Cross-training of some of its employees so they could help restore electric service in an emergency is among the strategies that enabled the city-owned utility in Norwich, Conn., to restore electricity so quickly last August after the Northeast was hit by Hurricane Irene, Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda told a Senate committee April 26.
The fact that the utility's employees are from the community also makes a difference in this kind of situation, he said. And micro grids -- distributed generation placed in strategic spots -- can help cities survive such emergencies, but federal regulators need to make sure that regional tariffs support these micro grids, Bilda said.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee called the hearing to look at how utilities responded to electrical outages caused by storms, particularly the aftermath of Irene and a late October snowstorm that blacked out power to some 2 million households along the East Coast. Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said he was interested in whether the federal government could take any steps to help utilities prepare for and respond to weather-related electrical outages.
"It seems like we are experiencing more catastrophic weather events," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. "It's not once every five to 10 years any more. This has become a much more frequent occurrence."
Bingaman agreed, and brought out a chart showing that, in the last two decades, there has been a dramatic uptick in large-scale power disruptions caused by severe storms.
"We need to have a more weather-ready nation," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. An investment in power grids and backup generation would pay for itself in a relatively short period of time, she said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., applauded Norwich's fast response to Irene. "While more than 800,000 customers in Connecticut suffered without electricity for days, the city of Norwich restored power to 90% of its customers within 48 hours of Hurricane Irene," he said.
Bilda said Norwich's ability to get the power back so fast was due to a number of steps the municipal utility has taken over the years to prepare for this type of event. The city has an aggressive tree-trimming program, and uses infrared inspections and pole integrity examinations to make sure its distribution system is up to par, he said. Norwich has 32 miles of fiber optic lines that link the city's communication network and that give the municipal utility the ability to monitor its substation connection with the transmission system, he said.
"We own the network, so we do not depend on a third-party telecommunications operator for this critical communication component," he said.
Norwich relocated the city's emergency operations center to the municipal utility's operations center, which also helped keep various stakeholders -- fire, health, policy, public works -- in touch, he said.
Norwich cross trains its electric and underground construction crews so the construction crews can work as support staff for the linemen, he said. "We can now double our restoration capacity" in an emergency by pairing two electric line crews with two underground construction crew members, he said.
The local connection that employees have also is very important, Bilda said.
"Our employees live in our community and possess local and institutional knowledge of the system, which makes a marked difference in an emergency," he said.
Norwich also relied on mutual aid agreements it has with other public power utilities through the Northeast Public Power Association when restoring power after Hurricane Irene, Bilda said. NEPPA asked for help for the region and, within 24 hours, crews from North Carolina and Indiana were headed into New England, he said.
He noted that there is one situation "where no amount of crews can help us restore power" -- when regional transmission lines go down.
The city's wholesale supplier, the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative, put in place 16 distributed generation units designed to provide 2.5 megawatts of power each, to be used during such emergencies. Norwich Public Utilities also owns a 20-MW combustion turbine that is used to provide emergency power, Bilda said.
"Collectively, all of our self-owned distributed generators can supply a significant portion of normal load (i.e., demand) should the need arise in an emergency," he said. This is especially important considering the fact that water treatment and wastewater treatment machinery cannot work without electricity, he noted. "With this effort, we have achieved much of the 'micro grid' and 'smart grid' visions as originally published in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and as adopted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission," Bilda said.
However, the existing tariffs in place at ISO New England are unclear about whether and when the use of ‘micro grid’ and ‘smart grid’ designs are permitted, he said. Norwich has asked FERC to issue an assessment on whether the utility can use micro grids.
"There is a real need for FERC to clarify and affirm that these micro grids are consistent with tariffs," said Sen. Blumenthal. "Micro grids are part of our energy future."
"We know there's going to be another storm," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking minority member of the energy committee. However, she noted that many of New England’s weather-related problems last year were at the local level, and said she is "a little concerned that we may be blurring the lines between our proper federal role in overseeing the bulk power system and the historic state role in maintaining the distribution system."
Murkowski discussed her efforts to get FERC and the Environmental Protection Agency to look at the cumulative impacts of EPA regulations on electric reliability.
"I’ve spent considerable time this Congress asking both FERC and EPA to balance electric reliability needs with the suite of new federal rules regulating power plant emissions," she said. "I’m now working on safety valve legislation so that the cumulative effect of these federal regulations does not threaten electric reliability."
FERC is working with the North American Electric Reliability Corp. on a report about the New England outages that is expected to be completed within the next month.
Bilda's testimony at the April 26 hearing, along with the testimony of other witnesses, is posted on the committee's website
. A video of the session also is available, and Bilda can be seen testifying at about an hour into the hearing (64:03).