Electricity providers review grid safety

By Michael Goot

Utility companies that provide power to local customers have buried lines, installed circuit breakers and added new technology to prepare themselves for extreme weather events and ongoing security threats.

National Grid is wrapping up the ninth year of a 10-year, $3 billion project to upgrade infrastructure, which was more than 50 years old in some cases.

The company has installed new wiring, poles and opened new substations, according to spokesman Patrick Stella. In addition, he said “cut-outs” have been installed to minimize the length of outages.

“They’re basically large fuses, so we can isolate outages better when there’s a problem,” he said.

Stella added that an outage that previously affected 20,000 people may now only affect half that number or fewer.

National Grid equipment was severely damaged during tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011. The rain washed out a major gas line that was attached to a lock along the Mohawk River in Schenectady County, according to Stella.

“The town of Rotterdam Junction was completely out of gas, and we had no way to get it to them,” he said.

This problem has been corrected by burying power lines and pipes beneath the Mohawk River, Stella said. The directional drilling technology that has made that work possible is fairly new, according to Stella.

Other more simple improvements include the installation of plastic covers on top of power poles to prevent animals such as raccoons, birds and squirrels from electrocuting themselves and shorting out the system, Stella said.

The Public Service Commission had fined National Grid for exceeding the number and duration of outages allowed for many years before 2007, according to Stella. The company has not been fined since it started the infrastructure project.

Keeping the electrical grid secure is also a priority. Stella said he could not share specifics, but the company’s security improvements include coordination between National Grid and other agencies. The company has its own security officers that look for any damage to substations or unusual activity, according to Stella.

“We take seriously any reports of suspicious people taking pictures of our facilities. Our security detail will go out and investigate those,” he said.

NYSEG is also making upgrades to its system. The company has stepped up its tree pruning and removal work in areas with more trees, according to spokesman Clayton Ellis.

“It is damage to our facilities from trees during storms that is the biggest threat,” he said.

In addition, NYSEG is having discussions with the Public Service Commission about increasing the frequency of tree-clearing along its distribution lines.

Other upgrades include installing stronger poles, shortening wire spans and changing to insulated or bundled conductors to improve the reliability of the system.

The company is assessing the performance of concrete poles, which Ellis said can last 50 years or more with no maintenance and can withstand wind, ice, heavy snow and other harsh conditions.

NYSEG is also using technology to automate its delivery system. Remote control technology is being added to protective devices so the company can respond to outages more quickly. It also has installed additional “reclosers” — circuit breakers — which will reduce the number of customers affected by an outage and allow service to be restored more quickly.

Protecting infrastructure against cyber threats and damage is another priority. Ellis said the company has implemented an employee badge/access program and a video surveillance and analysis system recognized as a best practice in the industry.

Employees monitor the system and environment for potential threats and undergo thorough training, he said.

“We take our responsibility to provide safe, reliable service to our customers very seriously,” he said.

Information from poststar.com

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