Utilities bring in help from outside to battle outages

Posted: October 31, 2012

Help was already in place from as far away as the Gulf Coast, Texas, and Florida as the region's utilities mobilized Monday to cope with Hurricane Sandy. As the winds and rain intensified, power companies, phone carriers, and Internet providers were beginning to deal with damage and bracing for the worst - and for restoration efforts that will go on for days.

By 10:30 p.m., Peco reported that about 436,000 of its 1,600,000 Philadelphia-area customers had lost power, including 40,000 that went dark around 8 p.m. By 10:30 p.m., Atlantic City Electric reported 140,000 customers without power. Similar levels of outages occurred across the region.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was closely monitoring the East Coast's large fleet of nuclear power plants, including facilities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Although the NRC said the plants were required to be shut down "prior to any projected hurricane-force winds," it assigned extra inspectors at plants to guard against damage.

Exelon Generation said its Pennsylvania nuclear facilities, including Limerick and Peach Bottom, had undergone a host of pre-storm inspections and were "designed to withstand the most severe weather conditions."

Peco reported its largest number of outages in Bucks County, where 175,000 customers had lost power by 6 p.m., but disruptions were reported throughout its territory.

Area phone carriers and Internet providers acknowledged mostly localized problems, but warned customers that service could be disrupted by extended power outages. Cell towers are typically equipped with backup batteries that last at least eight hours into an outage, and some are also equipped with diesel generators or hydrogen fuel cells, but hurricanes elsewhere have led to days-long power failures and communications disruptions.

To limit the harm, Peco and the region's other power companies assembled help from areas out of Sandy's path. Peco spokeswoman Karen Muldoon Geus said the Exelon Corp. subsidiary had crews in place from its sister utility in Illinois, Commonwealth Edison, and from as far away as Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

By Monday, more than 700 so-called "foreign workers" had arrived, all with their own trucks and equipment, she said.

"Obviously, with the severity of the storm, we expect this to be a multiday restoration," said Geus, who said Peco had activated its emergency-operations center in Plymouth Meeting as early as Thursday as weather models converged on a forecast that promised widespread damage to the region.

Electric utilities share resources through mutual-assistance networks based on voluntary agreements among power providers. Though most situations are handled through regional associations - Geus said Peco was part of the Mid-Atlantic Mutual Assistance group - larger events require utilities to seek help farther afield. Atlantic City Electric's parent company, Pepco Holdings Inc., said Monday that it had requested 3,700 out-of-town crew members from as far away as Texas, and already had nearly half of those in place.

Geus said Peco expected to have at least 1,500 local and out-of-town crew members available to reestablish power once conditions allow them to work. She said that safety rules barred workers from using bucket lifts during high winds but that crews would deal with downed wires and blocked streets throughout the storm.

Geus said that about a third of all power outages are caused by downed branches or trees, which are especially vulnerable when high winds follow soaking rains. She said Peco's crews include arborists from Asplundh Tree Expert Co., who can clear tree damage before wires are reconnected.

Phone disruptions, when they occur, may also have to wait for repairs. Lee Gierczynski, a spokesman for Verizon, said that when wires are down, the company's repair crews have to wait for clearance from the electrical utility before they attempt repairs.

"We're ready for the storm's impact," Gierczynski said. "We've been prepping and staging materials for the last couple of days here, making sure we have an inventory of poles and cables, and workers on standby."

Gierczynski said traditional landline customers may continue to get service despite a power failure, but might need to connect a traditional corded phone to obtain a dial tone. He said some people who use cordless phones are confused into believing they lack service during power failures.

Those who use Internet-based phone services, such as Verizon's FiOS or Comcast's Xfinity service, face a different kind of problem: Even if Verizon's or Comcast's lines to their homes are intact, each relies on electric power as well.

Even without Web access, Gierczynski and Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said their Internet phone services should work during brief outages thanks to backup batteries that provide at least eight hours of phone service when power fails.

Cellular systems present their own challenges - in particular, customers' inability to charge their wireless phones during a power failure. Alternatives include using a card-charger or a backup battery.

How robust are the cellular systems themselves? Verizon Wireless spokesman Sheldon Jones said that all Verizon cell sites are equipped with battery backup that should last at least eight hours into an outage, and that about 85 percent are also served by backup generators.

Recon Analytics' Roger Entner said other carriers also use generators where code permits, but none has as many as Verizon. If a site suffers serious damage, he said, all can supplement service with mobile cell sites.

"Each weather event has a life of its own," said Jeff Kagan, another wire industry analyst. "This super-storm will test the preparations of all the networks."

Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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