Utility’s Storm Response Creates Winning Game Plan for Quick Response

A crew restores power after 29 tornadoes ripped across 691 miles in central Alabama. The April 2011 tornadoes knocked out power to more than 412,000 Alabama Power customers.

by Greg Rohan, Whitehead & Associates

Each part of the United States has its own storm season and power outages. Like area residents, utilities know what’s headed downfield and are relatively prepared. On rarer occasions, a more damaging event or series of events increases the likelihood of additional or sustained outages. And more frequently, states and consumers are holding utilities accountable for weather-related outages. 

In many cases, poorly maintained lines or overgrown vegetation can worsen storm damage. As they say, “The key to a good defense is a good offense,” and in this case, maintenance can defend against more damage but up-front planning is your best offense.

Such was the case for Alabama Power Co. in April 2011 when 29 tornadoes ripped across 691 miles in central Alabama. The tornadoes caused nearly $190 million in damage and killed 238 people in 19 counties. The damage knocked out power to more than 412,000 Alabama Power customers. Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency.

According to Alabama Power Co., the tornadoes took out more than 400 transmission structures. As a point of reference, hurricanes Ivan, Katrina and Opal caused more outages, but combined they took out less than a third of the transmission structures the tornadoes destroyed. Because of the storm’s devastation, the electrical system had to be rebuilt completely in many areas. At one point more than 10,000 workers were restoring service.

Workers rebuild the electrical system. At one point more than 10,000 workers were restoring service to Alabama Power customers.

Despite the worst tornado outbreak in more than 30 years, Alabama Power Co. restored power to more than 95 percent of its customers in six days. More than half received power within three days.

The challenge was identifying which structures needed power and procuring parts for the damaged transmission facilities–something that can take weeks under normal circumstances.

In late 2010, Alabama Power Co. integrated its outage management system (OMS) with the Sensus Flex Net Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) System. The system allowed the utility to assess quickly which meters were without power and obtain up-to-date outage information following the storms.

Alabama Power Transmission Maintenance General Manager Kristie Barton said the company works on response plans year-round; the OMS is only one way.

Being prepared helped the utility immediately get to work as planned after it established 12 staging sites that served as temporary home bases for workers and personnel.

“You need to be open to the fact that decisions need to be made immediately, and the damage assessment has got to be done as soon as possible,” Barton said. “In this case, we didn’t expect 438 structures’ being impacted or having to replace more than 250 of those. So we moved quickly to assess the damage and determine what we needed to provide repairs.”

Anthony Popwell, Birmingham director of operations at MacLean Power Systems, one of the suppliers of Alabama Power’s transmission systems after the storms, said the challenge was the tight timeframe and intricacy of the equipment build.

“Many times, including in this case, the equipment used by a utility is specific to its needs or the needs of individual facilities,” Popwell said. “Assemblies are put together to meet specific requirements, and it usually takes weeks or even months to pull everything together and test it. We had days.”

Crews work to restore power to Alabama Power customers after the worst tornado outbreak in more than 30 years.

MacLean turned its manufacturing facilities into a storm restoration operation center and got Alabama Power more than 100 custom conductor clamp assemblies for bundled conductors in less than a few days.

The assemblies were for the 500-kV transmission line restoration and made to spec for Alabama Power. Throughout the project, Whitehead & Associates also worked with other distributor partners to supply more than 4,500 hotline clamps, 2,390 fiberglass two-phase brackets, 2,170 fiberglass one-phase brackets, 14,750 automatic splices, 1,462 transmission clamps and their assemblies and 1,858 cutouts. Barton said having necessary items ahead of time and making the plan scalable was key.

“Yes, this was dramatically different, but we do plan and prepare year-round,” she said. “So, whether we need 100 people or 10,000 people, we have a good sense of what it takes to get the job done and who we are going to rely on. In this case, our planning worked and everyone worked well together.”

Greg Rohan is territory sales manager in Birmingham, Ala., for Whitehead & Associates, a manufacturer’s representative to the electrical industry in the Southeast for more than 40 years. Reach him at greg@whiteheadassoc.com.

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