Sandy Legacy Has Utilities Opening Wallets for Drones
One slice of Hurricane Sandy’s $80 billion in economic damages was $3.3 billion just to repair the New York-New Jersey electrical grid -- a casualty that’s inspiring utilities to re-engineer their disaster plans.
The worst-ever U.S. storm has power companies including Consolidated Edison Inc. (ED) and Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (PEG), New York and New Jersey’s largest, considering flying drones to get fast snapshots of destruction, reinforcing power poles with concrete and building “self-healing” networks that reroute electricity around damaged circuits.
Sandy occurred only 19 months after Japan’s once-in-a- thousand-years tsunami struck Fukushima, swept away towns and left an estimated $140 billion in damages just for the utility whose atomic reactors melted. Under pressure from the public, governments and investors, U.S. utilities and some of their peers abroad say they’ll bolster spending for the most difficult-to-predict crises, or black swan events.
“Today’s natural disaster was a storm, tomorrow’s might be something totally different,” said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of Newark, New Jersey-based Public Service’s power and gas utility.
Japan has had earthquakes and tidal waves of myriad sizes over the centuries. Yet Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner and operator of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, had sea barriers at the site that proved 8 meters (26 feet) too short when the mega-tsunami hit in March 2011.
Electricite de France SA, whose 58 French reactors provide about three-quarters of the nation’s power, will have to invest 55 billion euros ($73 billion) through 2025 to bolster safety and make improvements, the French state auditor has said.
U.S. regulators are considering rules to protect spent nuclear fuel in the event a massive solar flare knocks out the nation’s electrical grid.
Public Service revamped how it mobilized 4,000 out-of-state electric workers after seeing how efficiently hurricane-hardened Florida crews prepared for assignments.
By parking bucket trucks in the order they would be sent on service calls, Public Service eliminated gridlock as it directed crews into northern New Jersey’s cold, dark sprawl, where Sandy’s winds and waves had cut power to 1.7 million of the utility’s customers.
“They even went so far as to tell us where to place the port-a-johns in the reporting facilities so that guys were in and out fast every day,” said LaRossa. “All those types of little things made for a more effective restoration process.”
Sandy, a “Frankenstorm” that stretched across 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers), raked New Jersey with 90 mile-per-hour gusts, swamped parts of New York with record 14-foot tides and dumped three feet of snow on West Virginia mountaintops. The storm caused at least $80 billion in economic damage as it cut power to 8.5 million homes and toppled power lines across 17 states.
“No one could anticipate the damage that Sandy was going to inflict,” said John Miksad, senior vice president for Con Edison’s electrical operations. “It’s a new realization of what Mother Nature can do to this part of the world.”
American Electric Power Co. crews in West Virginia trudged up mountain trails through waist-deep snow, dodging tree-limbs snapping under the weight of the frozen precipitation, to repair 50 high-voltage transmission lines wrecked by the storm. Blizzards grounded the utility’s helicopter fleet for two days, leaving crews to locate downed lines by trial and error.
The effort wasted “hunting, pecking and not getting any results” was beyond frustrating, said Bill Lineberry, a transmission line mechanic for Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric.
The company is working on miniature robots that would patrol its nearly 39,000-mile transmission network, the largest in the U.S., sending back video of potential trouble spots, said Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman.
American Electric is also looking at replacing traditional pine utility poles with steel or composite poles as it makes repairs, or using guide-wires to protect poles against high winds.
Pinpointing storm damage is a priority for power companies such as Public Service and Con Edison as they turn Sandy’s lessons into action plans for future disasters. Their goal is to assess in closer to real time the transmission lines, transformers and substations lost to floods, wind and snow so workers are dispatched quickly to areas where they are needed most.
“One of the most significant factors in the length of a restoration effort is how long it takes you to get that initial assessment of the damage,” said Charlie Fisher, a vice president at Witt Associates, a Washington-based disaster management consulting group. “I’ve seen it take four days or longer.”
Both Con Edison and Public Service are looking into rolling out smart meters, which can map blackouts in real time. The interactive meters would’ve helped Public Service identify homes that were still without power even as it restored electricity to nearby switching stations.
Con Edison, Atlanta-based Southern Co. (SO) and other utilities also plan to test remote-controlled airplanes armed with high- definition cameras to survey damage next year, Matthew Olearczyk, a senior program manager at the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility-funded organization, said in a telephone interview.
Initial tests have shown the drones can instantly feed detailed images and locations of downed power lines or broken utility poles to workers’ computers, said Olearczyk, who heads EPRI’s drone development program.
The drones can more quickly and safely assess damage in remote areas that may be difficult for utility crews to reach due to fallen trees or flooded roads, he said. Still, drones won’t replace utilities’ helicopter fleets because they also can’t be sent out in heavy fog or severe weather, American Electric’s McHenry said in a telephone interview.
Utilities are paying closer attention to how hurricane- prone peers along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico altered storm preparations following Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005.
NextEra Energy Inc. (NEE)’s Florida Power & Light has developed computer models that can predict which areas will suffer the most power failures from an approaching storm, said Dave McDermitt, a spokesman for the Juno Beach, Florida-based company.
The Florida utility has spent more than $900 million since 2006 to upgrade its system, replacing wooden poles with concrete versions that can withstand gusts of 140 miles per hour or more.
Southern Co. developed mobile command centers, trailers that expand like accordions, after Katrina knocked out its Mississippi Power utility headquarters and computers, said Tim Leljedal, a company spokesman.
Exelon Corp. (EXC) acquired similar command centers for its utilities after watching Southern’s crews respond to Chicago- area storm damage last year, Christopher Crane, Exelon’s chief executive officer, said in a November interview.
It’s too early to put a price tag on Sandy-related utility projects, which are certain to inflate the industry’s $80 billion average annual capital spending, said David Owens, executive vice president of business operations for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for investor-owned utilities.
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has requested $2.5 billion in federal aid to upgrade the state’s electrical infrastructure and bury power lines following Sandy. New York and New Jersey are expected to seek similar funding to reinforce power networks, Owens said in a telephone interview.
Con Edison has earmarked $250 million for near-term spending to help critical equipment from flood damage. It plans to add more sensors and switches to make its network “self- healing” -- able to identify problems and reroute power around buildings or blocks where equipment is damaged, Miksad said.
Then there’s the question of whether to bury more wires in New York’s Westchester County, Queens and the Bronx. Con Edison estimates that placing its entire network underground would cost about $38 billion, a price tag that is probably politically untenable, Miksad said. So the utility is studying a compromise measure: burying portions of its system that serve hospitals and other critical customers, Miksad said.
As for hardening its system to the point it is “indestructible from Mother Nature’s fury? I don’t know if we’ll get there,” he added. “I don’t know if we can afford to get there.”
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