President’s & GM’s Message: Proactive Changes In WEC’s Major Outage Communication; Winter Storms Hit WEC Territory Hard

Coop CurrentsCoop News

Truck Accident Causes Coventry Plant Shutdown; GMP’s Zero Outages Initiative
Irasburg truck accident

Steve: Members may have heard about the truck accident in Irasburg where a propane truck drove into the Black River and burned. What was not included in most coverage was that the accident impacted our generation plant at Coventry.

Louis: The morning of December 4, a propane tractor trailer went off the bridge on Route 14 in Irasburg. It bumped our transmission pole, though amazingly, it didn’t damage it. The truck fell into the river, caught on fire, and burned for two days, melting the bridge. We had to shut off our transmission line from Coventry, which meant an emergency shutdown for the plant. An emergency shutdown is hard on infrastructure and can damage wires. Fortunately, our lines were not damaged, so we could re-energize them without replacing any of them. But we did lose a few days of production at Coventry. We are working out what legal or financial steps Washington Electric is likely to take to resolve this. No one was injured, which is the most important thing.

I find it ironic that a fossil fuel truck knocked out the renewable energy plant.

– Stephen Knowlton

Winter storms cause days-long outages

Louis: On November 27 and again on December 4, Washington Electric territory got hit by significant winter storms. In fact, weather has caused outages every Monday in December, and it is flooding as we go to press.

The November 27 storm was the worst in Washington Electric’s service area. More than half of our members lost power, and we had damage across our entire service area. While precipitation fell as rain in western and southern parts of the state, our region is higher in elevation, and temperatures were just cold enough so that precipitation fell as the wettest, heaviest possible snow. This kind of snow wreaks havoc in our territory, almost as bad as an ice storm. Pines get weighed down and, with their shallow root systems in our rocky soil, break or fall over on the lines. 

We had hundreds of different events on our lines. As power is restored in one place, all the locations downstream where the lines are damaged become apparent. Meanwhile, trees all over the place are thawing out by light of day, unloading their snow, and snapping or springing into lines, causing new damage. This is why the number of outages can climb over the course of a day, as we saw over the Monday after Thanksgiving.

You know how difficult it can be to untangle a knot? Imagine trying to untangle a wire that’s pinned under a huge wet log. Now imagine that on a giant scale, at four in the morning, 32 degrees and precipitating, and the wire is potentially electrified. Our lineworkers face this challenge hundreds of times in order to restore power from a single storm. They go out with chainsaws, snowshoes, and all kinds of heavy equipment, sometimes for twelve to sixteen hours at a time. We know it can take days for members to have their power restored, and that takes a lot of patience. But many of our members also understand the unique difficulty of restoring power in Washington Electric’s territory, and I’m grateful for that.

Steve: I don’t have much to add to this report, as I spent much of these outages down-periscope at home, shuttling generators between our house and our neighbors’ houses, being glad for the precautions we took and rueing the ones we hadn’t gotten around to this early in the season. Our houseguest from Québec assured us they often have storm outages in the eastern townships, so I guess she took it all in stride, and maybe even felt at home.

I had some satisfaction trying out a low-cost Rube Goldberg battery project to power low-wattage appliances, like an internet router, for several days without having to run a generator, in lieu of waiting for the power to come back on. I imagined many old-time New Englanders would do the same, had the internet existed then.

Of course, I knew that the power would come on again in due time, because the line crews were hard at work, and that patience was all that was really required of me. In a large outage, if WEC needs additional crews from other utilities, we bring them in. WEC quickly assesses the need for additional crews if the outage appears to be shaping up to be a major one. It may prove to cost more in the long run, but WEC feels its members want their power back on as soon as feasible. 

These weather-related outages seem to be more common, and more intense, these days. One has the sense that with regard to weather, change is in the air and that the shape of things to come is not likely to be the same as yesterday or even today. It behooves us to figure out how best to adapt to this challenge as individual residents, as a cooperative, and as a society.

