Storm darkens some homes, damage minimal

Fri, 11/03/2017 - 9:30am

Block Island Power Co. President Jeffery Wright talked to The Block Island Times about what kind of preparations the power company made for the recent storm, and how the power outages were addressed:

Q. It was announced sometime last week that we would be on the receiving end of damaging winds and power outages. What are the first things a power company does to prepare for this kind of weather? 

A: The first thing any good power company does is raise awareness with customers and employees alike. We are fortunate on Block Island because it seems most everyone is very aware of the weather forecasts so we rarely get caught off guard. The larger mainland utilities have a harder job of this because of the increased number of people and employees. We prepared internally and tried to get the message out to our customers to be prepared. Last Friday our primary bucket truck broke down, so we had to make emergency repairs that required us to make some quick arrangements to have a repairman travel to the Island on Sunday. It’s that sort of commitment from employees and contractors like this that helps you best prepare.

Q: There were sporadic power outages reported late Sunday, early Monday morning. BIPCo issued a graphic that seemed to show which individual houses were without power. How is that kind of information transmitted to the power company?

A: BIPCo installed smart meters in 2014/15 and has the ability to monitor them in real time. We can monitor voltage, usage, power quality and, of course, outages. When the lights go out, each meter sends an alarm to BIPCo, which we then display on a map for ease of use. This is transmitted to BICPo through a series of repeaters located on the Island that have near 100 percent reliability. What is missing from that map, though, is the power lines connecting the dots. When Davey Resource Group is done mapping our system, the lines will be drawn in to make troubleshooting easier and safer for the crews. It is our intent to someday publish this information on our website, which is currently being developed.

Q. How many crew members did you need to begin to address the power outages, and what time were they all addressed?

A: Our first outage occurred on Southwest Point at around 10:30 p.m. The weather at that point was worsening and too dangerous for our crews to respond to as this particular line required some off-road work. We knew the weather was going to improve around 2 a.m. so we held off sending crews out right away. We communicated this to the Police Dispatcher, on Facebook and to the customers who called in. Our second outage occurred around 1 a.m. and was much larger, so we dispatched our crews, which included Tom Durden, Jim Stockman, Sean Ryan and Howell Conant. In a situation like that, the more eyes and hands the better. Fortunately, the weather had gotten better by then and that problem was fixed quickly. The crews then went to Southwest Point and got those customers back on.

Q: We know that BIPCo is beginning a tree-trimming program to keep branches from bringing down wires. Were the untrimmed trees in any way responsible for some of the power outages people experienced?  

A: Trees definitely play a role in outages where wind is involved, as is the case on the mainland. Sunday night we did not identify the actual cause of the outages, but there were many trees that were suspect. Our trees on the Island are fairly storm-hardened and don’t cause a lot of problems, but during a heavy snow or ice storm that is a different story. Our tree trimming efforts are really going to help us during those types of storms.  

Q: The condition of BIPCo’s delivery system has also been a topic of discussion in the last year or so. How did our aging poles and transformers fare during the high wind periods? Did you or your crews see anything that caused you alarm or concern? 

A: The system held up well. We did not experience any damaged equipment or broken poles. I suspect that would have been a different outcome if the winds had been even 10 mph more or had lasted longer. We can weather up to about 70 mph for a short while. If that lasts for any length of time, then the wear and tear starts to take a toll. 

Q: Was the storm about what you expected? Worse? Not as bad as advertised? 

A: We follow many different weather forecasts including the National Weather Service and some others. There is a gentleman who frequents the Island who maintains a Facebook page called eWeather. His forecast was right on the money and given our confidence in his forecasting we were not surprised. He increased his warning through the day Sunday and we paid attention. We were ready and fully expected even more damage. 

Q: Are there any strengths or weak spots in BIPCo’s infrastructure that came to light during or after the storm?  

A: This storm could’ve been worse, and if it had been, I think our pole plant would’ve started to show signs of weakness. We are changing about 50 poles this fall and winter, which will help us weather future storms. Again, though, like our trees, the system is fairly storm-hardened. We have recently increased our class of poles we buy from a Class III to a Class II pole. They are a bit more robust and the additional cost is less than $30 each. They will last longer and weather the storms better. It’s things like this that will help us ride through these types of events. In our long-range planning, we will have discussions on standards that will help us weather disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and severe ice events which can be catastrophic. 

Q: Anything that you learned that will help you prepare differently for the next weather event?

A: Each region of the country weathers storms differently. For example, my colleagues in Vermont experienced 70 mph winds Sunday night and about half of their territory is without power. Here on Block Island, our tolerance for wind is greater, but our tolerance for ice is probably a bit less than Vermont. There are literally hundreds of years of Island experience at BIPCo that I rely on as I learn how resilient our system is and how we weather storms.   

Interview conducted by Lars Trodson.