can be hard to tell whether our elected leaders are listening and being responsive to the concerns of rural Americans. That’s why America’s electric cooperatives urged members to get out and vote in the last election and are now focused on advancing the interests of rural communities in our nation’s capital. We’ve asked for a seat at the table—a request that’s been met with some success.

Early this year, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), our national service organization in Washington, led a group of more than 40 organizations in sending a letter to President Trump asking him to make rural issues a top priority of his administration. “As you witnessed first-hand during the campaign, the issues facing rural America are no less significant than those facing urban parts of the country, but can be more easily overlooked because America’s small towns and rural areas make up just 15 percent of the nation’s population,” the groups wrote.

To address this concern, the organizations urged the president to designate a senior member of the White House staff to take point on rural issues or establish an office of rural policy within the Executive Office of the President. In response to this and other electric cooperative outreach efforts, the president in late April signed an executive order establishing an inter-agency Rural America Task Force to examine the issues facing rural America and identify actions needed to address them.

NRECA CEO Jim Matheson called the creation of the task force “a key step as we seek to develop rural communities economically. That includes implementing new energy technologies to meet tomorrow’s energy needs, while also deploying broadband and other services to enhance daily lives throughout rural America.”

Electric cooperatives also have been weighing in on another big topic in Washington: the need to improve the nation’s aging infrastructure. Co-ops have told policymakers that they must look beyond merely repairing roads and bridges if a federal infrastructure initiative is going to meet the needs of rural communities. High on co-ops’ list of priorities is closing the rural-urban digital divide by expanding rural access to high-speed Internet service, which Matheson calls “a key ingredient for a healthy 21st century economy, particularly in rural areas.”

Given this imperative, co-ops were very pleased when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appointed Matheson to serve on a newly created Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. The mission of the panel, which held its inaugural meeting in April, is to advise and make recommendations to the FCC on how to accelerate the deployment of broadband by reducing and removing regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment. Matheson will work to ensure that rural needs are addressed.

This isn’t to say that everything in Washington will go co-ops’ way. The federal government is a massive bureaucracy with many interests vying for attention. But there’s one thing you can count on: Electric cooperatives will fight to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill and within the many federal agencies that impact the quality of life in rural communities. They’ll always strive to get a seat at the table.

Dan Riedinger writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

How we got here and the challenges that lie ahead

Here’s how big solar energy has gotten: the eclipse coming up on August 21 has utilities making plans to avoid power outages when the moon blocks the sun for two minutes and 40 seconds over the middle of North America.

No, you don’t need to worry about losing electricity—your local electric cooperative knows the eclipse is coming and will keep the power flowing. But that astronomical event does show how renewable energy is starting to make a difference as solar and wind power elbow their way into the more traditional electricity fuels of coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

“Electric Industry Generation, Capacity and Market Outlook,” a new report by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), describes those changes and what they will mean for electric co-ops.

“The (U.S. Department of Energy’s) Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that by 2018, non-hydroelectric renewables will be about 10 percent of the generation mix, which is a really big deal,” says Lauren Khair, an NRECA regional economic analyst and one of the authors of the report. “Back in 2008, just to give you an idea, the share of non-hydro renewables was around 3 percent.”

But the rapid rise is only half the story. Wind and solar also generate electricity differently, and that has utilities making changes in the incredibly complicated system of generation and transmission.

Solar eclipse lessons

Then the moon moves in front of the sun during an eclipse, “Solar shuts off very quickly,” says Michael Leitman, NRECA strategic analyst. “Then it comes right back to full power.” That can cause problems for an electric grid designed to generate power exactly when it’s needed, and to keep that electricity at a consistent frequency.

Traditional baseload resources, like coal, nuclear and natural gas, provide stability to the electric grid and prevent sudden shifts in frequency. Due to their intermittent nature, wind and solar do not automatically provide these benefits. As the share of wind and solar grows, this becomes more problematic. Luckily, new inverter technologies are emerging that can provide synthetic inertia to help alleviate this problem, in conjunction with more natural gas resources, which are more flexible than coal at adjusting to sudden shifts in supply and demand. Further, these flexible resources can ramp up faster when the sun stops shining or wind stops blowing.

