Another record-setting weather event for utilities

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I spent this past weekend at a tropical water park in the Wisconsin Dells -- not able to stand the sight (and the cold) of the eight inches of snow we had gotten the day before.

When I wasn't at the water park, I closely watched the East Coast, which had been predicted to get buried by 3 feet of snow (and that was a conservative estimate, according to HLN Headline News), from the hotel room.

My main concern was that the power stayed on at the home of my 93-year-old Grandmother who lives just down the street from National Grid. I suppose I was also concerned since my livelihood is the energy industry.

All kidding aside, hundreds of thousands of customers across the East Coast lost power (thankfully, my relatives in Blackstone, Mass., and Woonsocket and North Smithfield, Rhode Island weren't among them). Did the utilities do any better this time around?

Industry analysts told me before the storm that they believed utilities had learned from the delays (and scathing criticism) following Superstorm Sandy.

Unfortunately, utilities can't do much to address the potential storm damage before it happens. This is a function of the nature of construction methods used for transmission and distribution lines, storm severity, and the condition of trees in the area. 

"This is a bit like knowing that an earthquake was going to hit next week and asking what could people/companies/governments do to minimize the damage to buildings," said Sam Sciacca, a Senior Member of IEEE and smart grid technical expert. "The die has been cast through years of construction standards and practices."

Further, public outcry against tree trimming has been a huge barrier. In response, the industry has developed a conductor/construction technique which allows conductors to run very close, and even through, tree branches, according to Sciacca. 

This is fine when weather conditions are normal, but major storms affecting trees produce more damage to the system due to the close proximity of the conductors to trees. 

Another Swiss-cheese solution (it's got a lot of holes in it) could be to bring more expensive power plants online, but the bulk of outages occur from damage to distribution facilities. 

Although the utilities haven't had much time to implement protections since Superstorm Sandy, some strides have been made. Proactive measures that utilities have taken involve repositioning line crews, tree crews, poles, and distribution construction equipment. 

The longer term question remains how to make the electric infrastructure more robust and reliable. The actual solution still remains somewhat elusive and the subject much debate. -- Barb