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Before The Storm

A few hours after sunset, February 15, 2003, a winter weather system moved through north-central Kentucky, dropping up to 2 inches of ice across a wide swath of counties, wreaking havoc with service for many of the state’s electric utilities. The rapid and effective response of the four most-affected electric distribution co-ops resulted from the detailed planning and thoughtful preparation before the storm.

Carol Hall Fraley, president and CEO of Grayson Rural Electric Co-op based in Grayson, says, “The absolute most important thing before a storm is a good right-of-way program—it’s essential for day-to-day operations and for storm periods as well. Good, clean, well-maintained, and accessible rights-of-way make a real difference. In our service area, our right-of-way extends 20 feet on either side of a power line, for a total width of 40 feet.” Individual co-ops have different schedules for clearing their rights-of-way. It’s a process that never stops.

Overt Carroll, president and CEO of Clark Energy based in Winchester, notes that different situations require different maintenance. “In the more densely populated areas, we have a two-year rotation for clearing along power lines, while in other, more sparsely populated areas, we work on a four-year rotation. Pole inspection, treatment, and replacement, as needed, is done on a 10-year rotation. Before the 2003 ice storm we’d been doing everything according to our normal plan, so our system is kept up to very good standards.”

Another key feature all co-ops have in common is an Emergency Operations Plan, tailored to their own unique situation.

Dan Brewer, president and CEO of Blue Grass Energy based in Nicholasville, explains, “Our Emergency Operations Plan spells out for us in great detail the many things we need to do, what we need to think about throughout the emergency, and what procedures we need to follow to restore service in a timely manner.”

These plans include ways to monitor weather forecasts and damage reports, methods of getting in touch with off-duty employees to call them in to work, when and how to notify private contractors to be ready to start work, and how to assess damage and set priorities for repairs.

But ice storms don’t follow predictable patterns. Once the ice begins to accumulate and damage the system, each co-op must be flexible in its response.

Grayson’s Fraley explains, “Our service area is quite mountainous, and as the ice accumulated on trees that weren’t anywhere near our right-of-way, the weight of the ice was so extreme whole trees uprooted, fell down slopes, and rolled into our right-of-way, tearing down lines and breaking poles. We had a phenomenal amount of broken poles—850 as a result of that storm.”

Grayson’s system is so long and narrow, running north to south, that their advance planning includes arrangements with property owners in various sections for space where material can be dropped and stored ahead of time. Many co-ops have similar agreements with property owners far from their central offices.

Fraley notes, “As the storm was still progressing, we could go ahead and put stocks of replacement poles and transformers where we thought we’d eventually need them.” Such advance work saves valuable time once restoration work begins.

But as the ice melted after the storm had passed, another complication arose. Tony Overbey, president and CEO of Fleming-Mason Energy Co-op based in Flemingsburg, says, “In many cases we’d restore service, then another tree would fall, interrupting service again, and our crews would have to go back out to the same area to restore service again.”

Coordinating road-clearing priorities with local government agencies, bringing in additional workers from other co-ops, and communicating with news media about progress in restoring service added more complications. Most folks understood that such a widespread ice storm was a once-in-a-hundred-year event, and many people volunteered their tractors and bulldozers to help repair crews reach problem areas.

You can find a detailed report on last year’s ice storm on the Web site of the Public Service Commission. Go to www.psc.state.ky.us and click on “Current Items of Interest.”

Next month: Improving Response to Ice Storms

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