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Electricity providers: System strong, storm stronger

Aug. 21, 2013
 
Workers from Pieperline clear power lines in Hortonville on Aug. High winds resulted in severe damage in the area.
Workers from Pieperline clear power lines in Hortonville on Aug. High winds resulted in severe damage in the area. / Sharon Cekada/Post-Crescent Media
An Asplundh Tree Expert Co. worker removes trees from power lines in Hortonville on Aug. 7. / Sharon Cekada/Post-Crescent Media

Be prepared

• Safely trim tree branches near the power line leading to your house. Before doing so, however, contact the utility company so the power can be turned off.
• Buy a generator. Whole-house generators should be installed by certified technicians according to code. Portable generators — usually gas-operated — should be positioned outside, away from open windows and vents to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Do not run them indoors or in a garage.
• Use battery backup for sump pumps to prevent basement flooding during prolonged outages.
Source: We Energies

More

APPLETON — Power systems in the Fox Valley are built to withstand strong wind and heavy ice, but the storm that struck Aug. 6-7 overwhelmed that infrastructure.

All told, We Energies replaced 157 poles, 92 transformers and 58,250 feet of wire, said Brian Manthey, spokesman for the utility company.

“There are limitations to the system,” he said. “It can stand up to great storms. We haven’t had anything to this magnitude in the Fox Valley with that many customers out in recent memory.”

The line of thunderstorms that whipped through the region overnight spawned six tornadoes and powerful straight-line winds that ripped apart buildings, trees and power lines from Waupaca to Kewaunee counties. Wind speeds reached 100 mph. The damage estimate is $31 million.

At its peak Aug. 7, more than 60,000 We Energies customers lost power, including both of Appleton’s hospitals.

No economically viable system could have held up to the tornadoes and trees that snarled lines, Manthey said. Installing underground electrical wires costs about six times that of overhead placement, he said.

“We replaced more than 10 miles of overhead line with 500 workers,” Manthey said. “That type of work, if planned ahead of time, would take about four months and we did it in about three days.”

In recent years, the utility started a “top feeder” program that surveys 120 of the 1,800 “backbone” lines annually for outages and needed repairs.

In addition, Manthey said the utility works with the California-based Electric Power Research Institute on innovative recovery plans. That agency is pioneering a new airborne damage assessment that can help coordinate repair strategies.

After the Fox Valley tornadoes, Manthey said restoration directors flew over the area in a helicopter to take photographs. Then, crew leaders on the ground were fed the images on their laptops in the field.

“That gave some of the crews a head-start on ordering the equipment that was going to be needed and to assess how many crew members they may need in a given area to repair damage,” Manthey said.

Transmission system

While the distribution system in neighborhoods took the brunt of the damage, damage to the transmission system worsened the situation.

Power flows from plants in high-voltage transmission lines to substations, where its intensity is reduced for distribution to residents.

Anne Spaltholz, spokeswoman for American Transmission Company, said the storm took out nine sections of lines and damaged four of its large lattice-style towers. Two substations also were damaged.

“The higher-voltage transmission system is built to sustain very high winds, but what occurred was greater than that,” Spaltholz said.

Transmission towers are constructed of wood and metal, but Spaltholz said damage to the overall system is rare. Still, the company says upgrades “have not kept pace with changing needs.”

To create greater reliability, the company is proposing new high-voltage lines from Appleton to Oconto County. The roughly $235 million project needs approval from state and local regulators.

“The idea is to ensure reliability, so if a line goes out of service we can reconfigure the system to continue power service to customers,” Spaltholz said.

In the wake of the East Coast blackouts in 2003, the company had to conform to stricter vegetation control guidelines and aggressively trim trees that could cause outages.

Wisconsin power supply

Wisconsin has more power than it needs, said Robert Norcross, division administrator at the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

“We do not have an antiquated system,” Norcross said. “When you have a big storm that knocks down lines, there’s not much you can do about it. Nature has its own issues with our electrical system.”

As of 2012, 63 percent of the state’s power came from coal, 21 percent from nuclear plants, 9 percent from natural gas and 7 percent from renewable energy such as wind.

Norcross said the state has plenty of capacity from power plants, but could be forced to recalculate sources if the federal government clamps down on pollution.

“If laws increase limits on emissions, that would require some of the coal plants to be retired,” Norcross said. “But right now we’re in very good shape and people aren’t losing power due to inadequate supply.”

— Nick Penzenstadler: 920-996-7226, or npenzenstadler@postcrescent.com; on Twitter @npenzenstadler

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