As I have watched the news accounts about Hurricane Florence moving into the Southeastern coastline this week, along with the alerts from our government partners (DOE, DHS) and electric sector colleagues (EEI, APPA, NRECA, and others involved in the Electric Subsector Coordinating Council), I have been reminded of the crucial nature of electricity and the high levels of dedication required of all utility personnel.
By multiple accounts, at least 40,000 utility workers have been mobilized to help the Carolinas and Georgia in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. These workers may be away from their families for days or weeks, depending on the severity of the storm. Workers in other industries travel and spend time away from loved ones as well, but I can only think of a few that also require workers to perform highly technical tasks in often dangerous environments. Electricity is not to be trifled with – remember that its potential was first recognized by observing lightning strikes. High voltage electrical arcs can kill people instantaneously and cause electrical fires. Avoiding arcing situations coupled with the challenge that electricity must be generated and consumed instantaneously (at the speed of light) demands delicately balanced engineering and protection schemes. Additionally, utilities must test and have in place well-planned restoration mechanisms that enable electric utility personnel to take certain areas of their infrastructure offline for safety reasons (flooding, for example) so that other parts can remain electrified. Electric personnel also must climb poles and traverse dangerous terrain even in the midst of storms or their immediate aftermath in order to physically repair or replace damaged equipment.
Given these dangers, why would utilities put their infrastructure and personnel at risk in the first place? The answer goes back to the fact that electricity must be generated and consumed instantaneously at a constant state of balance, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While battery storage is becoming more viable on the edge of the grid, it is not yet viable on a large scale for the needs of our general populace. Therefore, wires, poles, transformers, and substations are the transportation mechanisms for electricity. There is no way around that fact, at least for the foreseeable future. And, while undergrounding some of the wires is feasible in certain urban environments, it can be incredibly expensive elsewhere. There are also challenges to putting electric infrastructure underground when flooding is a risk – again, electricity and water do not mix, and the safety of workers and the general public is top of mind when assessments about where and when to underground are discussed.
In recent decades, the addition of more sophisticated communications technology has enabled electric utility personnel to have better situational awareness about what parts of their infrastructure are damaged during storms. Note that some parts of the system will trip off (just like the circuit breakers in your house) in order to avoid damage. Electric utilities are using communications devices such as sensors and protective relays that trip off certain parts of the system to remotely ascertain damage or lack thereof and in turn deploy the appropriate equipment and crews on their systems. They also use basic radios when crews are deployed to ensure efficient communications among crews and back to headquarters – again for situational awareness, safety, and efficiency. The networks that enable these communications systems are run by the utilities themselves because they require such high levels of reliable service that the communications companies have demurred. So, utilities ensure that these communications systems – for both radio and digital communications, are functioning. The nice part about communications networks is they can be wireless as well as wireline and are often not quite as exposed to the elements. Communications towers can be impacted, however, so utilities install and maintain to high levels backup electric generators to bring towers back online quickly if need be. Fun fact — communications towers need electricity to function!
If all of this sounds complicated and dangerous and hard, that’s because it is. Utility workers are on the ground with other first responders to ensure that communities are re-energized after storms in a way that is safe for all impacted. The bottom line is, we should all be grateful for their service and pray for their safety in the aftermath of hurricanes like Florence, but also in their day-to-day work.