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Major Storms and Pandemic Complicate Utility Response Efforts, Drawing Intense Scrutiny

image credit: Credit: Entergy

As Hurricane Laura slams into parts of the Louisiana and Texas Gulf coasts, everyone from lawmakers to regulators to customers who are left without power will watch see how nimbly the region’s utilities respond.

The challenge for a utility like Entergy Louisiana will be its ability to restore electric power service as rapidly and safely as possible, and also to accomplish that at a time when the coronavirus pandemic remains a major concern.

No less important will be to see if utilities that serve areas hardest hit by Hurricane Laura—an intense Category 4 storm when it made landfall—will respond more effectively than utilities in the northeast. Criticism of utility restoration efforts has been sharp in states like Connecticut, New Jersey and New York after Tropical Storm Isaias swept through the region in early August and disrupted power service in some places for more than a week.

On August 24, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said he would push for legislation to hold utilities accountable for failures to effectively respond to future power outages. In response to what he said was “the unacceptable performance” of multiple electric and telecom service providers during Isaias, the legislation would increase the current legal limits on penalties and create a more streamlined process to revoke a utility's operating certificate for recurring failures.

"The response by the utility companies to Isaias was unacceptable and it's even worse that they continue to have such problems during storms and in the aftermath,” Cuomo said in a statement. “We know these storms are going to happen. We don't pay for utilities to function on a nice day, the essence of what we pay for is be ready for a storm.”

Utility storm response is always a critical metric, but it is receiving extra scrutiny this year as the pandemic has forced many people to work and learn from home. Storm-caused outages in residential neighborhoods may have greater-than-normal impacts as a result.

After Isaias moved through, mutual assistance crews from around the country arrived to help restore power. Their efforts were stymied in part by trees blocking roads and damage to buildings making repair work unsafe.

A spokesman for Eversource told one news outlet that the company rejected the idea that it was not ready for the storm when it hit Connecticut. He said the company had prepared based on weather forecasts and positioned repair crews and equipment around the state. He said the forecast for Isaias changed as the storm approached.

“Storms change track, strength,” he was quoted as saying. “It changed, and you have to be flexible, you have to adapt, and that’s what we did. We immediately began securing additional help.”

New York’s Department of Public Service sent Notice of Apparent Violation letters to Con Edison, Orange & Rockland, PSEG LI and Central Hudson notifying them that they face possible penalties and must take “immediate corrective actions” so that similar failures are not repeated for the rest of hurricane season.

In an August 19 letter, department CEO John Rhodes listed multiple requirements for the utilities to address:

  • Immediately begin the process of adding crewing capacity via retainer contracts from private contractors or utilities located outside of New York, with a goal to be able to secure sufficient crewing to double existing internal capacity;
  • Develop other plans to secure utility crews in addition to private contractor and mutual aid provided before and during storms;
  • Test capabilities at all command and data centers, call centers and back-up command centers to ensure capability to handle an outage impacting 90% or more of customers;
  • Refine coordination plans with municipalities tailored to each county (road clearing, local liaisons, and so on); and
  • Update Life Support Equipment and Critical Infrastructure lists to remove or add customers as necessary.

National attention now turns to the Gulf Coast where utilities will begin to respond to Hurricane Laura.

Before the storm made landfall on August 27 with winds as high as 150 mph, Entergy Corp. said it had assembled a workforce of nearly 10,000. In addition, mutual assistance crews from 20 states could be called on to help.

The utility said it had moved equipment and crews from the path of the storm to allow them to begin restoration work as soon as the storm passes. Crews also added flood protections for equipment in other areas that could experience high water. It said that high-water vehicles, drones, helicopters and airboats also had been secured to help with restoration efforts.

Entergy crews in Arkansas patrolled the system looking for service risks and worked to ensure the necessary resources, equipment and workforce were available to restore power. “We understand the hardships an extended power outage can cause for our customers,” said  Entergy Arkansas President and CEO Laura Landreaux. She said those hardships can be especially acute “during the heat of an Arkansas summer with so many working from home and remote learning for children.”

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