Electric co-ops’ response to the devastating February 2003 ice storm in north-central Kentucky was generally excellent. But dealing with the damage did reveal areas needing attention.
Seeking to improve response to the next disaster, each of the co-ops involved conducted an assessment after the storm. The Kentucky Public Service Commission made its own investigation.
The Commission requested information from utilities about every facet of their service. It studied local forecasting, normal maintenance schedules, advance planning, damage assessment methods, mobilization of repair crews, customer service during and after the storm, and overall preparedness.
Each utility faced unique problems, and the Commission’s conclusions cover a wide range of issues. Managing information about damage and improving communications emerged as two top issues.
Dan Brewer, president and CEO of Blue Grass Energy based in Nicholasville, notes that last year’s ice storm had an immediate and direct effect on that co-op’s schedule for information management equipment upgrades.
“Before the storm,” Brewer says, “we’d already planned to install a new computer program and had budgeted the money for it. But after the storm we moved up the installation date so that we would have a better outage management system ahead of our original schedule. Within six months of the storm we had the new computer system in place, so we’re much better prepared to assess damage in all parts of our service area and deploy our crews more efficiently when the next storm hits.”
Clark Energy, based in Winchester, also installed a new outage management system.
Clark Energy CEO and President Overt Carroll says, “Our new software package lets us combine reports of damage with our engineering programs and our consumer-call data base in such a way that we can predict the severity of outages. This will help our operations superintendent stay on top of the situation. Instead of just reacting, he can now be a more pro-active manager.”
At Fleming-Mason Energy Co-op based in Flemingsburg, President and CEO Tony Overbey notes, “Before the storm, we’d been thinking about a new way to handle calls from our member-customers. We had such a large volume of calls during the ice storm, we’ve gone ahead and installed a voice-activated response system.”
But better equipment at the beginning of a disaster isn’t the whole story. Communicating with customers afterward is also a vital concern.
“Our offices are in Nicholasville, Cynthiana, Lawrenceburg, and Richmond, but many of our co-op members depend on the media in nearby Fayette County for information during an emergency,” Blue Grass Energy’s Brewer says. “Unfortunately, as soon as the other utilities had service restored within Fayette County, the media there devoted much less time to covering the situation in outlying counties, and our members couldn’t get the information they needed. That’s why we’re trying to improve our communications through a wider variety of media.”
Reliable ways of keeping customers informed about when service will be restored became such a priority that the PSC’s report includes two recommendations. First, utilities are encouraged to keep their local government agencies and officials continually updated about progress in restoring service. Second, the PSC recommends that individual utilities establish “Restoration Information” Web sites with information about the status of electric service in specific areas.
At first, such a plan seems illogical. If you haven’t got electricity, how can you use a computer? But Brewer points out that “Many people find themselves in a situation where their home electricity is still off, but they can access the Internet at work or a friend’s house, so this idea is one many utilities are giving serious consideration.”
Improving communication among co-ops became vital to the restoration work. The need for constantly updated cell phone lists is now a priority so utility personnel don’t have to depend on landlines, which are often out of service during a weather emergency.
Deploying and managing the work crews restoring the power emerged as the third area for fine-tuning.
For years, individual co-ops have had mutual aid agreements with each other. These were often informal promises to send spare trucks and line workers as needed. But the spread of damage during the 2003 storm showed a need for more detailed planning and coordination.
Construction Projects Coordinator Karl Blackwell for East Kentucky Power Cooperative, the generation and transmission co-op that provides electricity to 16 distribution co-ops, says, “I spent a lot of time on the phone arranging for crews from Kentucky co-ops unaffected by the storm to come into our area to help, as well as talking with private contractors within Kentucky and in nearby states, too. As a result of our experience during and immediately after the storm, we now have formal agreements that include pricing at guaranteed rates. We’ve also developed a list of things we expect those contractors to bring along, such as protective gear and equipment for their workers.” Individual co-ops have also added more detailed plans for housing and feeding guest workers.
As utilities plan and implement better emergency response procedures, the PSC report also notes that individual customers need to prepare for emergencies, too. When bad weather and storm damage seems likely, Carol Hall Fraley, president and CEO of Grayson Rural Electric Co-op, based in Grayson, says, “Folks need to make sure they have enough water on hand, prescriptions filled, and so forth, so they can go on with their daily lives until electric service is restored.”
For more information on how you can better prepare for a weather emergency and temporary loss of electricity, visit this Web site: www.bgenergy.com/atHome/safetyFirst/storms.php
HOW CO-OPS ARE IMPROVING RESPONSE TIME TO STORM OUTAGES
1. Upgrading computer equipment
2. Expanding contacts with news and other media
3. Formalizing agreements for co-ops to help each other in emergencies
Next month: Final report on last summer’s blackout