The role of emergency managers within electric utility companies is a relatively new position which has taken on more responsibility over the past decade. Emergency managers are relied upon to identify and mitigate hazards to the electrical infrastructure. In the Northeast, specifically Connecticut, one of the main hazards electric companies face is the hurricane. In this article, I will be looking at emergency managers at electric utility companies – specifically those employed by Eversource Energy (formerly Connecticut Light & Power) – focusing on hurricanes and Super Storm Sandy.
The electrical infrastructure is vital to our modern world, but it is highly exposed to many hazards. Examples include any form of severe weather (wind storms, ice storms, and snowstorms), flooding, civil unrest, fire, and any other disturbance to the power grid. The chart below, which was included in the 2016 energy.com report “Resilience of the U.S. Electricity System: A Multi-Hazard Perspective,” outlines the hazards the electrical infrastructure is exposed to in great detail. It shows which threats are increasing, decreasing, and the predictability of each.
In Connecticut, hurricanes are one of the most recurring and damaging hazards of which the electric infrastructure is exposed. The good news for emergency managers is there is high predictability for these storms. We know what season they will occur and we have some warning as to their impact timeline. However, because they can be such catastrophic events, organizations must plan ahead to ensure they are prepared.
Emergency planners have had to adjust to the rapidly changing frequency and intensity of hurricanes over the past several years. While not wholly understood, many of these changes can be attributed to climate change. For the past couple of decades, the frequency of large hurricanes has been increasing and estimates show they will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
Another image from the “Resilience of the U.S. Electricity System: A Multi-Hazard Perspective” report shows the projected changes in precipitation levels throughout the U.S. each season.
In the Northeast, you can see both fall and winter precipitation levels will increase by more than 20% over this time. Late summer/early fall is when Connecticut sees the most powerful hurricanes come through. These estimates mean the state can expect larger, more powerful storms with greater precipitation levels during peak storm season. The increase in winter levels is also notable to emergency planners as ice and snow are also severe threats to the electrical system. Superstorm Sandy, a combination of a hurricane and nor’easter, resulted in high levels of snow accumulation on electrical and cable wires. This ice carried significant weight and caused many wires to come down.
The goal of mitigation operations is to increase the resilience of the electrical infrastructure. Electric industry emergency managers can do this in several ways, two of which are hardening and maintenance. Hardening is the act of making physical changes to equipment to make it less susceptible to damage from wind, tree limbs, or flying debris. Hardening can be accomplished by updating the actual structures of the grid (poles, cables, cross-arms, etc.), installing fuses and reclosers, or putting wires underground. Underground wires are an attractive option because they are 50% less likely to experience an outage. However, if one does occur, the restoration time is 58% greater due to the difficulty of accessing them.
Eversource is responsible for 1,625 miles of overhead and 135 miles of underground transmission lines, 19 transmission substations, 16,976 miles of overhead, and 6,415 miles of underground distribution. To prepare for storms, they conduct long-term mitigation activities to limit the damage from ice and high winds. These include vegetation management (trimming tree limbs, brush removal, etc.) and storm hardening (making equipment more durable by either upgrading components or moving it out of flood zones to higher areas).
Response Prior to the 2011 Storms and Changes They Brought About
Hurricane Irene caused 702,000 outages in 2011, while Sandy caused 626,000 the following year.
Irene and Sandy Storm Path and Landfall Dates
If changes were not implemented, Sandy could have been much worse for the state.
In 2011, Connecticut experienced Irene and an October snow storm that greatly affected electric utilities. According to the Connecticuit Two Storm Panel, each storm caused more than 800,000 customers to lose electrical power with a 9-12 day power restoration timeline. These storms caused unprecedented amounts of utility damage and power outages far beyond any recent storm to hit the state.
However, they were not even among the largest and most powerful storms which the state is supposed to be preparing. They pale in comparison to the damage that could be inflicted by a Category 3 hurricane, blacking out the entire state, with some areas not receiving power for an entire month.
According to a 2011 report by Witt Associates, “Connecticut October 2011 Snowstorm Power Restoration Report,” power companies and their emergency planning teams were “not prepared for an event of this size. The worst-case scenario in the company’s emergency response plan considered outages over 100,000 customers, or less than 10 percent of their total customer base.” Due to these storms, state and electric company emergency planners had to reexamine their mitigation and response efforts and rewrite their emergency response plans.
