3 electric cooperatives in Arkansas to get $137.2M

Three Arkansas rural electric cooperatives will receive $137.2 million in federal aid to replace aging infrastructure with fiber-optic lines and computer systems to reduce outage times and enhance network reliability for the more than 100,000 Arkansans they serve.

The utilities say the upgrades will link all their substations and allow immediate monitoring of power grids. The improvements also include new lines and equipment replacement in multi-year construction projects.

Woodruff Electric Cooperative Corp. will use nearly half of the $42 million it receives to deploy fiber optics and introduce more innovative technologies to build a smart-grid system across its seven-county footprint, which includes about 5,000 miles of power lines. Fiber will connect all headquarters in Forrest City with three other offices and 25 substations, Chief Executive Officer Michael Swan said.

"This will benefit all seven counties that we do business in here in eastern Arkansas," he said. "This will reduce our outage time and improve our reliability tremendously."

The utilities will use the low-interest loans to build a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system that relies on computers and fiber lines that link across the distribution systems and deliver immediate monitoring of the electric grid.

Power failures are detected automatically and the computer-monitoring system has the ability to shift feeds to direct electricity to customers without power. The new technology bypasses current labor-intensive monitoring efforts, which essentially mean sending out linemen to search for, find and repair downed lines or equipment failures.

"This will be much more efficient," Swan said. "This is a way to modernize the grid, understand load demand and, in some cases, it can be a self-healing process."

C&L Electric Cooperative also will use the $45.2 million it receives through a program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to upgrade its network with fiber, said David Vondran, the utility's chief executive officer.

"Rather than have our members call in and have us estimate the number of outages, we would be able to connect smart-metering infrastructure to give us that real-time data. It helps us to isolate any problem areas," he said, noting that fiber will connect all 20 substations that serve more than 22,000 customers across eight counties in south Arkansas.

The three Arkansas cooperatives are benefiting from $2.7 billion in federal aid that will be distributed to 64 electric cooperatives in the U.S.

Funding allows the utilities to upgrade older networks and keep pace with growth. "We have parts of our system that have aged out and need to be replaced," Vondran said.

At Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative Corp., which is scheduled for a $50 million loan, the utility also plans to build a real-time monitoring system to improve efficiency and give the utility a window to better observe the grid's performance.

"We didn't have great communications with all of our substations and with devices along our lines," said Barret Ewing, director of engineering and operations. "We're in the process of modernizing the grid to help with reliability and restoration times. This will allow us to have better vision across the grid."

Arkansas Valley, based in Ozark, has 62 substations and more than 6,700 miles of power lines in its service area, which includes 11 counties in Arkansas and three in Oklahoma.

"Historically, you would have to have a lineman go out and check the breakers and equipment along the line to locate and repair a problem," Ewing said. "We're switching to smart devices so when a tree falls or a snowstorm brings down a line, we can see in real time what's going on at that location and have a better idea of where an outage actually is and restore it quicker. Our ultimate goal is to improve reliability and make sure people's lights stay on."

Federal support is critical to install the modernization program, Swan said. "We wouldn't be able to provide that type of support if these loans weren't available," he said.