Severe Weather Prompts Utilities to Revamp Preparedness, Recovery Planning

As New York, New Jersey and neighboring states continue the arduous process of rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy, there is a growing acknowledgment among the public that the near future could bring more extreme events. Amid this new landscape, utilities have come under increasing pressure to respond faster to the extended power outages that have occurred after Sandy and other recent severe storms.

Ratepayers are clamoring for better and more frequent information on power restoration efforts after losing power, and state officials are demanding it, too. National Grid President Marcy Reed said that after being hit with three 100-year storm events in less than a year and a half, the utility, which serves 1.3 million customers in Massachusetts, has made a variety of changes in the way it prepares for and addresses severe weather.

“Our language at National Grid has changed in the last year. We are starting with the customer and working backward,” said Reed during a panel discussion with industry and public officials in Boston on December 21. Communication with key stakeholders has improved, and the company has enhanced its efforts to secure outside resources to assist with storm restoration efforts, she said.

Last month, Massachusetts fined National Grid and two other utilities $24.8 million for their inadequate response to restoring power following 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 – the first penalties ever imposed by the state on utilities for their performance following severe weather – were made possible by a 2009 Massachusetts law, which compelled utilities to set up storm response plans and set penalties for non-compliance.

Barbara Kates-Garnick, energy undersecretary at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the Massachusetts law created a framework for officials to conduct a systematic review of a utility’s storm restoration efforts – a process that few other states have, she said. The law empowered regulators to set performance standards governing emergency preparation and restoration of service following a power outage, and establish reporting requirements.

“It’s the management on the utility side that has to deeply engage these issues,” Kates-Garnick said during the conference. “How are utilities deploying resources and crews?” Outage management, she said, is “where the rubber meets the road.”

In neighboring Connecticut, prolonged outages during the severe storms of 2011 prompted lawmakers to hold a series of hearings last year examining utilities’ performance. They culminated in passage of a bill, signed by Gov. Dannel Malloy in July, which 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.

Bill Quinlan, senior vice president of emergency preparedness for Connecticut Light and Power, the state’s largest utility, admitted that emergency planning “was not front and center” for the company back in 2011, before the devastating storms that struck the state that summer and fall. Quinlan told the conference in Boston that his position was created in the aftermath of those events, which led to widespread outages across the state. Prior to 2011, the last extreme weather event to hit the state had been Hurricane Gloria in 1986.

The utility applied lessons learned from its restoration efforts in 2011 to its response to Sandy, said Quinlan. That included its decision to adopt the Incident Command System, a standardized set of procedures intended to improve emergency response. In late July, CL&P participated in a four-day emergency response drill organized by the administration of Gov. Malloy that engaged every utility, regulator and municipality in the state to prepare for a severe storm.

One of the significant improvements that came out of those preparations was the utility’s enhanced ability to coordinate with key state agencies to speed the restoration process during Sandy, said Quinlan.

As part of its new storm preparedness efforts, last June CL&P filed a five-year, $300 million infrastructure hardening plan intended to reduce the number of outages during a storm. High on the list is tree trimming, a key measure in Connecticut, which has the most dense tree stock of any state per mile of infrastructure, he said.

“Vegetative management is the single best thing we can do as a state to reduce the number of outages,” said Quinlan.

Other aspects of the plan include installing larger poles and bigger, more resilient wires that can withstand heavy winds.

While the latest severe weather events have served to highlight the dangers created by increasingly extreme weather, most Northeastern states and some cities have in recent years analyzed the potential for damage from floods and high winds expected in conjunction with a changing climate. They have also established climate action plans focused on mitigating the impacts as well as adapting to rising sea levels. And although some skeptics have questioned the validity of the predictions associated with adaptation plans, the damages caused by Superstorm Sandy confirm the potential accuracy of such analyses.

For example, in New York City, the scope of Sandy’s destruction had been predicted by the authors of a 2011 New York State report, The ClimAID Integrated Assessment for Effective Climate Change Adaptation. The impact of the storm’s 14-foot tidal surge followed the path of flooding detailed in the earlier assessment, as it inundated major transportation tunnels and subways, and plunged hundreds of thousands of city residents into darkness for days.

Such flooding could become the norm during large storms in the coming decades, if the report’s climate models are also accurate. By mid-century, average temperatures are predicted to increase by three to five degrees Fahrenheit across the state, and sea levels could rise anywhere from 5 to 29 inches, depending on how rapidly polar ice sheets melt. But other analyses suggest those forecasts could be conservative. Some researchers at Columbia University predict that ice melt could cause more than a four-foot rise along New York’s coastline by the end of the century, based on certain modeling forecasts showing an acceleration of the rate of ice melt over land masses in Greenland and West Antarctica.

In Boston, another coastal metropolis at risk of severe damages from tidal surges, officials released the city’s first climate plan in 2007 and updated it in 2011. The plan addresses mitigation, adaptation, community engagement, and issues surrounding social equity. Although the city is quite vulnerable to flooding, with most of the major commercial buildings built on fill in tidelands, Boston was relatively fortunate during Sandy. While the storm downed trees and produced power outages for around 200,000 customers in the state, the city’s infrastructure escaped major damages.

“If Hurricane Sandy had hit during our high tide in Boston we would have had a 100-year flood event,” said Brian Swett, chief of environment and energy for the city of Boston, at the December 21 conference. “It was a very significant near miss.”

Boston, like the rest of the region, has an aging electrical infrastructure that presents policymakers with an opportunity to find ways to fortify it for the next 100 years, said Swett.

Reed of National Grid mentioned new technologies that “add value” for customers. The utility would like to expand to other locations a pilot project in Worcester offering customers smarter appliances and other technologies that provide greater information on use and can better pinpoint outages as they occur.

“People are clamoring for it,” said Reed.

But officials have expressed skepticism that the technology would be of use during a storm like Sandy that knocks out a large portion of the power system.

How fast to modernize the grid, what upgrades would be most effective to deal with severe weather and who should pay for the potentially costly improvements are looming questions that have yet to be tackled by policymakers.

— By Rona Cohen

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