Power Restoration: Why It Seems to Take So Long

Safety! The number one concern for utility workers and their customers is safety. Power lines are dangerous, even when they are performing perfectly. When they are down, under water, or damaged, they are even more dangerous. Utility personnel have special training and expertise to handle power outages, but it would be inappropriate for them to rush into unsafe conditions.

The power grid is like a tennis racquet. It is tightly strung with an infinite number of paths from point A to point B. When the cords are damaged, the tension on the racquet (power grid) is relaxed, and like a tennis racquet, it can't function at capacity. Every connection must be repaired, and done so in a specified order. There are rules of physics that impact the order of restoration; there are regulations from the Public Service Commission that require certain critical or life support customers to be restored ahead of others. There are needs for personnel and equipment that take time to ramp up.

Utilities such as Con Ed and National Grid have emergency compacts with other investor-owned utilities for mutual aid assistance. If help is available from nearby partners, that helps. With a storm the size of Hurricane Sandy, nearby utilities have their own problems, so personnel from much farther away need to respond. This takes additional time. Not all utilities upstate and in surrounding states have power grids that are primarily underground. Personnel trained and experienced in overhead distribution systems may not be able to assist in underground restoration, where Con Ed has great expertise.

It's no simple matter to bring emergency personnel to restore the power. Unlike human services, such as sheltering and food service, utility restoration requires specially trained, highly skilled workers who must work in hazardous conditions. They also have to contend with the same issues that confront us all -- for example, caring for their own families, working in high crime areas, and getting rest and food while working long shifts.

Restoring power has become increasing more essential as all of us are more dependent on electricity and smaller percentages of us are prepared for such outages. There is a degree of personal responsibility lacking in too many homes and businesses. Nonetheless, Con Ed and sister utilities will work around the clock to restore power as soon as safely possible.

Dr. Tom Phelan served as Manager, Emergency Planning and Employee Communications for Niagara Mohawk, National Grid for a decade from 1992-2002.