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Collaborative strategies bring power back on faster in N.Y., Michigan

When major storms hit upstate New York and Michigan in March, crews from public power, investor-owned, and cooperative utilities came together through mutual aid agreements to bring power back to wind-torn and snow-covered regions.

Freezing temperatures and winds up to 81 miles per hour hit the Rochester, New York, area on March 8. The windstorm caused major damage to the transmission and distribution systems of Rochester Gas & Electric and New York State Electric & Gas, two investor-owned utilities that are subsidiaries of AvanGrid. A few days later, while restoration from the windstorm was still underway, a nor'easter covered all of New York with more than two feet of ice and snow. More than 200,000 people were without power.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, winds started picking up on March 8 as well. The Lansing Board of Water & Light was hit hardest, said Jim Weeks, executive director of the Michigan Municipal Electric Association. The crew at Lansing discussed the potential of high wind two days prior to the event and the operations center was monitoring the storm, said Patrick Hanes, manager of transmission and distribution at Lansing BWL. When winds reached 50 to 60 miles per hour, the utility started to call for help. More than 22,000 of Lansing's 96,000 customers were without power.

"Pat did what he should, which was make the call to a statewide mutual aid coordinator and we worked this group to get him the aid he needed," Weeks said.

Crews headed to Lansing from MMEA's network and the Indiana Municipal Electric Association's network, as well as the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association's network. "There's a very strong relationship between public power utilities and co-ops when aid is requested," Weeks said. Power was restored in about three days.

Similarly, in New York on March 10, crews from the Municipal Electric Utilities Association left for two separate locations in the state. Crews came from Bath, Bergen, Castile, Churchville, Endicott, Fairport, Frankfort, Green, Groton, Hamilton, Mohawk, Penn Yan, Solvay, Spencerport, and Watkins Glen to Fairport, New York, a suburb of Rochester. Crews from Arcade and Westfield responded to Lancaster, New York, to help aid New York State Electric & Gas. Meanwhile, Springville crews stayed close to home to aid National Grid crews in Concord, southwest of Buffalo.

"There were daily calls with the American Public Power Association's Mutual Aid Working Group to see how things were going and to see if we needed more help," said Tony Modafferi, executive director of MEUA. "The Association's mutual aid system was followed to a T and it worked very well."

MUEA sent a total of 56 lineworkers, 23 bucket trucks, four diggers and several pick-ups. Restoring power safely and quickly during extreme weather conditions took long days of dedicated hard work. The New York Association of Public Power sent 17 lineworkers. The New York Power Authority sent 35 transmission lineworkers. Northline Utilities, through a contract with NYPA, sent 20 lineworkers.

"There were a lot of back yard lines damaged that required a lot of climbing and working on poles rather then bucket truck work," Modafferi said. "The linemen worked 17 hour days in horrible weather conditions with temperatures in the teens and blowing snow most of the time."

"One of our two-man crews related that they were given an entire line to work and they were able to restore the entire line which included backyard climbing as well as restoring service to multi-unit housing units," said William Acee of NYAPP.

"Crews were in the right place at the right time to make this restoration effort seamless," said Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services at the American Public Power Association.

The first storm in New York set into motion the Public/Private Utility Mutual Assistance Protocol, which was created in 2016. The protocol is a public-private partnership that governs the mutual assistance process between community-owned and private utilities to enable more service restoration resources to be made available.

"Mutual assistance agreements between investor-owned utilities were primarily employed as part of this response," said J.T. Flick, director of emergency management for NYPA and vice chair of the APPA Mutual Aid Working Group. "These agreements provide access to storm restoration resources from other states. The New York Public/Private Utility Mutual Assistance Protocol was used in this instance to supplement those response efforts."