The organization responsible for assuring resource adequacy of the electric grid, the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), issued a report suggesting that utilities prepare for the eclipse. NERC singles out California and North Carolina as states that are both near the path of the total eclipse, and that also rely on a lot of solar power. NERC says those states should “perform detailed studies and retain necessary resources to meet the increased and varying load” as the expected drop in solar will call for more electricity from other sources during those few minutes. The path of the total eclipse in North America will start in Oregon at 10:15 a.m. Pacific time and move across the country during the next hour-and-a-half, leaving South Carolina at 2:49 p.m. Eastern time. A partial eclipse will affect a much wider band along that route.

Government policies for renewable energy

Government policies are a big reason for the expansion of renewable energy. Solar and wind power grew rapidly due to federal tax credits in 2012, slowed when they were expected to be discontinued, then picked up when the credits were extended. The tax credits even affect the time of year that renewable energy projects are built. As NRECA’s report states, “Most renewable projects are completed in the fourth quarter of the year, due in part to the timing of qualifications for federal, state or local tax incentives.” Projections for renewable energy show strong growth until 2020, then leveling off for several years as tax credits begin to expire. Renewable growth is projected to strengthen again around 2026 as electricity demand growth continues and more coal power plants are expected to retire.

State governments also help the growth of renewables, with laws setting targets for renewable energy use, known as Renewable Portfolio Standards. Although the federal tax incentives are a primary factor for renewable projects, Renewable Portfolio Standards are another important driver. Renewable Portfolio Standards have been adopted by 29 states and Washington, D.C., with several others adopting voluntary standards.

Cheaper and better technology

Improved technology and lower prices are also pushing renewable energy growth. The NRECA report says, “States have been able to meet or surpass these [Renewable Portfolio] standards, in part because of declining costs of solar and wind … utility-scale solar costs for crystalline panels dropped 85 percent and utility-scale wind costs dropped 66 percent in the last seven years.”

More transmission lines needed

Large-scale wind and solar installations tend to sit in wide-open spaces, so the electricity needs new transmission lines to get to where people live. The transmission system also needs to accommodate renewable energy generated only when the wind blows or sun shines. “The increase in variable generation to the wholesale market has led to increasing concerns about transmission congestion,” says the NRECA report. The report cites one estimate, from Edison Electric Institute, that investor-owned utilities plan to spend $22 billion this year on transmission projects, noting another speed bump to the development of renewable energy: “As transmission projects become more difficult to site due to environmental concerns, land availability, local opposition and other constraints, planners will need to find innovative ways to meet these challenges.”

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

Predicting the future is the stuff of science fiction movies. However, sci-fi often finds its way into our everyday lives. Researchers and the nation’s utilities have been working on a variety of systems to predict where on the utility system an outage could occur.

Power outages are inconvenient to most and costly to many. Outages can happen for many reasons. Watch this quick video to learn about the most common causes of power outages.

A careless driver can run into a pole. A strong storm can push a tree into the lines. An unlucky squirrel can find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, many outages are a result of aging infrastructure. The amount of equipment on a typical distribution line is immense. Electric cooperatives maintain hundreds of miles of distribution lines that must be patrolled and inspected. This is often a time consuming and labor intensive process. But what if there was a better way?

America’s electric cooperatives are working with a variety of the nation’s leading universities and technology vendors to test different systems that can predict when and where an outage will occur before co-op members experience the outage. These systems typically work by recording a disturbance in the system. These disturbances are short-lived and appear as waveforms. They can be compared to the device that records the human heart. Each waveform has a unique characteristic, which would be similar to a fingerprint. For example, a tree branch rubbing against a distribution line looks different than a cracked or damaged piece of equipment.

However, figuring out where on the system the issues are happening and how critical the issue is have been a challenge. Co-ops are testing systems developed by universities and major corporations to help solve the problem. In the fall of 2017, a group of electric co-ops will embark on a test of a new system developed by one of the world’s leading engineering companies to help improve reliability and lower costs.

Universities and vendors often come to electric cooperatives to test new products because of the nimbleness of co-ops and their unrelenting commitment to improving the lives of those they serve.

As these technologies advance, predicting the future, or at least future power outages, may not seem so far-fetched.