To all of the superlatives attached to Superstorm Sandy, add power outages.
Ten million customers in 21 states lost power in the wake of the storm, by far the most in the history of the U.S. utility industry, and well in excess of the 7 million whose electricity got knocked out in Hurricane Irene in 2011, the storm with the second-biggest impact.
The unprecedented confluence of hurricane-force winds and record-high storm surges has also prompted a historically large response from the utility industry which at the peak of the repair operation was using 67,000 workers from as far away as Hawaii, California and Washington State to restore power to millions of people along the eastern seaboard.
Convoys of trucks from western states have driven across country to work on power lines thousands of miles away, and some vehicles were brought east by military transport planes, all of it arranged through an unprecedented coordination between individual utilities and federal government departments including Defense, Energy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the White House.
President Obama held a conference call with utility executives to promise them federal help, an occasion that was also unique in the history of the industry, said Brian Wolff, Senior Vice President at the Edison Electric Institute, which helped to coordinate the massive power-restoration drive.
“This was the largest single event for power outages that we’ve seen,” Wolff told Breaking Energy, in an interview.
By around midday eastern time on Monday, a week after the storm hit, utilities had restored power to about 85 percent of affected customers, leaving 1.3 million people without power, mostly in New York and New Jersey, Wolff said.
By the end of Monday, five New Jersey substations were expected to be back on line, restoring power to another 400,000-500,000 customers. Power is projected to come back on for a further 400,000 households sometime on Tuesday, Wolff said.
But around a quarter-million homes won’t be getting their electricity back any time soon, if at all, because they were destroyed or so badly damaged that they will have to be rebuilt before power supplies can be restored, he said.
Wolff gave the industry high marks for the speed of its response, which he attributed to a successful public-private partnership between industry and government.
This was the largest single event for power outages that we’ve seen,”
The enormous disruption will inevitably cause utilities to examine what could have been done to prevent such widespread damage and to prevent any recurrence, Wolff said. But he predicted that shareholder-owned utilities – which represent about 70 percent of the electric power industry – won’t be in a hurry to make big, expensive changes given the rarity of events such as Hurricane Sandy.
“Our first priority is to keep rates low for our customers,” he said.
Despite predictions that climate change will bring more and bigger storms – and with another Atlantic storm forecast to hit the East Coast with heavy rain and winds up to 50 mph starting Wednesday – the EEI is leaving such projections to meteorologists, Wolff said. “We are not politicians, and we are not debating climate change,” he said.
It’s too early to estimate costs of the storm damage and power restoration, and those calculations may be further delayed by this week’s storm, Wolff said.
Although the destruction of many overhead power lines could in theory have been avoided if they had been buried underground, the high cost of doing so is unlikely to be recouped if Sandy-like events are as rare in the future as they have been in the past.
“Underground isn’t necessarily the panacea for what needs to be done,” he said. “If a storm comes once every 200 years, are you going to change everything about what you are doing?”
The industry is due to spend $94 billion on capital improvements such as updating high-voltage transmission and reinforcing local distribution this year, but could not have prevented the damage caused by Sandy, the EEI said.
“No electric utility is storm proof, and no amount of infrastructure spending could have fully inoculated utilities against Sandy and her record-breaking storm surge,” the shareholder-owned utilities’ association said.