Changes in outage response

Louis: There were two major pieces coming out of last year’s Christmas storm for us. One is the need to better use our digital tools and software tools during outages, both for our internal operations and for visibility to members. The other is more communication about when we plan to restore certain parts of the territory to power.

First, Washington Electric uses NISC software [National Information Solutions Cooperative], like most utilities in the country, for outage management. We’re working to make sure we’re using this software to its potential. 

I believe our members would now appreciate it if we explore making investments targeted to the present challenge of resiliency and reliability of the system they own if the weather isn’t going to cooperate.

– Stephen Knowlton

For a long time, Washington Electric has been largely paper-based in its operations. We’re moving to be digital in a wide variety of ways, but one of the important ones is outage management. That means expanding the ability of crews in the field to communicate more information, more frequently, and also to operate on more information out in the field. Washington Electric territory doesn’t have universal cell phone coverage, so that’s hampered where there isn’t a signal, but the system is set up to upload and download when someone enters signal range. So, that’s one piece.

The other part relates to our members’ expectations. Given the number of people who work from home, given the number of members who’ve moved here from places that are not as rural, and given our increasing use of electricity and internet for essential purposes as our members replace fossil fuel devices with electric ones, people have increasing expectations for receiving information about the causes of outages, and more importantly, when they can expect power to be restored. 

We’ve increased the detail and specificity of our maps. We’re increasing the level of information we put out to members in terms of when we expect to restore outages in certain areas, through maps, on our blog and website, and through the SmartHub system.

Those are the major categories of effort, and within them, there’s a lot of detail. All this comes with two risks or costs. One is: WEC is a very small organization. The people who dispatch crews and make sure crews are working effectively to restore the most number of members as quickly as possible, and are doing so safely, are also the same people gathering the info to go out to members. We need to make sure we’re not sacrificing the primary objective in order to get more information out there. We need to protect their ability to do that essential work. 

Second, those restoration estimates are certainly going to be wrong. It’s very difficult to accurately assess what crews are going to find in the field when they find a problem area, and how time consuming that problem will be to repair, especially with our current metering system. We ask members to remember we’re providing estimates, but they’re invariably going to be wrong.

Steve: I doubt the estimates are all wrong! But there is a limit to how certain WEC can be about restoration times during the fluid situation of a major outage.

Louis: Let me put it this way: they won’t all be wrong in the same direction.

Steve: I received an estimate that power would be restored at 2 pm, and was pleasantly surprised to have it restored hours earlier.

Louis: This is exactly the problem with estimates. We made that time estimate based on how long it would take to repair broken poles. Then we realized we could backfeed a section of line and get members back on sooner. As a result, Steve and his neighbors had power at 10 am. Although this was a welcome inaccuracy for the members who got their power on earlier than expected, sometimes it goes the other way.

Steve: I think the fact that you and your staff have instituted this system is good recognition of what some members have told us over the past several years, which is that this is the kind of information they’d like to have. It’s a way WEC can let our members know we are aware of their needs as individuals. I think most members will appreciate the estimates even with the uncertainties embedded in them. Even if they’re inaccurate, it’s a good start, and we’ll learn.

Louis: It’s hard to test such a system until there are major outages. Steve recently cited a great Napoleon quote: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” We’ll review how this is working after we complete cleanup from this last round of winter storms. We do appreciate our members’ feedback as we adjust both our processes and expectations.

Probably the most surprising thing to me after two years in this job is this: last year, near the end of the Christmas storm, we and all the other utilities called everyone who was still out of power. These are folks who’d been out of power for at least four days at that point. The vast majority of feedback we got was supportive and understanding. That was surprising to me. I would not have expected that people still had that feeling after that length of time without electricity. Most members do understand the challenges Washington Electric has, and the effort people put into not just restoration of outages, but their work in general. 

There were two major pieces coming out of last year’s Christmas storm for us. One is the need to better use our digital tools and software tools during outages, both for our internal operations and for visibility to members. The other is more communication about when we plan to restore certain parts of the territory to power.

