Calculated Response: Utilities prepare for and respond to power outages; electrical contractors can help

By Susan Bloom | Mar 15, 2022
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Extreme weather events are occurring more frequently than ever. We have experienced it personally, learned about it in the media, and it is confirmed by a range of meteorological experts, including those at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This has led to the heightened risk for—and reality of—power outages.

“There’s no doubt about it, the last decade has featured many significant natural disasters, including hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and earthquakes, and over the past two years, COVID has added an extra layer of challenge in terms of disaster response and power restoration,” said Alex Hofmann, vice president of technical and operations services for the American Public Power Association (APPA). The nonprofit trade association represents the nation’s community-owned utilities, powering 2,000 towns and cities and serving 49 million customers.

“Society and the economy rely on electric power more than ever, and our communities feel the sting during even the shortest of outages, especially during the pandemic, when so many were/are living and working at home,” he said.

Today, America’s 100–200 investor-o­wned utilities supply roughly 75% of the nation’s electricity needs, while 2,000 public/municipal utilities account for 15%. The nation’s 900 rural electric cooperatives, typically owned by their members, supply the remaining 10% of the nation’s electricity.

Despite their different structures and the varying needs of the diverse populations they serve, all utilities would agree that they’ve had to step up their pre-storm preparations and post-storm restoration efforts in recent years to help keep power flowing safely and continuously in an era of increasingly volatile climate events.

Hofmann and Wally Mealiea, director of preparedness and recovery policy at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade association representing all U.S. investor-owned electric companies (which serve more than 220 million people throughout 50 states), discussed their members’ power outage-related preparedness and restoration efforts and how contractors can help.

What steps do your utility members take to prepare for potential power loss before an event occurs, and how do they respond to restore power once an outage occurs?

Hofmann: This can be divided into short- and long-term steps. Long-term success comes from designing, building and maintaining a good electric distribution system. On the short-term side, it’s about preparatory actions in advance of a storm, including setting up the right-sized workforce, communicating with communities about expectations and progress, safely assessing damage, properly prioritizing restoration efforts, and coordinating with local, regional and national mutual aid contacts.

Alex Hofmann, vice president of technical and operations services for the American Public Power Association American Public Power Association

Mealiea: Electric companies’ power restoration and business continuity planning includes year-round preparation for all types of emergencies, including storms and other weather-related events, as well as cyber and physical infrastructure attacks. For example, companies conduct exercises and drills to prepare them to respond to significant outages, whether they’re caused by an expected storm or by an event that occurs without warning. Restoring power after a major incident is a complex task that must be completed safely and as efficiently as possible. A speedy restoration process requires significant logistical expertise, along with skilled workers and specialized equipment. Electric companies begin their preparation for weather-related events long before an event actually occurs, with organization-­wide plans and drills that involve virtually all employees. When a major storm or natural disaster is expected, electric companies begin their standard preparations to organize restoration workers, trucks and equipment, and each electric company has a carefully developed plan for power restoration.

Wally Mealiea, director of preparedness and recovery policy at the Edison Electric Institute Edison Electric Institute
Describe your members’  mutual aid programs to support power restoration.

Hofmann: APPA manages a national mutual aid program, and when the need is beyond what can be provided on the local, state or regional level, the call goes out to a national Mutual Aid Working Group convened by APPA.

Mealiea: Mutual assistance is an essential part of the electric power industry’s service restoration process and contingency planning. Electric companies impacted by a major outage event are able to increase the size of their workforce by “borrowing” restoration workers from other companies. When called upon, a company will send skilled restoration workers—both company employees and contractors—along with specialized equipment to help with the restoration efforts of a fellow company.

That said, EEI’s mutual assistance program is a hallmark of the electric power industry. This voluntary partnership of investor-owned electric companies across the country is committed to helping restore power whenever and wherever assistance is needed. Municipal utilities and electric cooperatives also have their own mutual aid programs that provide restoration support to their participating utilities; EEI communicates regularly with the associations that serve municipal and cooperative utilities during major outage incidents, and our local members also provide support to each other during restorations. Created decades ago, our mutual assistance program provides a formal, yet flexible, process for electric companies to request support from other electric companies in parts of the country that haven’t been affected by major outage events. Also, mutual assistance is provided at cost—just time and materials. Investor-owned companies sending mutual assistance crews don’t profit from these support missions.

