By Matt Faulconer, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative
Forecasters accurately predicted its path, but no one expected the destruction it brought. “It” was Hurricane Isabel. When the hurricane made landfall in North Carolina, it was only a Category One storm, but it was huge, covering parts of three states. By the time it had passed, major utility damage extended from the Carolina coast north into Pennsylvania. More than 2 million customers in Virginia alone lost power, some for as long as two weeks. In the center of Isabel’s path was Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC).
Headquartered in Fredericksburg, Va., REC is a customer-owned electric cooperative maintaining 11,160 miles of line to serve more than 85,000 meters. The cooperative serves a 3,000-square-mile area that stretches from the tidal waters of the Rappahannock River west to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hurricane Isabel made landfall early on Thursday, Sept. 18. Though the eye of the storm was still 200 miles away, REC began experiencing storm-related outages at about 10:30 that morning. As the storm moved Northwest, the number of outages continued to grow. Throughout Thursday evening, the SCADA display in REC’s central dispatch center showed one circuit after another changing from red to green, indicating the circuit was off. By 2 a.m. Friday, the worst of Isabel had passed through the cooperative’s service area, but not before knocking out 155 of REC’s 185 main circuits and leaving 80,500 REC customers–nearly 95 percent of its total–without electricity.
Due to the dangerous conditions created by the sustained winds of 40 to 50 mph and gusts of 70 mph or greater, most of REC’s crews were held at staging areas until the hurricane passed. Expecting significant damage, the decision had already been made to only respond to emergencies during the night and to begin the restoration efforts at first light on Friday.
“SCADA told us the outages were widespread, but we didn’t know the full extent of the damage until crews were dispatched Friday morning,” said Billy Carter, REC’s director of operational and construction services. “It quickly became evident that there was catastrophic damage across our entire service area. The task ahead was like nothing ever experienced in Virginia.”
With such widespread damage, the cooperative was unable to shift crews between its two district offices, and outside assistance was limited because the storm had affected every utility in the mid-Atlantic region. Through its mutual aid agreements, REC secured assistance from other cooperatives, line construction contractors and tree companies, quickly doubling its work force to nearly 650 people from nine states. During the next 10 days, the cooperative handled 81,000 outage calls, replaced more than 300 poles and 400 cross arms, and used 18,700 sleeves to repair more than 540 miles of downed line. By Monday, Sept. 29, power had been restored to all of REC’s customers.
AMR Locates and Isolates Outages
REC began considering the move to an automatic meter reading (AMR) system in 1995. After experimenting with telephone- and radio-based systems, the cooperative decided it preferred a power line-based system. The cooperative chose DCSI’s TWACS AMR system in 2000. REC has been using the system to read all single-phase residential meters since November 2002.
Since late 2002, REC has also used AMR to verify outage reports prior to dispatching repair crews. Using the AMR system, the dispatcher “pings” (sends a signal to) the meter where the outage is reported. If the signal returns successfully, the dispatcher knows there is voltage at the meter and the problem is within the customer’s circuitry. By explaining to the customer that there is no utility outage and urging them to check their breakers or call an electrician, the dispatcher avoids sending a serviceman to locations where there is no outage. This ability to identify outage locations and verify outage reports proved to be of tremendous value during the restoration efforts following Hurricane Isabel.
“The first two days after the storm we worked solely on restoring main circuits,” Carter said. “By Saturday night, most of the circuits were hot leaving the substation, but we weren’t sure how far down line the electricity was flowing. We began pinging meters along the circuit and behind every protective device.”
Two AMR operators each worked 12-hour shifts to provide around-the-clock assistance in the dispatch center. Each night the operator pinged meters to isolate, locate and verify outage locations. Dispatchers used that information to identify areas with high outage concentrations and to prioritize the next day’s crew assignments. To speed the pinging process, the operators simply verified voltage at the meter rather than seeking a complete meter reading.
As the restoration effort progressed, pinging became even more valuable. Once crews from REC’s Culpeper office completed restoration in their district they moved to the cooperative’s Bowling Green district, which is responsible for the more heavily damaged southern and eastern portions of the service area.
“Once crews went to the other district, our resources in Culpeper were very thin,” explained John Hill, dispatcher assigned to the Culpeper office during the hurricane. “By using AMR to verify an outage, we were able to avoid sending a serviceman on a 40-mile one-way trip just to discover the problem was on the customer’s side of the meter.
“AMR saved valuable resources and allowed us to concentrate on the real problems. It helped reduce the restoration time by at least a day or two,” Hill said.
No Need to Estimate
In addition to its role in restoring service, the use of AMR allowed the cooperative to maintain its regular billing schedule without using estimated readings. The cooperative currently uses 17 “daily” billing cycles. Bills are calculated each night using the readings gathered that day and are printed and mailed the next day. When it was clear that REC would be in Isabel’s path, AMR operators decided to gather readings a few days in advance.
“We normally read around 5,000 meters each day,” explained Marsha Rutherford, REC’s AMR system administrator. “The day before the storm arrived we began pre-reading the rest of the meters in the September bill cycle. We read about 15,000 meters that day. The readings were downloaded to the customer information system and the bills were mailed on the scheduled date. The billing periods for those last few cycles were two to four days shorter than normal, but all were based on actual readings.”
With all of its field employees focused exclusively on storm repairs, REC’s reading schedule would have fallen at least a week behind if it still read meters manually. That would have led to additional overtime, longer than normal billing periods, the possibility of estimating bills, and extra calls from customers seeking explanations of their bills.
“Many neighboring utilities had to estimate bills,” said Oliver Price, district director of customer services and the AMR project leader. “We have heard of cases where customers were without power for almost two weeks, yet their bills were estimated based on normal monthly usage. Because of AMR we didn’t have to estimate and were able to avoid the extra phone calls, manual adjustments and negative customer relations created by inaccurate estimates.”
Added Customer Services
AMR allowed REC to provide some services not previously available. By pinging meters, the cooperative was able to verify that service was restored to customers who are medically dependant upon electricity and are registered for its LifeLine service.
“We would check the status of our LifeLine customers and, if needed, have crews restore service to that priority customer before they left the area,” said Carter. “In the past we would call to verify that service was restored, but it would often be the middle of the night and we were waking up the customer. With AMR we are able to do it quickly and quietly without bothering anyone.”
“With the lengthy estimated restoration times due to the size of the outage, many customers temporarily moved to hotels or to the homes of friends or family who still had service,” added Price. “Each day we would receive calls from people wanting to know if power had been restored to their home. With AMR we could quickly check the status of their meter and give them an answer.”
AMR Proves Worth
“Our TWACS AMR system has performed well since the beginning, and its performance during Isabel added to our level of satisfaction,” said Price. “AMR was originally justified on the tremendous cost-savings we anticipated. We knew there would be secondary benefits, but it wasn’t until the hurricane that the total value of AMR was demonstrated.
Pleased with its AMR system’s performance, REC has already begun identifying enhancements to make it even more valuable: pre-programming the system to send a command to the meters to search for an alternate path when a circuit is back-fed and interfacing the trouble call analysis program with AMR to avoid having to manually enter the meters to be pinged.
Matt Faulconer is the director of public relations and communications for Rappahannock Electric Cooperative. A 17-year veteran of the utility industry, he has experience in field engineering and line design, member services, marketing and regulatory affairs.