– Louis Porter

Steve: Most of our members know how to weather the storms, and they are generally prepared. People check in on their neighbors, particularly those who need extra help. I’m really appreciative of our membership as a whole. They’re pretty resilient to what nature throws at ’em, even if, like me, they grumble a bit.

GMP aims for no outages by 2030

Steve: Green Mountain Power [GMP] has publicly stated what I think a lot of us feel: that we need to think pragmatically about how to improve our systems so that they’re more resilient to stress and they’re more reliable in terms of overall service, and make appropriate investments. Overall, GMP’s message helps Vermonters think about what they need in an electric system. 

Many of our state policymakers promote increased use of clean electricity, as well as increased reliance on electricity for transportation and heating. This reliance highlights the increasing need of our members, and any ratepayer, to have access to electricity that is both reliable and affordable. Our polls and surveys regularly show that reliability and reasonable cost rank highest in what WEC members want from their electricity provider. This need for dependable electricity to support beneficial electrification comes at the same time as we respond to the stress to our grid from what seems to be a pattern of more damaging weather. 

Louis: Green Mountain Power’s plan is a very ambitious one: to use hardening of the grid infrastructure, primarily through undergrounding wires and deploying batteries, including in-home batteries, to eliminate outages.

While their area has a lot more areas in it that are more densely settled than Washington Electric’s, they also have a lot of rural areas. So, there’s a lot Washington Electric can learn from their approach, as regulators question it and if they implement it. Moving their plan wholesale to Washington Electric territory wouldn’t work for a variety of reasons, but there are elements we’ll learn from.

GMP is a fellow utility that faces a lot of the same cost and reliability challenges as we do, so we appreciate them taking the lead on this. And frankly, we appreciate they’re spending investors’ money on this system. Steve has said this before: the money investors are willing to put forward is a good resource to test these new systems, and that’s the benefit of having an investor-owned utility in the state. Cooperatively owned utilities like ours are necessarily risk-cautious, because all our money is our member-owners’ money. Vermont benefits from having a variety of utilities with different investment plans. This is a bold investment we can learn from.

Steve: This is not business as usual. The practices that have served us well up to now may have to adapt to meet emerging threats. It would be good if we develop new ways to mitigate  outages. As a Board member of this cooperative utility, I gravitate to an approach that improves resilience against storms for all members, if the results can be reasonably expected to justify the cost.

Louis: This is no surprise to any reader, but everything’s a balance of how much money you want to spend versus the services you receive. Take undergrounding utility lines: new tech has made doing that more efficient and somewhat cheaper, but it’s still more expensive than running lines overhead. That’s particularly the case in territory where there’s a lot of ledge, trees, forest land, and lines away from the road. Undergrounding lines is something Washington Electric does now, in areas where we’re serving houses, and in other areas as well. It’s something we consider.

There are also ways to make overhead lines more compact and resilient, and less likely to suffer damage from trees. We’re applying right now to FEMA for a grant to make that update to part of our system, and we will do more of that in the future. Again, it comes with a cost, but it makes sense to do in areas where we’re overheading lines. 

The other element is battery storage. Washington Electric has applied with other utility partners for two grants for substation battery storage. Unfortunately, we did not get either of these. As far as home batteries, Washington Electric may get into the business of providing these. If we make it cheaper for a homeowner to buy batteries outright, that will come at the cost of being subsidized by other members. There may be reasons to do that, but someone ultimately needs to pay the cost.

Steve: It would be inspiring if GMP succeeds at reaching their 2030 target. Being able to achieve zero outages with methods other northeast utilities could copy would be a positive adaptation to change.

We’ll keep watch as this unfolds. WEC is a demonstrated regional leader in renewable electricity through our previous investments, and has already met the conditions of Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard. I believe our members would now appreciate it if we explore making investments targeted to the present challenge of resiliency and reliability of the system they own if the weather isn’t going to cooperate. Let us know if you think otherwise.