Line by LineThe Big Picture
March 23, 2018
Today, as the storm restoration effort wraps up, I wanted to write about the big picture of what happens during a large-scale power outage event. For the record, JCP&L restored electric to more than 76,000 customers affected by the third Nor’easter to hit the area. Of that total, many customers had their power back on in 24 hours or less.
The electric grid in the USA has been called the most complex man-made machine on earth and, while utility people geek out about technicalities, we also know customers don’t care about insulators, conductors, fuses or sectionalizing equipment. When they’re out of service, customers just really want their sweet, sweet electricity back. They want to come home on roads that aren’t blocked by downed wires. They want their garage doors to open on command. They want lights, heat, computers and other electronics.
Everything we do is designed to get customers back into service as soon as we can, and while the work processes and procedures – and the amount of time it takes to complete them – may seem confusing or inefficient, everything has a purpose.
A simplified explanation of how the grid works: power plants put high voltage into the grid through transmission lines, which feed transmission substations, which then feed distribution substations, which feed circuits that run to each customer’s home or business.
An easy way to visualize storm restoration for the grid is to consider the highway system after a blizzard. You must get the most traffic moving the soonest, so you concentrate your initial efforts on the high-traffic areas -- interstates (the transmission lines), then the exits and interchanges (transmission substations), then major thoroughfares, then secondary roads and finally residential streets.
It would be inefficient to start by plowing residential roads, because there’s nowhere to go until the larger roads are open. This is the number one reason customers express concerns about not having seen a bucket truck working in their area immediately after a big storm – we have to work the circuits from the substation out, repairing all the damage as we go. If your home is 20 miles down the circuit, that means there are 20 miles of circuit that have to be inspected and assessed for damage, then repaired, in order, from the substation out.
After a storm, the first work to occur includes:
1. Winds die down and it’s safe for workers to go up in bucket trucks or on ladders
2. Public safety concerns must be addressed – live wires and other potential dangers to the public.
3. Road closures, often due to downed wires and trees, must be cleared.
A lot of damage can happen in 20 miles. Here’s a rough list of everything that must be inspected before the work can begin:
1. Insulators – are they broken, cracked or have they been flashed over (burned)?
2. Poles – inspect for breaks, leaning poles, cracks, twists or bends and determine if they need to be repaired or replaced.
3. Conductors (the wire): are wires on the ground, hanging low, twisted, wrapped, burned or are there foreign objects leaning or resting on the wires?
4. Switches – are they burned, flashed, damaged or bent?
5. Cross-arms – are they broken or cracked, or are braces missing?
6. Guy wires – are they broken or do they have slack in them?
7. Arrestors (devices that protect the grid from a lightning strike) – are they burned or blown?
8. Trees – this is the biggie after a storm. Touching, leaning, laying on conductors or poles? Have they been left in an unsafe state by the storm? Are they safe to work under or around?
9. Transformers – are they leaking or damaged?
10. Fuses – are they blown, flashed over or damaged?
11. Sectionalizing equipment (reclosers mentioned above) – are they open or damaged?
12. Taps and connections – are they all still sturdy or have they been burned off?
13. Field conditions – wet, muddy, ice, snow, is the area accessible via truck?
14. Are there any special environmental concerns?
15. Is there a need for traffic control while work is being completed?
In the aftermath of winter storms Riley and Quinn, workers in JCP&L’s service area replaced more than 750 broken poles and nearly 51 miles of wire, pole by pole.
We realize the work required to get to that customer may take several days or more to complete, depending on the results of the inspections listed above, and on how long the work takes once crews are in the field and replacing poles (can be an 8-hour job, and if 20 poles need to be replaced in 20 miles, that’s 160 hours of crew time just to replace poles) and other work.
Storm restoration is a massive, coordinated effort, and while things never go exactly as planned (flat tires aren’t factored into the storm recovery plans, for example), thousands of workers from our company, other utilities and contractors come together and get it done. It’s an amazing effort to watch up close, with more moving parts than can be listed. Consider thousands of hotel rooms and tens of thousands of meals for workers, for starters. Consider the vehicle maintenance, the materials that have to be in stock and ready for deployment, the safety equipment that must be in place on each vehicle, all before the storm arrives.
It’s humbling to watch. I couldn’t be more proud to work with this team of thousands on such a great effort. But, to be honest, if Mother Nature could give us a break for a while, that would also be pretty sweet for us and our customers.
For safety tips, outage information and details on JCP&L's efforts, please visit our storm information page.