A year ago, Thanksgiving dinners throughout New Hampshire were thrown into chaos by a surprise snowstorm that knocked out power to more than a third of the state.
It was just one in a recent string of powerful storms that have vexed New Hampshire utilities. The six worst power outages in state history have occurred in the past seven years, and combined power restoration from these six cost nearly $200 million.
So on the anniversary of that storm, the State's largest utility is trying to get better at putting the wires back up after the weather knocks them down.
This week, Eversource New Hampshire invited journalists to see its brand new Integrated Electric Operations Center. For homeland security reasons, the most we can say is the facility is somewhere in Manchester.
The facility combines the utility’s transmission control center (which deals with higher voltage lines) with a new distribution system operation center (which handles the lower voltage power lines that you see on your street). Both are right next door to an Incident Command Center, where the company’s higher ups gather when big storms roll in.
Algorithms and GPS
This might seem crazy, but even in the year 2015 when you lose power utilities have no idea. They rely on customers to call in, and then send out trucks to look and see what the cause was.
And this new Operations Center is all about trying to do that better and faster.
Don Nourse, manager of the distribution side of this ops center shows off a read-out on a massive screen on the wall. “It's an electrically connected map, if you will,” he says.
Now when customers call in, instead of just being handled by dispatchers, their complaint is put into an algorithm. “And as more folks call in on your line, now transformers are affected, the algorithm says ‘oh well, maybe we have a fuse opening’ and it just keeps getting larger from there,” Nourse explains.
Instead of sending crews out with a little information to just look for downed wires, Eversource is trying to pinpoint the cause of the outage, before the truck's engine ever turns on.
And once the trucks go out, the ops center has eyes on them too.
“All of our bucket trucks throughout Eversource, they have the GPS indicators in them so we can see who's where as well,” says Nourse.
The company is also planning to spend $57 million over five years on sensors out on the grid which will automatically narrow in on where wires have tripped, and $23 million a year on an aggressive new tree trimming regime. Not to mention swapping out old poles for new ones that are rated to handle winds up to 120 miles per hour.
Calling in the Troops
But when it comes to big outages like last Thanksgiving. It's all about calling in extra line crews to get the wires back up quickly. The guy who calls in those troops is Dean Desautels, company's manager of emergency preparedness. Often the central question for utilities is whether to “pre-stage” backup line crews before a storm starts.
Following last year’s Thanksgiving storm, a report from New Hampshire utility regulators found the failure to call in extra line-men in advance slowed the response time.
But, on the other hand, in 2013 Eversource called in the cavalry when an ice-storm was forecast, and then the system slid north and the crews weren't needed.
“A couple degrees variation in temperature, a couple variation degrees in wind speed can mean the difference between ice and snow, or entire trees coming down or just a couple of limbs,” says Desautels
It's a tough call, one subject to endless Monday morning quarterbacking. But maybe there's a better way of doing this on the horizon?
Manos Anagnostou, a professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Connecticut is working on a model that would predict how much damage a utility might expect given the weather forecast. “The model depends a lot on historical storms, right? Right now we are close to 150 storms” loaded into the model, he explains.
On one end you plug in data from the utilities on how many power outages came from a given storm lined up with weather data from that storm. Then on the other end you put in the weather forecast, and the product is how many bucket trucks you need to request from Pennsylvania.
Anagnostou says right now he's still working out the kinks, but “internally, I think the utilities do pay close attention to our outage predictions,” he says
“It's kind of the magic box in terms of predictive analysis,” says Desautels, who adds one big caveat, “unfortunately, it still relies on the weather forecast.
And if recent weather history bears out, the lesson is that it's only a matter of time before the state is caught flat-footed by another big storm