Lessons learned on the storm: last year's storm

Derecho hits just as New York regulators issue concerns

Phil Carson | Jul 09, 2012


I've had my ear to the ground regarding any lessons learned from the massive and destructive storms that swept the East ten days ago and I've heard some intriguing lines of thought. These thoughts definitely precede actual lessons learned, as serious analysis will be utility-by-utility and large investor-owned utilities' findings may or may not enter the public record.

That the process takes time, at least officially, may be reflected in the headline of an article that hit a local New York paper one week ago: "State: NYSEG Needs New Power Outage Fixes." Conclusions about the fall 2011 storms and utility responses—all courtesy of New York regulators—were released just as the derecho of 2012 hit the East. And the news release on the conclusions only hinted at the fuller report yet to come. 

("Staff's 2011 Electric Reliability Report concerning electric reliability performance, when issued, may be obtained from the Commission's www.dps.ny.gov Web site by accessing the Commission's Search section of the homepage and referencing Case 12-E-0160.)

Let's review the current discussion, for the simple reason that a "derecho," the meteorologists' name for the thunderstorm-related phenomenon that wreaked havoc, is a well-established weather phenomenon that can recur. And as the one-two punch of last fall's storms in the East established—first a hurricane-turned-tropical-storm, then an early snowfall—derechos are hardly the only threat. (Courtesy of Wikipedia: "A derecho is a widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm that is associated with a fast-moving band of severe thunderstorms.")

We covered a few aspects of the end-of-June storms in the East in "Eastern Utilities and Another Hard Lesson." Last fall, we tried to give props where due for a utility that went to great lengths to respond to its customers, yet was taken to task in subsequent public meetings. I'm still not clear on the outcome in the case of Baltimore Gas & Electric. (One column was "BGE Handles Howling, and Hurricane.")  

Having posited that factors such as Mother Nature's overwhelming force, a centralized power grid structure and operations and maintenance practices (read: vegetation management, outage management) might have combined for lengthy outages in the most recent walloping of Eastern states, our readers added a few thoughts. These thoughts seemed to track with other threads on other discussion sites, so for me that raises their legitimacy for today.

One reader echoed the recommendations of New York regulators on last fall's storms. This follows the act of God reasoning, that big storms and ensuing damage are inevitable and unavoidable.

"Consumers are willing to accept outages caused by Mother Nature, even extended ones where the severity warrants it," one reader suggested. "When the power goes out, people really want to know just one thing: How long is it going to be out at MY house? 

"The real problem for utilities isn't the outage, itself. It's the communication around the outage, because utilities can rarely answer that one question for each individual customer. But consumers have come to expect that level of service from other providers. This information is valuable not because it changes anything, but because it gives the consumer some control, some ability to plan around the problem."

The suggestion appeared to come from a correspondent who works for a customer engagement platform company. Fair enough.

For another correspondent, it's high time to revisit the cost-benefit ratio for "undergrounding" power lines:  

"If we're going to be facing more severe weather from here on out, which seems to be happening anecdotally but may not be confirmed until 20 years from now (and whether it's climate change or a normal weather cycle may not really matter), then perhaps it's time to revisit the costs of undergrounding versus the cost of restoration, vegetation management and the customer costs of outages."

Yet a third correspondent, who labeled his comments "Intolerable Paradigm," indicted the status quo of centralized power. 

"Businesses and residences that have redundant power in the form of on-site energy production suffer a grid outage as more of an inconvenience, because they are self-sufficient and count on the grid as only one of several energy supply options," our correspondent suggested. "We should re-think our approach to electricity provisioning, to leverage the benefits of distributed, redundant energy resources that are architected in a system that more closely models the Internet.

"The problem is not management, nor execution, it is grid design," our correspondent concluded. "Our grid is vulnerable by design. The solution to utility outages lies in a new paradigm modeled on invulnerability: outage nullification, rather than outage recovery, based on redesign that incorporates distributed elements and redundancy."

It's worth noting that this writer, too, has a business interest in community energy versus the centralized grid. That's not a pejorative observation, because I find in the energy industry many who simply put their money where their mouth is—though, admittedly, that's hardly an ironclad insurance policy against drinking one's own Kool-Aid. 

So readers, is the issue storm preparedness, from vegetation management to well-managed outage responses? Do customers really not care about the outage itself, just how to plan for an estimated time of restoration? Or are we doomed to read these stories and speculation every six months or so because the grid is "vulnerable by design"? 

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily

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Storm preparedness is the key

One thing we know for sure is that the customer expectations (and by proxy public officials' expectations) on outage reponse has been raised. Customers want reliable information, delivered effectively and they want their outages restored as quickly as possible. Vegetation management improvements have definite benefits for many utilities and can pay for themselves quickly in avoided storm restoration costs. But once the vegetation management process has been optimized the only place to look is how efficiently the organization responds to outages.

When a storm hits, the organization must run like a well oiled machine with a significantly larger workforce than normal and everyone needs to know what their role is and how to perform it well. Of course, many of the people involved work in completely different roles 360 days a year and only are called to their storm duties for a few days a year. They have to know the game plan and the end goals and have instilled in them a culture of working effectively, efficiently, and safely. They must communicate well, document information, and have the customer in mind in every step of the way. So at its heart, effective storm response is all about storm preparedness and readiness especially for those utilities that have not typically had many storms. This includes people, processes, and technology.

Unrealistic Expectations

The first quote seems to be someone who has a good understanding of the limitations of the current power grid. The current grid is old with far too little investment in infrastructure. It is just waiting to fail. But the idea that customers would be happy with more information is naive. More information would help (and can be provided using OMS and IVR) but I have found customers are generally unreasonable. They want their power and they want it now! lol.

Despite the bias of the third quote, there is some truth to it. Centralized systems are extremely vulnerable to large outages. This is where customers and regulators hold unrealistic expectations. With a centralized system, there *will* be outages of this magnitude and scope.

I think more communication with the customer would be a move in the right direction though. Most people are far too clueless about where their power comes from. They take it for granted that they will have power at their house.