Utilities Say Storm Recovery Shows Lessons Learned

Dec 1, 2014

Credit Chris Jensen / NHPR

Losing power is annoying. Losing power for several days when you’ve got a large turkey to cook is infuriating.

This isn’t the first time a prolonged power outage has left people in New Hampshire shaking their fists at the sky. After both the 2008 ice-storm and the October Snowstorm in 2011, regulators opened investigations into how power companies responded.

Today utilities say their response to this storm shows they’ve learned some lessons.

PSNH now trims trees along 1,700 miles of distribution lines each year. “Every four years, our entire system is trimmed,” says Bill Quinlan the company’s president. More tree trimming was the main recommendation of the 2008 investigation.

Quinlan says PSNH’s parent company Northeast Utilities is rolling out a new model that aims to predict storm damage to poles and wires, so they can pre-stage line crews. The model’s already been used for hurricanes and summer storms.

“We’re now working to calibrate the model for winter storms, but I think within the next year or so we should have a predictive model that’s among the best in the industry,” says Quinlan. Better modeling and pre-staging of crews was the what the 2011 report called for.

He also says PSNH is slowly putting in taller and stronger slowly utility poles, and the company has embarked on a five year program to make New Hampshire’s power grid smarter.

Now, when a tree falls on a distribution line, electricity is cut off to every house on that line, until the utility finds the break. “What we do is we dispatch a line-worker to patrol that entire branch to find where that interruption is,” says Quinlan.

But in the future, PSNH should be able to remotely identify which section line is broken, and keep more customers energized. “For relatively modest investment, we think we can bring tremendous system reliability benefits to our customer,” Quinlan concludes.

What Can’t Be Controlled

But there’s the larger question of why does it seem like we’re getting more of these massive outages than ever?

For one, there have been more and more severe precipitation events, but the state’s population has also grown and there are more power lines to knock down and put back up.

“If you’re thinking about it in terms of damages caused, you have to consider both the physical event that caused the hazard and the human vulnerability to the hazard,” says Mary Stampone, the state’s climatologist.

What’s more, even though utilities have become noticeably more aggressive in their pruning, there’s likely only so much tree trimming that the public would accept.

Keith Malmedal, a consultant with NEI engineering who helped with the report following the 2008 ice storm, says in that storm much of what fell onto the lines was from outside of the buffer zone of regular trimming, and it was the same story this year.

“What has to happen is you have to start trimming farther away from the lines to avoid that in the future,” Malmedal explains, “It takes more trimming, it’s a higher expense, and you have to deal with property owners to a greater degree.”

That can get tricky in a state that’s enamored of its trees and its property rights.

After storm events like these, utilities can take a flogging after public officials have had their voicemails flooded by angry constituents. But so far, the state seems satisfied with the utilities’ performance.

“They were very prepared for the storm that was predicted by the national weather service,” says  Perry Plummer, the state’s director of emergency management, “The truth is, the wind died down and so that changed the dynamic just a little bit. The temperature dropped just a little more than they thought it was going to be so there was a little bit less rain, but very very high moisture content in the snow.”

Plummer notes for most customers power came back to dramatically faster than during the so-called “Snowtober” storm in 2011. In that storm, which had slightly more customers without power, utilities took six days to get back to normal operation.

Of course, this time around, New Hampshire was by far the hardest hit state, which made it easy to call in help from out of state. If utilities can duplicate this year’s relatively speedy recovery in an event where damage is region-wide, is another matter entirely.