In the Wake of Severe Storms, States Debate Electricity System Hardening

by Rona Cohen

Hours before Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast, officials at Connecticut Light and Power, the state’s largest utility, made a critical decision. As engineers monitored the forecasts for high winds and a record tidal surge, it became clear that major electricity infrastructure was threatened by dangerous flooding that had a 1 in 100 chance of occurring in any given year.

The predictions, which turned out to be accurate, meant that seawater would inundate a substation in Stamford, Connecticut, which supplied power to the city of more than 122,000 inhabitants. Two days before Sandy hit, the utility dispatched a crew to enclose the station in six-foot concrete walls surrounded by sandbags. Together with a series of pumps that would suck out any water that managed to infiltrate the barrier, the walls saved the substation once the storm’s fierce winds sent a tidal surge inland.

“These are all the kinds of things utilities don’t expect to do,” said Bill Quinlan, senior vice president of emergency preparedness for the utility, which serves 1.2 million customers in Connecticut, during a conference with industry and state officials in Boston last December.

But in the last year and a half, expectations have shifted. As the region moves ahead with the arduous recovery process, policymakers are giving weighty consideration to a range of proposals to fortify the power system against twenty-first-century challenges. Though the recent onslaught of storms has offered a crash course in disaster management, one of the confounding issues is the sheer level of uncertainty inherent in even the best-informed efforts to safeguard critical infrastructure.

In New Jersey, the experience that utilities gleaned during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 offered scant help in pinpointing key equipment most prone to flooding from the 14-foot tidal surge that Superstorm Sandy sent slamming across Newark Bay. They knew Irene’s heavy rainfall had inundated 14 power switching stations that led to widespread outages, and as Sandy approached, they sandbagged those same stations in a proactive bid.

The problem was that Sandy’s path took an entirely different trajectory in New Jersey, and although flooding was far more widespread than during Irene, with 49 switching stations under water, only three that had been submerged during Irene also flooded during Sandy.

“Unfortunately, we sandbagged the wrong switching stations,” said Ralph LaRossa, president and chief operating officer of Public Service Electric and Gas Company, testifying before the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in Trenton in early December.

Switching stations supply power to substations, which in turn deliver electricity to power lines that run along streets and serve homes and businesses. Getting them up and running is critical before power can be restored throughout the system.

LaRossa said many of the switching stations in New Jersey are particularly vulnerable to the type of tidal surge produced by Sandy because they are built in low-lying areas. At the time of their construction, often as far back as a century ago, the general practice was to place them in industrial areas close to areas of major demand, which at the time was concentrated principally along the area’s thriving ports.

“Times have changed,” said LaRossa. “We all have to rethink the way that we do things.” LaRossa, and others, said utilities need to build “redundancy” into the system, which could involve steps such as routinely building walls around switching stations and substations, elevating them, or even moving them to higher ground. On average, it costs $100 million to rebuild a switching station and $2 million to build a substation, said LaRossa.

Some suggestions commonly voiced may sound straightforward, such as tree trimming, but can run into snags over jurisdictional issues. In Connecticut, which has the most dense tree stock of any state per mile of infrastructure, “vegetative management is the single best thing we can do as a state to reduce the number of outages,” said Quinlan of Connecticut Light and Power. Last June the utility filed a five-year, $300 million infrastructure hardening plan, which includes installing larger poles and bigger, more resilient wires that can withstand heavy winds.

The issue is complex in New Jersey, where utilities have the authority to trim trees only along their designated rights of way, which is essentially the vertical space below and above utility wires. If the roots of a tree reach outside of that space, the authority for maintenance reverts to towns and municipalities, some of which have been reluctant to trim or remove tall trees that provide shade and character for a community.

Some utilities that have been criticized for their slow power restoration efforts during Sandy and other recent storms are clamoring for smart meters, which provide them with real-time data on a customer’s energy use and can quickly detect outages as they occur. The technology has been installed for 43 million customers in other service areas nationwide, but their use has lagged far behind in New Jersey. Industry sources estimated it would cost around $1 billion to install the meters across the state.

Officials acknowledged that the technology offers benefits, but questioned its usefulness during a storm like Sandy that knocks out 90% of the power system.

“Even a perfect communications system only tells you that your power’s going to be restored in thirteen days,” New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Robert Hanna told the Trenton hearing in early December. “What we really have to work on is getting the power restored faster.” In New Jersey alone, Sandy left more than five million people without power, some for more than two weeks.

The Board of Public Utilities is working with the Bloustein School at Rutgers University to provide a cost-benefit analysis of the options available to better protect the power system of the future. Hanna said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had already approved some $3 million in transmission upgrades in New Jersey, which should help improve reliability going forward.

Moving Infrastructure Underground

The spate of recent storms has renewed a debate about the merits of burying electrical wires, a costly practice that could nevertheless offer benefits in older communities where heavy vegetation frequently downs wires during storms.
Hanna said the study under way with Rutgers has been examining research performed by other states and municipalities on the practice. The cost is expected to be prohibitive in a state like New Jersey, with infrastructure that was designed decades ago. “Every street in New Jersey would have to be dug up,” he told lawmakers.

A recent study from the Edison Electric Institute found new underground construction to cost 5 to 10 times more than new overhead construction. No states have recommended burying their entire electrical infrastructure, due to the formidable expense, the study said. But it asserted that burying wires during new construction could add significant value, and that in fact, nearly all new residential and commercial construction in the United States is served by underground wires.