Following the 2011 storms, Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) had to make changes to its emergency plans to meet the demands and risks of these events. The Witt Associates report recommended “CL&P review and revise the classification of service outage events planning matrix in its emergency response plan to realistically address small, medium, and large-scale power outage events that could impact the state. Based on the precedents of Hurricane Irene and the October 2011 snowstorm, top-level(s) should address outages involving well more than half of all CL&P customers.”
The table below shows CL&P’s event classification levels and criteria from their 2011 and 2014 emergency response plans. The 2014 plan shows a change in the levels due to what was experienced during the 2011 storms.
CL&P (Eversource) Event Classifications 2011 vs. 2014
It is easy to see that CL&P’s emergency planners listened to the recommendations given in the report and adjusted event classification levels and associated response efforts due to lessons learned from the 2011 storms.
In addition to adjusting their classification levels, CL&P also had to adjust their mitigation efforts, many of which focused on the trees around the state. The Connecticut Two Storm Panel found that “trees knocked down 90% of the utility wires that fell in Tropical Storm Irene.” This is most likely because Connecticut has one of the most dense tree canopies in the U.S., with larger tree circumferences than average. Those two factors meant Connecticut utility companies and municipalities would need to allocate more funds for tree removal than other states. According to the Two Storm Panel, Hurricane Irene knocked down about 2% of state’s trees but “a major hurricane may down up to 70-80% of Connecticut’s trees.”
To better prepare the state for the eventuality of a Category 3 hurricane or larger, the Two Storm Panel recommended state and utility company emergency planners conduct a state-wide tree risk assessment, prioritize removing hazardous trees, and “establish a state-wide hazardous tree removal fund that will provide matching grants to homeowners for the removal of trees on private property that endanger utility wires.”
Due to these recommendations, electric company emergency planners are now much more involved in tree trimming and removal mitigation efforts than before 2011. According to the Connecticut Department of Energy, “Eversource maintains an annual proactive program of tree trimming across the state. Trees are identified, and property owners are notified that trees overhanging or threatening power lines will be trimmed. Tree trimming reportedly saves millions of dollars in yearly damage to the power grid.”
Another way Eversource made changes during this period was with the actual structure of their emergency management personnel. Following the 2011 storms, the Two Storm Panel recommended Eversource and its (former) parent company Northeast Utilities “establish robust, integrated emergency management leadership capabilities at the executive level.”
These changes can be seen on Eversource’s website, where their “commitment to prepare for and respond to emergencies is embedded in our company mission.” Led by the senior vice president of electric engineering, more than a dozen employees are dedicated to emergency preparedness and business continuity activities. This team is responsible for strategically coordinating preparation and response efforts for storms and other major emergencies across the Eversource service territory. In 2014, the team created an “umbrella framework that provides a standardized approach to emergency response.” The program is reviewed regularly to ensure it is being implemented effectively and maintained at the highest level of excellence.
Companies also partnered with the University of Connecticut to develop storm predictions. The prediction models allowed them to know what areas are at risk for specific types of storms. Research enables the electric company to identify where trouble spots are likely to occur. A trouble spot is when a piece of equipment goes down, leading to an outage. Examples are a single tree falling on a line, 50 trees falling on that line, or even a blown transformer. Based on this data, planners can identify vulnerable equipment and schedule it for upgrades. One example is when researchers identified several areas that could experience flooding also contained backup generators. Based on this new information, emergency planners could schedule mitigation efforts to protect the generators from floodwaters.
As soon as a year later, when Sandy came through, we can see the positive effect of these plans. Connecticut experienced fewer power outages during Sandy than it did during Irene just one year prior. The graph below shows the difference between the two storms.
Peak Power Outages Per State During Each Storm
This increased focus on mitigation efforts has already helped reduce the amount of damage to the power grid. The table below shows the number of power outages that occurred due to Hurricane Irene in 2011 and then Sandy a year later.
The role of emergency managers within electric utility companies has grown rapidly and will continue to do so as the threats from hazards continue to increase due to climate change and human threats. Their role is crucial for utility companies to identify, mitigate and respond to these various hazards to our nations electrical infrastructure.