Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2013 Vol. 60 No. 2

Utility Response After Disasters

A historic first
The Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) hosted a historic meeting on January 17 attended by representatives from 17 electric utility companies, 2 utility oversight agencies as well as planners from TDEM. The meeting was held to discuss how electric utilities currently respond to power outages after a major event and how all parties can best work together to ensure a reliable and coordinated response to those power outages.

Electricity 101
In Texas the electricity delivery system is a complex intermingling of electricity generators, transmission providers and retail electric providers.

Retail electricity providers (REPs) purchase power from electricity distributors. Transmission and distribution service providers (TDSPs) deliver the power to homes and businesses via transmission lines (the high voltage power lines connected to the power plant) and distribution lines (the high voltage power lines in neighborhoods connected to homes). TDSPs charge the REPs for this service, and the REPs invoice their customers.

The transmission and distribution utilities consist of investor owned utilities, electric cooperatives and municipally owned utilities. They build the transmission and distribution infrastructure that we so heavily rely upon. This complex infrastructure is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC). ERCOT mandates the system reliability standards that must be followed, while the PUC sets transmission and distribution rates.

During a major event such as a hurricane, power generation, transmission, and delivery all can be knocked out. Electricity providers plan for such events and set restoration priorities. Foremost is the safety of citizens and responders alike. The companies send out linemen to investigate and make safe any downed power lines. They work to restore power stations, transmission lines, distribution lines and circuits in a safe, prescribed and coordinated manner. Essential services such as hospitals receive priority attention.

Realities of power restoration- Educating the public
Running lines and installing transformers can be painstaking tasks even during normal operations. A major storm makes these tasks much more difficult. The repairs and installation must now be done under adverse, extremely dangerous and demanding conditions under constant pressure to get the power back on as quickly as possible. Depending upon the level of damage, complete power restoration could take days or even weeks to complete. When major storms are imminent, the public should plan for extended outages.

It is important to keep in mind that even businesses, hospitals and other entities that equip their facilities with on-site electricity generators must plan for the worst. Events during Hurricane Sandy recently demonstrated how these generators can routinely fail because improper placement, lack of maintenance, or lack of testing under realistic conditions. Entities that rely on on-site generators must do more to install, test and maintain these systems. Electricity providers can be an excellent resource when it comes to planning and installing these systems.

TDEM along with the electricity providers and regulators who attended this historical meeting all believe in assuring timely and adequate public information. Public expectation of electricity providers during major power outages, even following vigorous public information programs, is often unrealistic. TDEM expects that this collaboration with the electricity providers statewide will help facilitate more efficient information sharing among all those involved including the Texas Highway Patrol and the media and help minimize obstacles that delay restoring power during major events.

-- Article by Scott Sutherland, TDEM

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