Do utilities employ their own electrical workers to address power outages or do they coordinate with outside contractors to do this, or both? Explain the typical process among your members when it comes to coordinating personnel and equipment, and who pays for this restoration work.

Hofmann: Utilities rely on their own workforce, contractors and state/regional support networks, though some major events require a national mutual aid response. The utility requesting assistance pays for the workers who respond to assist. For public power, it’s ultimately paid for by the community (as our member utilities are not-for-profit).  [The Federal Emergency Management Agency] can provide assistance and reimbursement to public power utilities for major disasters.

Mealiea: Electric companies will employ both their own employees as well as contractors for restoration efforts. Similarly, company employees and contractors will be “shared” throughout mutual assistance networks. For EEI members, mutual assistance networks are coordinated by seven regional mutual assistance groups (RMAGs) throughout the country; when a member determines that it needs restoration assistance, it initiates a request through an RMAG. RMAGs facilitate the process of identifying available restoration workers and help companies coordinate the logistics and personnel involved in restoration efforts (e.g., locating specialized skill sets, equipment or materials and identifying other types of resources that may be needed, including lineworkers, tree trimmers, damage assessors and even call center support).

EEI supports our member companies and the RMAGs during major outage incidents, the most serious of which are classified as “national response events” (NREs)—e.g., natural or man-made events that cause or are forecast to cause widespread power outages impacting a significant population or several regions across the United States, activating responses from multiple RMAGs. When an NRE is declared, all available member emergency restoration resources (including contractors) will be pooled and allocated to participating companies in a safe, efficient and equitable manner.

What challenges do utilities face when it comes to addressing natural disasters and resultant power outages? How are utilities working to address those issues in the future?

Hofmann: Major storms (like hurricanes and tornadoes) sometimes affect transmission, which can take a long time to restore, and this is often outside of the distribution utility’s control. To solve this, we continue to improve coordination and to collaborate across the industry (working with our government partners at the DOE [Department of Energy] and others) to appropriately prioritize restoration. Supply chain issues and constraints pertaining to difficult-to-manufacture things like transformers are also challenges. To address this, the industry is looking to manufacturers to step up and help with creative solutions. We’re also looking to the federal government for assistance on this important issue.

Lineworkers from Troy, Ala., provided aid to Vinton, La., after Hurricane Laura in 2020. American Public Power Association

Mealiea: We recognize that our customers and communities are more dependent on electricity than ever before; this has been especially true during the pandemic. That’s why we continue to invest in smarter energy infrastructure that enhances the resilience of the energy grid and provides system operators with better visibility into the system, which helps to improve response and restoration times.

After each major incident, electric companies conduct after-action reports to identify what went well and what didn’t, with the goal of refining our emergency response plans. Each electric company also regularly exercises its emergency response plans to simulate impacts from known and emerging threats, including physical and cyber attacks; this includes major exercises sponsored by our government partners, such as the North American Electric Reliability Corp.’s GridEx series, which was held in November 2021.

Finally, what advice can you offer electrical contractors when it comes to restoring electrical power in communities affected by natural disasters or ways that they can help support utilities in their restoration efforts?

Hofmann: Contractors should always be ready to assist electric utilities. The key here is making connections during “blue-sky times.” They should also work to get emergency agreements in place with local utilities before events hit.

Mealiea: We encourage contractors to work with electric companies when releasing or deploying workers to support emergency response efforts. Good communication between contractors and electric companies is critical to ensuring that our mutual assistance efforts can work efficiently. In recent years, we’ve seen devastating hurricanes impact multiple utility companies throughout multiple states, so being able to carefully choreograph the release and reassignment of restoration crews helps to ensure a safe and efficient restoration for all impacted communities.

About The Author

BLOOM is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at [email protected].

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