A potentially catastrophic storm descending on the U.S. East Coast will test improvements made by power companies a year after they were criticized for a slow response to another freak October storm that left millions of people without power for days.
Consolidated Edison Inc., Northeast Utilities (NU:US) and Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (PEG:US) are among companies saying they’re doing all they can to get ready for the “Frankenstorm” that’s part Hurricane Sandy, part nor’easter. Even so, the companies warned customers the storm, which forecasters say may be the worst to hit the northeastern U.S. in a century, might knock out power for as long as 10 days from Washington to New England.
- Special Report: Hurricane Sandy
“We are far better prepared, particularly in coordination and communication, than we were last year,” said William J. Quinlan, senior vice president for emergency response at Northeast Utilities’ Connecticut Light & Power, speaking at a press conference Oct. 26. “We’ve never seen flood heights at the level being forecast,” Quinlan said at a news conference in Hartford, Connecticut, today.
As many as 10 million people may lose power during the next few days, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Seth Guikema, an engineer who developed a computer model of the storm’s potential effects. He based his estimate on the expected strength and duration of winds and population density.
Eastern U.S. utilities were condemned by customers, regulators and state lawmakers for their handling of major weather events during the past year that included a June windstorm, Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and an early season snowstorm that downed power lines and damaged electrical substations. Damage was worsened for the storms, which each left more than 4 million customers without power for a week or longer, because utilities had neglected tree-trimming for years, regulators said.
For this storm, power companies have mustered thousands of line workers from across the country, beefed up call-center staffing and piled sandbags to protect electrical substations knocked out by flooding last year. Added spending on trimming tree limbs near power lines during the year also is expected to lessen the number of blackouts.
Connecticut Light, which struggled to find crews after the October 2011 snowstorm, began requesting 2,000 out-of-state linemen -- five times its normal workforce -- days before Sandy was forecast to make landfall, Quinlan said.
Power failures surged this morning in southern New Jersey, where the storm is expected to make landfall, according to utility websites and company officials. FirstEnergy’s Jersey Central Power & Light reported 9,091 homes and businesses without power as of about 9:30 a.m. Public Service Electric & Gas, the state’s largest electric utility, reported about 4,000 customers blacked out, spokeswoman Kristine Snodgrass said in a telephone interview.
Connecticut Light reported 7,694 customers without power in Connecticut and Consolidated Edison Inc. (ED:US), owner of New York City’s utility, reported 3,602 customers blacked out. Crews today began erecting a six-foot (1.8 meter) concrete dike around a substation serving downtown and south Stamford to protect it from a tidal surge expected around midnight, Quinlan said today at a news conference in Hartford.
It’s not practical to erect a dike around a substation in Branford, Connecticut, that is also at risk of flooding, Quinlan said. About 11,000 homes and businesses will lose power should that substation shut, and portable equipment may be brought in to compensate, he said.
Hurricane Sandy is expected to merge with another weather system as it moves ashore near New Jersey early tomorrow, causing high tides, flooding and heavy snow in some areas. The Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based group that represents publicly traded utilities, warned that power failures from Sandy may last from seven to 10 days.
The slow-moving storm is expected to linger for two to three days, snapping tree branches that are still in leaf and flooding substations. Electrical crews won’t be able to begin work until winds subside, flood waters recede and workers clear downed trees.
“This kind of storm at this time of year is immediately threatening because you still have leaves on trees,” Matthew Cordaro, former chief operating officer for Long Island Lighting Co., said in a telephone interview. “There’s significant potential for tree damage. It highlights where corners have been cut on tree-trimming.”
Even with additional power-repair crews, “it will likely be several days before we get into bulk restoration,” Connecticut Light’s Quinlan said yesterday at a press conference with Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy. United Illuminating, Connecticut’s second-largest utility, expects 70 percent of its customers will lose power when high tides driven by Sandy flood coastal electricity substations, James Torgerson, chief executive officer of parent UIL Holdings Corp. (UIL:US), said at a Hartford press conference.
Dominion (D:US) and Pepco Holdings Inc. (POM:US), which supply power in Virginia and Washington, have been exploring whether to place portions of their power lines vulnerable to high winds underground. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray called for burying more lines in the city after gusts from the June storm, known as a derecho, knocked out power to as many as 4.3 million customers on the East Coast.
“It’s a money issue to them,” Jane Page, 52, a Baltimore County resident who lost power for six days after the derecho, said of the slow storm recovery. “Doing the right thing isn’t what they’re going to do. It’s doing what’s right for their budget.”
Connecticut Light has almost doubled its tree trimming budget, spending about $50 million to cut vegetation clear of power lines this year, up from $27 million a year earlier, Theresa Gilbert, a spokeswoman for the Berlin, Connecticut-based utility, said in a telephone interview.
Connecticut regulators began multiple investigations after some customers went without power for more than a week in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm. Connecticut Light’s then-president, Jeffrey Butler, resigned less than three weeks after the snow fell.
FirstEnergy Corp. (FE:US)’s Jersey Central Power & Light crews have been piling sandbags around electrical substations that flooded and knocked out power last year, said Ron Morano, a company spokesman.
Public Service Enterprise, owner of New Jersey’s largest utility, is stockpiling poles, transformers and wire for repairs. The company, which has 2.2 million electric customers, has requested more than 1,300 linemen and 600 tree trimmers from out of state to supplement the 6,000 employees mobilized to help with storm efforts.
Consolidated Edison, New York’s largest electric utility, expects flooding to be worst on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30, as the storm strikes after the full moon, when tides are at their highest. Con Edison plans to shut down equipment if it’s threatened by flooding, which may result in blackouts for some lower Manhattan residents.
“If water breaches the battery and the streets are flooded, underground electrical equipment that supplies power would be shut down in order to make it easier to bring back online,” said Bob McGee, a company spokesman. “This would result in localized outages.”
The power network is designed so flooded lines in one part of the city won’t cause blackouts elsewhere, said Allen Drury, another spokesman.
Power line repairs may be impossible for as long as 36 hours if winds make it too dangerous for crews to work, Connecticut’s governor said.
“The public needs to understand the size of this storm and the duration that we expect,” Malloy said.
Despite the heightened storm planning, it will take years for utilities to catch up on tree-trimming and “harden” their power grids to better withstand storms, Cordaro said.
Following the trio of major East Coast storms, “I don’t think there’s been any drastic improvement, because it takes time,” Cordaro said. “Most of the effort has gone into public relations activities to try and assure the public and authorities that they’re doing the right thing -- and they are.”
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