BIPCo’s aging infrastructure a major challenge

Fri, 04/13/2018 - 8:00am
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The severe weather Block Island experienced recently caused both infrastructure damage and power outages. In light of that, The Block Island Times interviewed BIPCo Presicdent Jeffery Wright on the challenges BIPCo is facing in terms of upgrading and replacing its aging distribution system.

 Q: We had four nor’easters in a row that BIPCo monitored closely and had to work through. Tell us a little bit about the infrastructure that BIPCo is faced with protecting and monitoring. How many customers do you have? How many poles on the island? 

A: BIPCO serves approximately 1,916 retail meters and has about the same number of poles: 1,996.

Q. How many miles of wire does your system have? 

A: Just shy of 50 circuit miles.

Q: Can you give us a picture as to the average age of your critical equipment around the island? 

A: The main backbone of the BIPCO system was mostly constructed prior to the 1970s. In fact, during our mapping efforts, we identified poles installed in 1940, almost 80 years old. It is presumed that most of the wire still in use today dates back to that time or prior. It is hard to nail down just how old some of the system is, but is safe to say it doesn’t owe us anything. The pole plant is the best indicator of the general age of the system and it’s somewhat alarming. We have recently learned through our mapping project that more than 70 percent of the pole plant is more than 40 years old, which is the generally accepted life expectancy of a wood pole. To maintain a healthy pole plant, BIPCO should change 2.5 percent of the pole plant, or 50 poles, per year. The backlog from deferred maintenance, though, is overwhelming as the average annual number of poles replaced in the past 30 years was only 14 per year. The backlog we currently face is at least 1,000 poles that will need to be changed in the next four to seven years to get back on track. These numbers confirmed what we all suspected, but it didn’t eliminate the shock factor. The storms this past March were an indicator of the resiliency of the system, which is concerning to me. The most damaging storm created some snow loading on the wires, but not to a level which I would consider extreme. In that event we experienced six broken poles that resulted in some outages lasting more than 72 hours. Given the impact from this small storm, if we had gotten the 20 inches of snow that Long Island got during the next storm, the damage would have been overwhelming. Our system should be able to hold up to that kind of weather and it will again in time.        

Q. What was the cumulative damage to that infrastructure? How many poles lost. How many homes lost power and for how long? What was the average length of those averages, if that can be calculated. 

A: The best way to measure the damage from a storm is the cost and the length of the outage restoration. The March 1 and March 13 storms were the most expensive at about $65,000 to $80,000 combined cost. The longest outage lasted about five days and in total about 600 customers were impacted in one way or another. Thankfully, the tree trimming proved its worth and most outages were not main circuit problems but isolated side road issues.   

Q. After having assessed the damage from these past storms, what do you feel needs to be done, in terms of updating your infrastructure, to lessen the damage that may occur during extreme weather events? 

A: BIPCo, and ultimately the Utility District, will need to make the hard decisions on where to invest in the infrastructure. I have no doubt that the boards will be supportive of the upgrades necessary; the tough decisions will be aimed at the timeframe to accomplish the work. We know that a voltage conversion is in our future in order to continue serving any sort of load growth, we know our pole plant is very old and we know that most of the wire and hardware probably exceeds the age of the pole plant. There is no shortage of work and every component is critical, so finding that balance will be most important.         

Q. How does BIPCo determine which equipment needs priority replacement? In other words, we can see poles being replaced on Corn Neck Road. Are these the oldest, frailest poles, or do other factors determine which get changed first? 

A: At this point in time our efforts are on changing poles that are obviously rotten or do not meet NESC code requirements for height. We factor in the number of customers affected as a metric as well as the risk to public safety. We will be changing poles on Ocean Avenue and Dodge Street starting soon due to meeting both of these criteria. Eventually we will get to the point where we will employ pole inspectors to help identify the worst poles, but they are not needed to identify the current list of problems that are out there.

Q. Where is BIPCo in terms of pole replacement? 

A: Since the first of the year, BIPCo has changed nearly 50 poles and is planning to continue as long as road traffic allows us to be on the roads safely. Our efforts this summer will be to formulate a plan for the fall and getting Verizon on board with the schedule. As the 50 percent joint owner, they pay BIPCO a fixed price per pole which really minimizes the impact to the customer/rate payer. BIPCo has billed Verizon nearly $50,000 for pole replacements during this fiscal year; $24,000 of that has been billed since Jan. 1.

Q. If you could lay out a five year plan for the island’s energy infrastructure updates, what would it look like? 

A: There will definitely be a voltage conversion in our future, which will improve power quality and allow us to continue to serve a growing demand. We will develop a plan to replace up to 200 poles per year, at least for a few years, to get caught up with the deferred maintenance and get the pole plant back on track. Additionally, we will be replacing wire, installing additional capacity on some of the main circuits and building out the system to connect some customers who are still running diesel generation.    

Q: Is there a cost estimate to that, even a ballpark figure? 

A: It is too early to identify what that number will be but our goal will be to find creative ways to finance the capital plan with our partners, CFC and CoBank. At the same time, we will be looking at the possibility of FEMA risk mitigation grants, which I have leaned on in my past as a means to minimize the rate impacts from a capital plan.   

Q: Is there anything else you feel you should add? 

A: I want to convey the message that the island’s electric infrastructure needs a lot of attention without scaring everyone. The task of replacing poles, upgrading circuits, tree trimming and even a voltage conversion is what utility managers face every day. My promise to everyone is that we will work hard to bolster resiliency without burdening everyone with rate increases. There are many creative ways we can finance the upgrades and we will find every way possible to leverage every available dollar.