Mastering the Disasters

When Hurricane Frederic tore through Alabama in 1979, more than 239, 000 Alabama Power customers were left without power, and it took 21 days for all power service to be restored.

In contrast, when the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, left 412, 229 Alabama Power customers without power, all power was restored in seven days.

And in March 2013, when a line of powerful thunderstorms that weather experts call a derecho left 222, 432 customers in the dark, Alabama Power had all the lights on within three days.

Widespread power outages continue to occur, the numbers show, but now power companies are generally able to get customers’ power back more quickly than in the past. The accessibility and affordability of new technologies, as well as crew-sharing programs with other power companies, have played an important role in speeding up the process from lights out to lights on.

“In the past few years, we have completely changed the way we do business, ” says Brad Kimbro, director of member services at Wiregrass Electric Cooperative, a PowerSouth Energy Cooperative that serves the wiregrass region of Southeast Alabama. “When a storm hits, our new technology allows us to better serve customers, more quickly assess damages and get power back quickly to as many people as possible.”

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A variety of “smart” technologies help power companies better assess and respond to power outages, says Michael Sznajderman, media relations representative at Alabama Power. “In some cases, power can be automatically restored using automated switching technologies, ” he says. “Automated meters on homes and businesses can also help us identify quickly who is affected by outages.”

While technology can automate some processes, “the source of outages in many major storms — downed lines, broken poles and towers, damaged transformers and substations — still require crews to visually assess their condition and make physical repairs, ” Sznajderman says. “Downed trees and blocked roads can also slow restoration. In other words, technology is a great tool, but it is no silver bullet.”

Even when live crews on the ground are necessary, technology can help those crews quickly communicate damages and get additional workers dispatched to problem areas. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) relies on digital fault recorders to measure where problems have occurred, so field forces can be directed to the right place to repair damages, says Tracy Flippo, vice president of transmission, operations and maintenance for TVA.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies power across Alabama’s northern tier, had to rebuild 500 transmission towers after April 2011 tornadoes.

Photo courtesy of TVA

“The faster you can assess damage, the quicker the lights go back on, ” Flippo says. “We start as soon as the power goes out.” In addition to in-office technologies, TVA uses its helicopter fleet to assess damages on the ground and GPS-driven technologies to direct crews to specific damage areas detected by the digital fault recorders.

Wiregrass utilizes an automated storm management system that allows the cooperative to handle numerous phone calls simultaneously. “If you call the outage line, the system books your outage by recognizing your number and associating it with your address, ” Kimbro says. “If you call and someone 20 houses down from you calls, the system will predict that power in all the houses in between is out, too. That allows us to begin dispatching crews.”

The tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011, which included EF-5 tornadoes in north Alabama, was “the biggest thing TVA’s ever seen, ” Flippo says. “The tornadoes significantly impacted the Tennessee Valley. Our entire territory was essentially put in the dark.”

It was the first time TVA had turned to outside power companies to come in and help repair damages and restore power. “We share crews across the Valley to help assist in storm recovery first, because they’re familiar with our system and our safety procedures, and that’s just more efficient, ” Flippo says. “We are typically able to move our own crews around and use our in-house construction crew to recover after a storm. But after April 27, we used the services of outside crews to help, and, in most parts of our territory, power was restored within five days.”

While TVA never before needed to turn to other companies for repair help, such “mutual assistance agreements” have been in place for decades in the utility industry, Sznajderman says. “These agreements are vital to help speed restoration in the case of major storms. Alabama Power has utilized mutual assistance agreements to get help from other utilities when we need it and to provide help to others when they are in need.”

When a widespread power outage occurs, every customer wants his lines repaired first, but providers must set strategic priorities. The first concern often must be critical services, such as hospitals, police and fire, Sznajderman says.

Next, “utilities try to go back to the source and get as many people power as possible, ” Kimbro says. “If a substation is down, nobody can get power. So we try to get the big lines back on first and work from there.”

Sznajderman describes it as a “hub-and-spoke” approach to restoration. “It doesn’t make any sense to fix an individual line running to a home if all the lines providing service into that area are down, ” he says. “Our efforts focus on the large transmission lines that run from power plants to neighborhood substations, and major lines that go from those substations to feed entire neighborhoods. Once those are repaired, we work to repair lines to individual homes and businesses.”

Photo courtesy of TVA

While this approach usually works well, following the April 27 tornadoes, TVA faced a unique challenge in the Huntsville area, where every substation in the area was down. “There was no transition path into Huntsville, because we had no towers standing, ” Flippo says. “We had to find one line that had the least damage that we could get back as quickly as possible to start bringing power back across the city. It was a slow process, as we would add on some load and stabilize it, then add more load and stabilize it again.”

The city of Huntsville had full power within seven days, but TVA had to build 500 transmission towers to spread the load out again. All the towers were up and back to normal three months after the storms.

Going without power can be costly for business owners and other power customers, but getting the power back on quickly after a widespread outage also costs utilities big bucks. After repairing transmission towers and line conductors across much of its coverage area, TVA spent about $30 million in recovery efforts after the April 27 storms. At its Browns Ferry nuclear power plant, the company spent another $100 million for replacement power and powering emergency diesel generators, which were required to keep the plant running for three days after the storms.

Each outage is different, and restoration costs can vary widely, depending on the severity of a storm, Sznajderman says. “Restoration costs for significant storms can range from several hundred thousand dollars to millions or tens of millions of dollars, which was the case after the 2011 tornadoes, ” he says. “We maintain a storm reserve fund to help cover some of these costs.”

Taking the right actions to recover quickly from a storm is largely a matter of foresight, not forecasting. “It’s very important to be prepared before an emergency ever hits, ” says TVA’s Flippo. “When something like [April 27, 2011] hits, if you’re not prepared, it shows quickly.”

TVA workers routinely participate in practice drills and equipment checks to ensure that responders to power outages will be ready. The utility also has a crisis communications plan that is implemented in the event of a widespread outage. For instance, from the time tornadoes hit the Tennessee Valley area on April 27 until power was restored, TVA distributed hourly notifications and updates on the storm and recovery progress.

Every time a major storm strikes, Alabama Power takes the lessons learned from that restoration effort and tries to apply them to planning for the next time, Sznajderman says. “Those lessons can involve technology upgrades, logistics, supply or equipment issues, and best practices gleaned from the experiences of our own crews working here or while helping other utilities, ” he says. “Best practices are also shared among utilities via direct inquiries and industry organizations.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

Text by Nancy Mann Jackson

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