Why this was WEC’s most expensive storm ever, and what’s next
40 broken poles, $900,000+ in damages. How WEC plans to respond to members’ needs for the next one
Steve: As a WEC member and Board member, I want to start by expressing my appreciation for the efforts of all WEC employees in restoring power during this outage. It was a record-breaking storm in many respects, and staff had to battle against some unprecedented situations: key personnel were ill, a crew member was injured on the job, our nationally-based call center we use to back up our communications was overwhelmed, to name a few. But our crew and support personnel worked until they got the job done. While I was out of power for nearly six days, I was certainly inconvenienced but not concerned. I knew that no matter what happens, the power is going to come back on. From my experience in watching outage responses over the years I’ve served on the Board, I’ve seen that WEC crews and support staff at the office work hard and steadily to restore power in some trying situations with a professionalism we should all be proud of.
Louis: Some background: this was a big one. We had roughly half our membership out of power after the storm. It wasn’t the largest number of members we’ve ever had out, but it was a large number. And, this was probably the most expensive storm in WEC’s history. The count now is 40 broken poles, which is a record, and the most ever outside crews working on WEC’s system. In all those ways it was unusual.
I’m very grateful to the line crews and tree crews who came through to help us. We certainly would have had members out for longer than we did if not for those outside crews, some from Vermont utilities and some from out of state as well.
It was not the longest outage WEC has had by any means, but the timing was extraordinarily bad. It was cold, and many people had family visiting for the holidays. The timing was a challenge both for members out of power and also for WEC line crews and outside line crews who worked over the holidays.
As Steve mentioned, we had a couple things that further complicated our efforts. Three key WEC staffers came down with Covid. I’m grateful to them for continuing to work from home to assist with the outage, but that challenged our restoration efforts. In addition, we use a metering system that alerts us when members meters’ are out, and it broke down in the East Montpelier substation during the storm. That meant that feeder lines from East Montpelier were giving us incomplete or no information about who was out. We had to do it all on paper, and we relied on members alerting us through the automated system and telephone calls.
Those were challenges on the operational side of things. On the communication side of things, the national CRC [Cooperative Response Center] call center we use serves a lot of cooperative utilities, and a lot of those utilities around the country sustained damage from the storm and had members calling in. Those systems were strained as well.
Even late last week, crews were still finding trees on the line. There’s still work to be done related to the outage. We’re working on getting the total cost estimates and figuring out what the FEMA resolution will be. It looks quite likely it will be a FEMA-eligible event for at least one or two of our counties; the final determination on that hasn’t been made yet. Our current estimate is that we spent roughly $900,000 on restoration. When you bring crews in from outside, it speeds up your restoration effort, and it also costs money.
“We can certainly provide estimates of restoration. The questions are, how accurate are those estimates, and what are those providers of estimates not doing instead?” – Louis Porter
Considerations for the future
Louis: We haven’t done our internal reviews yet. But I will say: there are, in my mind, two things that WEC does that I think bear consideration and review.
One is: unlike GMP [Green Mountain Power], we don’t stage crews, meaning hire outside crews ahead of time, because it’s very expensive to do that. We don’t bring in contract crews to wait and be prepared to work on our system because they have to be paid for that waiting time. In the past we have chosen to not incur that expense because there’s the possibility the storm won’t be as severe, or as severe in our territory. This may change, but it may remain my recommendation to not do that in the future. Instead, we should reach out and secure help as soon as we know the extent of the damage, as we did during the Christmas storm.
But several members called me to point out that their GMP neighbors were restored far more rapidly than WEC, and that’s a fair criticism. The expense to stage crews would be considerable, and in cases when storms don’t materialize as we fear they might, we’d be paying crews to not ultimately have a lot of work to do.
The other decision we’re reevaluating is: typically, WEC doesn’t provide restoration estimates to particular areas or members. We don’t do that in case the outage is more complicated or difficult to fix than we thought and the estimate turns out to be bad. That’s a rational position, but we may need to change it in the future. People expect to have more immediate information than our current approach takes into account. We’ll need to reevaluate whether we offer restoration estimates in the future, with caveats that they’re not always accurate.
Steve: The issue of getting storm crews in ahead of time is a gamble. As it turned out, WEC did not have the need for much outside help in the storm a few days before Winter Storm Elliott. It would have had to use its members’ money to hire crews to stand by until the detailed consequences of the new storm became known. So it comes down to a judgment of how and when to proactively spend WEC members’ money in the face of uncertainty of how destructive an outage will turn out to be.
Another issue is communicating with our members during the storm and during the recovery. We’ve already mentioned that in this storm, key personnel who would normally be passing info from the field to the office and vice versa were jammed, and several other communication systems we typically rely on were stressed. We will review our methods for outage communications nonetheless. In doing so, we need to be careful not to raise expectations that can’t readily be met, as Louis said. We can establish reasonable priorities on the useful and essential information that can be delivered with sufficient speed and accuracy, and try to match what we think members would probably like to know with what we have the capability of accurately providing while our staff is managing a restoration effort. This recent experience has given us targets for how to improve in specific ways.
“Members can expect that WEC will take reasonable practical measures to ensure reliability and speedy restoration while not resulting in unreasonable rate increases. What I expect members to do is to be prepared for the possibility of power outages that can last a significant length of time.” – Louis Porter
Louis: We can certainly provide estimates of restoration. The questions are, how accurate are those estimates, and what are those providers of estimates not doing instead? We had two dispatchers working the entire storm, and one was working from home with Covid. That’s two dispatchers, working 18-hour shifts for six days supporting the 70 or more people in the field. If those folks stop doing that to provide updates, restoration may be slower as a result. That’s a consideration.