Last August, Washington D.C.’s mayor, Vincent Gray, formed a task force that is examining the feasibility of burying wires in the District, with the possibility of undergrounding only targeted wires. During a televised meeting on September 26, the group discussed financing options, including enabling the local utility, Pepco, to obtain long-term debt supported by a ratepayer surcharge. A report is expected at the end of January.

Consolidated Edison, which serves New York City, studied the cost of burying all of its electrical, telephone, and cable lines, and came up with an estimate of $60 billion over ten years, CEO Kevin Burke told local television station NY1 on December 11. “So one of the things we’re looking at is do you underground everything, or do you just underground certain key lines that will help you get customers back into service faster,” he said during the interview.

Industry sources caution that below-ground infrastructure is not fail proof, and that when an outage occurs, it can be more time-consuming to restore those systems. Frozen ground and heavy snowfall can impede repairs due to an outage, and the facilities are still susceptible to equipment failure as well as damage from lightning strikes and other natural disasters.

During a loss of power in Worcester, Massachusetts, it took technicians 11 hours just to pinpoint where a subterranean system had failed, said Marcy Reed, president of National Grid, during the conference in Boston. “When it’s underground, it takes longer to restore. It’s not the be all and end all.”

Buried wires can be defenseless in the case of a flood. During Superstorm Sandy, underground wires were no match for the tidal surge that flooded Liberty State Park, which sits along the Jersey City waterfront, said LaRossa. He told policymakers they should consider having some above-ground cables built in such places. “It may sound crazy, but we need to have some redundancy built in,” he said.

Learning from Gulf Coast States

New Jersey officials said they are examining measures embraced by their colleagues in Gulf Coast states, who are accustomed to dealing with damage from fierce winds and rain unleashed by hurricanes.
After Florida was hit by a record seven hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, regulators took a hard look at ways to strengthen their electrical system. There were concerns that dense vegetation around poles and wires had not been adequately maintained, and that more wooden poles had broken than should have, even in the face of severe winds, said Florida Public Service Commissioner Lisa Edgar.

“Another key point we learned is that the sooner you can get the power back on in key areas of the community, the quicker they can be back to normalcy and the quicker you can get those economies to recover,” said Edgar in a telephone interview.

The commission implemented new requirements, including a three-year vegetation management cycle for all major distribution circuits, a three-year transmission inspection program, and an eight-year inspection cycle for all wooden poles. Some of the utilities have replaced wooden poles with concrete ones able to withstand 140-mile-per-hour winds, said Edgar.

The commission also issued an order in 2006 requiring that all of the state’s investor-owned utilities submit annual preparedness plans for review by commission staff.

Monitoring Performance

Regulators in the northeastern states have also been looking more closely at the performance of utilities and demanding they take steps to make improvements. Sandy was the third storm in a little over a year that caused outages of five days or more for large numbers of residents across New England and the mid-Atlantic states, and ratepayers have grown frustrated with the frequent, lengthy disruptions in heat and power.

On January 23, the administration of Governor Chris Christie announced that it was directing utilities in New Jersey to adopt more than 100 measures intended to improve their emergency preparedness and response, and to enhance their communication with customers during a major outage.

In mid-January, a preliminary report from a New York commission authorized by Governor Andrew Cuomo recommended replacing the Long Island Power Authority with a private utility, in response to criticism of the utility’s slow, haphazard response to restoring power following Sandy and the severe storms that hit Long Island in 2011. Sandy knocked out power to more than 1.1 million customers, some of whom endured outages for more than two weeks.

During his State of the State Address on January 9, Cuomo said that a privatized utility on Long Island would be regulated by a “new and empowered” Public Service Commission. “We want to do it in a way that protects the ratepayers and freezes rates for a few years,” he said.

Cuomo said the Commission will require all utilities to come up with a plan for system hardening. He also called for measures to better protect the state’s airports, fuel delivery system, and the sprawling network of subways beneath New York City.

Last December, the state of Massachusetts fined National Grid and two other utilities $24.8 million for their inadequate response to restoring power after Tropical Storm Irene and the freak snowstorm in October 2011, which led to prolonged outages for hundreds of thousands of customers in Massachusetts alone. The fines were the first penalties ever imposed by the state on utilities for their performance following severe weather.

The fines were made possible by a 2009 Massachusetts law that empowered regulators to set performance standards governing emergency preparation and restoration of service after a power outage, and establish reporting requirements. The law compelled utilities to set up storm response plans, and it set penalties for noncompliance.

“The public expectation has changed. They want transparency,” said Barbara Kates-Gernike, energy undersecretary in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, at the Boston conference.

In neighboring Connecticut, prolonged outages during the severe storms of 2011 prompted lawmakers to hold a series of hearings last year to examine the utilities’ performance. The hearings culminated in passage of a bill, signed by Governor Dannel Malloy in July, that contains several provisions similar to those in the Massachusetts law. The legislation directs regulators to set performance standards for emergency preparation and service restoration, and to establish penalties in the case of noncompliance, among other measures.

The legislation also established a $15 million pilot program for communities to set up microgrids—mini electric grids with their own power source that are typically connected to the main grid but designed to “island.” When the grid goes down, they can keep running. In a similar vein, Hanna of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities suggested the state increase the number of public facilities running on combined heat and power plants fueled by natural gas, which produce electricity and heat directly at the site of a facility and can operate independently of the grid.

“What the storm has shown us is just how central all of these utilities are to our lives,” said Hanna. “It’s incumbent upon the Board of Public Utilities to work with the legislature to plan and prepare for the absolute worst,” he added.