Grid damage cost rises in Chattanooga area after storms

Grid damage cost rises in Chattanooga area after storms

May 2nd, 2011 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press EPB operator O'Fair Brooks, left, and EPB lineman Charles Sales replace a utility pole Tuesday near the intersection of Mountain View Avenue and Crest Drive after a severe storm uprooted trees and damaged area homes Monday afternoon.

With nearly 16,000 customers still in the dark, EPB on Monday rolled an army of bucket rigs, line trucks and pole trailers through the streets, restoring power to an additional 3,000 homes and businesses throughout the day.

Crews quickly worked their way down from as many as 119,000 customers who lost power initially during the waves of storms Wednesday, giving priority to large blocks of unlit businesses and residences.

Since then, the utility has issued 30 miles of wire to more than 1,500 contractors hailing from across the East Coast, with an eye to complete repairs by Thursday.

Restoration will be millions of dollars more than first reported, with current estimates placing the cost somewhere between $12 million and $15 million - triple the previous record high of $4.5 million for repairs after storms in February, according to David Wade, EPB's chief operating officer .

For the year, the financial impact of high winds on the electric grid could exceed $19.5 million, blowing away previous records.

prioritized repairs

EPB's priority from the start has been to restore power first to large blocks of thousands, and then work its way down to neighborhoods and streets.

"We are getting to the point where it is smaller numbers, probably in the 100- to 200-customer range," Wade said. "All the jobs where we had greater than 100 customers without power at a certain location currently have crews assigned to them."

Workers have uncovered more damage to the power grid than previously thought, he said, so EPB has hired an additional 500 contractors.

The company estimates that more than 430 poles were knocked out of action, more than double initial estimate of 205.

Rather than drag out repairs, the company decided to bring in armies of work crews because "the damage requires a certain amount of resources to be fixed; it's going to cost the same either way," according to Danna Bailey, vice president of corporate communications.

Even with overtime rules and crews working around the clock, "it doesn't cost any more to have an army, because though it shortens the time rate, we have the same amount of work," Wade agreed.

"But if we tried to restore service with our normal resources, working around the clock would have taken literally months," he said.

restoring businesses

An early failure occurred as the storms continued Wednesday when nearly 60,000 customers who had had power restored lost it in subsequent waves of thunderheads.

Over the weekend, crews made a "concerted effort to put the major business districts back in operation, getting the traffic flowing and getting the major commercial areas back in service," Wade said.

By starting with the big problems and moving to the smaller ones, the utility may have sped up the process from the original estimates, even though some customers have been left wondering when they will be able again to wash clothes, charge phones and run dishwashers.

Customers often get confused, Bailey said, when power is restored to one house but not the next. Unlike roads, "our electrical lines don't think in terms of parts of town," Bailey said. "They do not always follow the same geographical boundaries we may live in."

lessons learned

Though the storm's power guaranteed millions of dollars in damage to EPB's infrastructure, the continuing installation of the utility's Smart Grid system could have lessened the blow, Wade said.

The average customer's outage duration would have been 40 percent less had the Smart Grid been fully integrated, and been able to switch power seamlessly between damaged and undamaged areas, Wade said.

But the expensive Smart Grid switches would not have helped in the areas that took direct hits, he added.

"In Apison, where it was blowing homes off the foundation, [storms] really did devastate everything," he said.

The company's fiber-optic cable installations, which are are spooled from pole to pole instead of stretched tightly, were "pretty robust" in cases where the only damage to the line was a fallen tree.

And with employees, contractors, retirees, workers from out of town and office employees manning the bucket trucks, the utility said it is confident that it will have power back as fast as is humanly possible.

"This is what we do," Wade said. "We amass an army to get it back."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree or 423-757-6315.