Back-to-back Blackouts Teach Staffing Lessons

Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor

In the last few weeks, both American coasts have dealt with major power outages. The East Coast faced off against Hurricane Irene, and the West Coast had a technology snafu of major proportions.

Overall, Hurricane Irene wasn’t as bad as predicted. When it hit most of the East Coast, it was a lower category hurricane–even a tropical storm–than originally feared would smack into the beach communities aligned along the Atlantic.

Because we still have most of our power strung into the sky, however, Category 1 winds did a lot of damage to the infrastructure. Eastern utilities worked nonstop after Irene blew through to get power back on to millions of Americans.

Dominion had a goal of restoring service to 75 percent of its customers by Aug. 31, 2011. As of 11 a.m. that day, the company had flipped the switch for 77 percent (or more than 920,000 customers) in Virginia and North Carolina.

FirstEnergy turned the lights back on for 770,000 customers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland within days.

While winds blew lines aloft and snapped poles, problems weren’t reserved to just the delivery side of the power equation. Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant suffered damage from the hurricane as well. Road damage also complicated the repair process after Hurricane Irene, especially in flood-ravaged Vermont.

Storm recovery is part of any utility’s annual planning. No matter where that utility may be located, a storm, hurricane, tornado or flood is going to wander along and cause damage. It’s just a part of the job. (For more information on outage recovery, see the feature article on Page 40.)

What’s not normally part of a utility worker’s job is a massive power outage that isn’t caused by weather. Yes, parts of the system do fail periodically, and customers are left in the dark for a while. Usually, however, this impacts a small number of customers for a few hours.

In September, a failure in one part of the power system caused a massive blackout across San Diego, putting millions in the dark for more than 12 hours. A simple problem with substation work in Arizona led to a cascading blackout that created traffic jams and water issues for Arizona, as well as parts of Mexico and California. San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) reported that an outage of that magnitude never occurred in its service territory before. (For more on the blackout, see the article on Page 20.)

Most of the East Coast areas damaged by Hurricane Irene and the customers impacted by the West Coast/San Diego blackout have power once again.

In the last few weeks, millions were cut off from electricity. On the East Coast, trained crews and good response teams moved a disaster impacting millions to one impacting thousands in a few days. Their work in the aftermath of the storm should be commended. That’s efficiency in action. On the West Coast, human error shut off power to millions, proving that even the actions of a single employee are of vital, strategic importance. When dealing with matters of health, safety and infrastructure, neither lesson should be forgotten.

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