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.Continue reading