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Better Protection of Essential Power and Communication Grids From Storm Damage

Storm damaged electric transformer on a pole and a tree. Photo: Ungvar

After every major hurricane, like the category 4 Ida that recently hit Louisiana, there is talk in the telecom and power industries about better protecting our essential power and communication grids. There was major damage to grids and networks in Louisiana from hurricane winds and storm surges and massive flooding in the mid-Atlantic from Western Maryland to New York City.

One thing that we’ve learned over time is that there is no way to stop storm damage. Strong hurricanes, tornados, floods, and ice storms will create damage regardless of the steps we might take to keep aerial utilities safe. What matters most is the amount of time it takes to make repairs—obviously, the shorter, the better.

A natural impulse is to bury all of the aerial utilities. However, the cost to bury wires in many places is exorbitant. There are also issues during some weather events from buried facilities. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to find and fix problems in flooded areas. Buried electric lines are also sensitive to the saltwater corrosion that comes from storm surges from big coastal storms.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has been working on ideas to better protect wires, poles, and towers during big storms. EPRI operates an outdoor laboratory in Lenox, Massachusetts, to create simulations of storm damage. EPRI’s goal is to find techniques to minimize storm damage or shorten the time needed to make repairs.

EPRI research is intriguing to anybody that’s been in the industry. For example, they are exploring ways that towers and poles can be made to collapse in pre-planned ways rather than be destroyed by winds. A controlled collapse could avoid all of the problems of snapped and dangerous power lines. If done properly, EPRI is hoping there would be a way to stand up a downed pole in hours instead of days.

They are exploring a similar line of research, looking at ways for aerial wires to disconnect from poles before drastic damage occurs. This would stop the domino effect of multiple poles being broken and dragged down by a heavy tree landing on a pole span. It would be much easier to put fallen wires back onto poles than to untangle and splice wire breaks caused by catastrophic damage.

EPRI is also exploring other aspects that are needed to effectuate storm damage repair. For example, there is a white paper on the site that looks at the effectiveness of alternate telecommunications channels so that key players at a utility to communicate and coordinate after a storm. All of the normal modes of communication are likely to go dead when the wires and towers come tumbling down. The white paper looked at using GEO satellites, LEO satellites, and HF radios to communicate. The goal was to find a communications medium that would allow for a 3-way call after more conventional communication paths are out of service. The best solution was the high-orbit GEO satellites.

This kind of research is both important and interesting because coordination of repair efforts is one of the biggest challenges after every disaster. A utility can have standby crews ready to work, but nothing gets done until somebody can tell them what most needs to be addressed.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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