By Stephen Knight
The Wallingford Electric Division has allowed residents of Wallingford (and Northford) to live in electric power bubble. Storm Isaias is the latest example. Some 800,000 around the state lost power, some for a week or more, while only about 4,000 lost power here, and then only for one to 4.5 days at the most.
This isn’t by happenstance. But exactly what are the factors that have built such an enviable track record? And for this column, let’s put aside good management and expert employees. There must be specific reasons, so I met with Director of Public Utilities Rick Hendershot to gain some insight I could share.
Rick was quick to say that the compact and well-defined territory in which this utility operates is a huge advantage over the relatively sprawling and rural landmass that Eversource serves. That may enable Wallingford to have an ability to provide more resources per electric line-mile than Eversource. But there’s more to it than that, and Rick points to three advantages the WED has: an ability to quickly call in assistance from public utilities nearby, a sophisticated software package called the Outage Management System, and an Emergency Operations Plan in place. Obviously, Eversource has similar and just as robust systems of their own.
Isaias exited our area around 4:30 p.m., and crews from three public power operations in Massachusetts were on scene that same evening. Each crew was accompanied by a Division employee, and each crew was equipped with radio and cellphone communications with the WED personnel directing the restoration effort. Obviously, close communication with all emergency responders in the WED service area was maintained as well.
A very few years ago, the Division switched from a paper-based process to a computer-based Outage Management System, which Director Hendershot described as an enormous relational database. Many employees have access to this system – another communications advantage— and outages are tracked from the minute they’re called in until the customer‘s power is restored. The software helps organize the restoration work at the beginning, and is especially useful in tracking every single power outage until the end of the incident, and work is prioritized so that repairs that can have the largest number of customers back on line are done first. The data inputs took many months to complete, but gives the employees involved in the restoration effort an excellent and continuously updated view of the entire WED system.
The third leg of the WED response is an Emergency Operations Plan that was developed by George Adair, the previous Director of Public Utilities. He brought his experience with a utility in Florida during hurricane season with him to Wallingford, and this EOP was developed then. It is an encyclopedia of information that may be needed before it is actually needed in an emergency. Methods of contacting each and every organization in town, such as Frontier Communications, hotels at which out-of-town crews will be staying, restaurants where crews can be fed, and information of every kind all in one manual is kept constantly updated
Besides extensive preplanning and decision-making prior to an event, those three critical factors enable the Division to quickly go into action as soon as a storm’s impact is felt. But the quality of the distribution infrastructure, careful and thorough tree trimming, a workforce that works only in the WED service area throughout their career also impact the high reliability of the system.
Infrastructure: In the 1990’s, the decision was made to install the Hendrix Aerial Cabling System on virtually every electric pole throughout the town distribution system. Essentially, a high-strength “messenger” wire is strung between poles to support and carry the electric cable itself. This extra wire protects the primary distribution wires, giving the system the strength to withstand falling tree branches.
Tree trimming: as Rick Hendershot said to me, “New Englanders love their trees, but their existence around electric wires carry a risk.” The Division annually spends a significant amount of money trimming trees throughout its service area to keep that risk to a minimum.
Employee experience: WED employees are not transferred here and there as are many employees for large utilities such as Eversource. This enables every employee to gain familiarity with the entire system they will be maintaining. In addition to that, the ratio of customers per employee in the WED may be lower than in larger utilities, significantly lowering response time in outages of any kind and elevating the quality of the infrastructure.
Twenty-first century America relies more and more on electricity, and thus the impact of its loss due to damaging storms is increasing. A decision made well over 100 years ago to build this municipal electric utility still impacts us for the better today. Enormous Eversource does the best job they can, but we in Wallingford believe that, in this case, perhaps smaller is indeed better.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.