by James A. Bacon
Jeffrey A. Hutchinson, manager of Dominion Virginia Power’s central operations center, first took note of Hurricane Matthew a month ago when it was a storm forming off Africa. Keeping tabs through the company’s two meteorologists and subscription weather services, he tracked its progress across the Atlantic Ocean. He felt relieved when the storm seemed to be heading toward the Caribbean – Virginia would dodge another bullet. But then it took a hard-right turn, barreling north along the Florida coast.
The operations center, which coordinates Dominion’s response to major storms, needed to get ready. One way or another, Hutchinson knew, he and his team had a long week ahead.
“We went from thinking that Matthew wouldn’t impact us, to thinking that Florida would be impacted and we’d need to send help, to realizing that we’d need help,” says Robbie Wright, director of planning and system reliability.
When a big storm threatens, Dominion mobilizes with one aim in mind: to restore electric power to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Over the years, the utility has developed a system for coping with catastrophe. The linemen comprise the visible, front-line force, clearing trees, patching power lines, and restoring substations. But they are backed by an extensive back-office staff that identifies issues and organizes a response. Everyone in the company from accountants to customer service reps has a designated support role, whether they’re patrolling power lines in the field or managing logistics in the operations center.
That system kicked in for Matthew. Even though the storm lost its hurricane force by the time it reached Dominion’s service territory in North Carolina and Virginia, it still packed a wallop. Gusts of wind reached 70 miles per hour in the Outer Banks. While the storm surge was mild, seven to ten inches of rain caused more flooding than anyone expected. According to spokesman Janell M. Hancock, Matthew was the 9th most destructive weather event in Dominion’s 100-plus-year history.
The high winds and heavy rain knocked out service to about 350,000 customers in Dominion’s eastern region and another 90,000 in the central region. Repair crews had to replace 285 poles, 870 cross arms, 2,100 insulators, 730 cutouts, 260 pole-mounted transformers and more than 22 miles of overhead wire.
One of Dominion’s top management priorities is reducing routine power outages and restoring power after major weather events as rapidly as possible. Preparations begin long before the bad weather hits. The company maintains a “portfolio” of programs geared to improving reliability year-round. Initiatives range from aggressive tree-trimming along power lines to upgrading sensitive equipment to stainless steel to protect against salt corrosion in coastal areas.
Dominion spends about $200 million a year reconditioning its distribution system (which steps down electricity from the high-powered transmission lines to lower-voltage lines serving homes and businesses), says Hutchinson. Some of that money goes to “hardening” infrastructure, some of it to installing sensors that detect power interruptions, and some of it to systems that allow control room operators to re-route electric flows.
Some of the biggest improvements have occurred out of sight, in Dominion’s three regional distribution operations centers. An extraordinary amount of information flows into these centers, allowing operators to quickly identify problems, set priorities and dispatch linemen into the field. “More and more, it’s about the data,” says Wright.
As Matthew approached Virginia and North Carolina, Hutchinson huddled with his staff to prepare for impact. Dominion belongs to a mutual-aid consortium of power companies that send crews to help one another during emergencies. As the storm track shifted, the power companies were in continual communication, conferring on who needed how much help and where it would come from. Dominion actually sent some of its contract crews down to assist the Florida clean-up; just as their work was finished there, they had to high-tail it back to Virginia.
Normal life shut down at Dominion as employees were dragooned into emergency positions.To keep people informed, communications teams interacted with the public and the news media, while lobbyists and coordinated with cities, counties and towns on emergency response.
Meanwhile, 900 employees from utilities as far away as Massachusetts and Florida traveled to Virginia to help with the restoration. Outside crews don’t show up and go straight to work, Hutchinson explains. Someone has to manage the lodging, travel and feeding of these crews. Someone also has to instruct them on the particularities of Dominion’s distribution system. All those tasks fell to Dominion employees.
IT systems that replace the old paper systems enabled Dominion to speed its response. time. The operations center tracked the exact number of linemen and bucket trucks, as well as their precise location in real time. Information about the distribution system flowed in from sensors, citizen notifications of outages, and field reports. Special “packaging” teams synthesized the data and built work plans for the crews to execute the next morning. Dominion prioritized critical facilities such as hospitals, water treatment centers, and 911 centers for immediate attention. After those were taken care of, the packagers assessed which restoration projects would get the most people back online the fastest.
Dominion’s teams worked 14 to 16 hours per day through the crisis, leaving enough time for people to get a full night’s sleep. Safety and good judgment are paramount, says Hutchinson, and it doesn’t help anyone to have sleep-deprived workers making decisions.
It isn’t easy staring at a computer monitor for hours on end, so the company keeps the food and caffeine flowing during storm responses. Operations veterans joke that a storm is a “five-pound storm” or a “three-pound” storm, depending on how much weight they put on.
Matthew was a three-pounder, quips Hutchinson: severe, but mild compared to Hurricane Isabel, Hurricane Irene and the Derecho. The storm hit Saturday but everyone had their power restored by Thursday. All things considered, he says, he’s proud of the job his team did. “There’s a real sense of satisfaction … to see the lights come on for our customers quickly and safely.”There are currently no comments highlighted.