For me, what warrants the conversation inside WEC is: do those estimates provide more harm or good? For someone running low on fuel for their generator, who’s making an assessment about the resources they have and what action to take, does an estimate that is almost certain to be inaccurate help or harm them? I think we may need to offer restoration estimates, but combined with education around why and when they might be inaccurate, so people can take that into account as well.
Steve: That sounds like an issue of scale. In this last storm, staff and outside crews were just swamped. Everyone was working flat out and there was little guarantee that estimates could be given that would stand up.
Louis: I’ve talked to a lot of members during the outage and restoration and since then. When you really boil it down to what they want, they want to know when their power’s going back on. I think we ought to endeavor to do that and we will. Vermont Electric Co-op and GMP both do that, so it is possible.
Steve: Sure. I think it’s something we could target in the future. When new tech makes it more feasible, we can do a better job. There are already efforts underway at WEC to streamline the flow of information through the office and crews for outage management. This is also a path to improve communications through electronic means.
Louis: It’s not just communication among people, but among substations. This year, with the aid of VELCO [Vermont Electric Power Company, the state’s utility-owned transmission service], we’ll complete the process of having fiber to all of our substations, which will greatly improve our ability to see remotely what’s going on at our substations, and bring far more robust internet coverage to WEC’s office and warehouse. WEC is moving away from paper and toward electronic work. As Steve says, it’ll help with outages as well as our day-to-day operations.
All those things are important. We need to work on and improve all of them. And all that said, the level of service people count on are different in rural areas than in dense urban areas. Public safety, road service, telecommunications, and utilities, including electrical service: these are different in places with widely spread out populations. That will remain true. And it’s more expensive, at least in the case of electrical service, a service that needs to be physically connected between wires and poles that are vulnerable.
Steve: As we often say, we have only nine customers per mile of line to pay for upkeep of the infrastructure. When you look at WEC’s service area, it’s almost all rural. We serve very few village areas or towns. Our lines go cross country. Many are inaccessible by road.
We can be a challenging area to serve sometimes even on a sunny, clear day. After this winter storm, with multiple added challenges, I am proud of everybody on WEC staff who pulled together and did what they could when the chips were down.
“You can invest a lot of resources to reduce risk, but this is a cooperative, and it is our members’ resources we’re investing. So, we need to be careful about what WEC can reasonably do and what members can do for themselves.” – Stephen Knowlton
Louis: I am too. And I want to give special thanks to several former WEC employees who came back to help us out. At a time when we had a lot of outside crews, the greatest need was for people who knew our system. They helped outside crews know where to go and navigate our system. Without their help, we might have had crews unable to work all the time or as efficiently as they did.
Reasonable expectations, paradoxical trends
Louis: There are two opposite and related trends happening. While no particular storm or particular weather event can be laid at the feet of climate change, trends can be, and what we see of the trend is: more damage from storms, more severe storms happening periodically in Vermont and in our territory, warmer weather resulting in more moisture and ice forming, ground thaws resulting in more trees likely to fall over, higher winds causing more trees to come down. We saw trees that stood for 100 or more years of storms fall due to the direction and severity of the wind.
Keeping the power on will be more difficult as we face impacts from more severe storms. At the same time, we are, for all good reasons, encouraging beneficial electrification, and encouraging more people to move to our rural territory. That leads to increased expectations for reliability, and decreased willingness to deal with outages. Totally legitimate. But weather trends are making it more difficult to maintain reliability at the same time that expectations for reliability are growing.
Steve: If indeed the environment of Vermont is gradually but steadily shifting, then our ecosystem will have to adapt to the new climate. As Louis says, our forests here aren’t ideally suited to the weather changes they’re seeing. I assume well in the future there’ll be a different mix of trees here. In the meantime, it’s tougher for them.
Louis: Members can expect that WEC will take reasonable practical measures to ensure reliability and speedy restoration while not resulting in unreasonable rate increases. That’s what members should expect from us. What I expect members to do is to be prepared for the possibility of power outages that can last a significant length of time.
Living here, we all need to be prepared for that. Even with all the investment and hard work and goodwill in the world, rural parts of Vermont, served by any of the utilities, have the possibility of days-long outages, and people who live in those rural areas need to be prepared for that possibility.
That means different things to different people depending on what your circumstances are. That means medical necessities, water, food. It means a generator if you absolutely can’t go a certain amount of time without electrical service, and having friends and neighbors who are willing to help you out and make sure you have what you need – as many did during this storm. But the fact is, no matter what WEC or VEC or GMP do, rural parts of the state are going to have outages that last more than a day or two in some cases.
Steve: Louis has it right. There are lessons in this for all of us. Knowing the storm was coming, I should have tested my generator before the outage, when we learned that the gas line between the gas tank and carburetor was blocked by crud, and had to do repairs after the power was out. Preparation is the key.
You can invest a lot of resources to reduce risk, but this is a cooperative, and it is our members’ resources we’re investing. So, we need to be careful about what WEC can reasonably do and what members can do for themselves.
Louis: The last thing I want to share is my very sincere and deep appreciation for our members. We had many instances of members calling us to offer assistance and providing assistance to their neighbors. We had many supportive messages of thanks from members in person and through various social communications of all kinds. At least half a dozen people brought in food for our crews. And those who were very upset about the length of the outage, with good reason, were also understanding of what WEC is and the challenges and difficulties of providing electrical service in this territory. Living here most of my life I already had a deep appreciation for the people who make up the towns of WEC territory, but it was heightened and deepened by what I saw in people caring for our crews.
Steve: As Louis says, WEC members were pretty understanding. For the most part they know what they’re facing in large storms, and they know the lights will be coming back on. It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when. I appreciate our members’ fortitude, their grace, and their patience in the face of difficulties.