Safety, reliability and customer service are top priorities for all retail electric utility providers. In a quickly evolving industry characterized by rapid growth and new technology, we all face daily challenges to bring these values to fruition.

Reliable rural electrification, in particular, presents a number of challenges. Remote, aging infrastructure is susceptible to failure and can be difficult to maintain. In especially isolated or rugged terrain, simply accessing the power grid may take days of planning, approvals and use of specialized equipment.

While power outages in urban areas are often resolved within hours due to accessibility and availability of resources, rural customers may encounter outages that last for days or even weeks. Fortunately, the electrical industry is evolving to address these challenges in ways that minimize impacts while providing safe and reliable power long term.

Laying the Groundwork

Rural electrification improvement projects invariably require a significant investment, and it’s important to follow the proper steps to generate success. This includes months of system planning, careful resource management and studies of impacts to the environment and the surrounding general public.

The process may include town hall meetings with local residents, elected officials and other regulatory bodies. These conversations provide an opportunity to inform all stakeholders of the necessity of providing safe reliable power, while also maintaining a positive relationship with customers.

For instance, as the public has become more concerned with how the location of transmission and distribution lines may affect property values and usability, line routing has become a challenging process. Many entities request that lines be built underground; however, this comes at a high cost that must be passed through to the customer.

By keeping the lines of communication open, utilities can address customers’ concerns regarding a range of issues, as well as introduce new and creative solutions to existing challenges.

Exploring Alternative Solutions

Though long, linear utilities have served rural customers well for years, new technologies and grid modernization now provide more effective alternatives for proactively maintaining the system.

Utilities are equipping their systems with smart devices that capture large amounts of data. Once the data is captured and processed into a usable format, utilities are able to make proactive and informed decisions. These decisions may involve early maintenance, system upgrades or local power delivery solutions such as microgrids, on-site generation and battery storage.

As an industry, it is exciting to see these technologies being deployed across the greater United States. With each advance, our power grid is strengthened and the public is better served.

Dana Steph, PE, is a business development manager in the Transmission & Distribution Group at Burns & McDonnell. Experienced in rural electrification, he focuses on establishing mutually beneficial partnerships to support clients in the successful execution of power delivery projects.