By Jenny Neyman
Getting angry at the weather is an exercise in futility. Getting angry at the utility service for power outages caused by the weather is just about as productive.
Kenai Peninsula residents have had their patience tested on both accounts the last month and a half, as a series of winter storms have blown through Southcentral Alaska, dumping snow and rain, turning roads into rutted ice chutes with thawing and refreezing temperatures, and whipping up wind gusts clocked at 50 mph. The storms have clobbered the power grid, causing hundreds more outages among Homer Electric Association customers in November and so far this December than any of the five preceding years, with some outages affecting thousands of customers at a time, and some lasting a day or more.
The latest outages came with strong winds Sunday, with an outage Sunday morning affecting about 2,300 homes in Soldotna, and outages Sunday night affecting about 1,800 homes between Kenai and Soldotna, about 590 homes from the start of Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kasilof to the VIP subdivision in Kenai, and along Echo Lake Road.
“We’re doing pretty good as of right now, we’ve got everything taken care of,” said Joe Gallagher, HEA spokesman, on Monday. “It was a busy weekend.”
As frustrating as it may be to lose power repeatedly and for long stretches — especially in winter in Alaska when loss of electricity can also mean loss of heat and water — Gallagher said that HEA customers have been patient with the situation.
“These outages, as inconvenient as they are, people really are understanding about what’s going on. Even though we’ve had a number of outages, they’ve all been related to storms, and so while people’s power is out, they’re just looking out their front window and seeing the trees blowing back and forth,” Gallagher said. “On the public relations part of things, it has been actually kind of an eye-opener that people are really understanding about their power being out because they realize the conditions.”
Power outages with no obvious, excusable cause can get feathers ruffled, but when the snow is blowing sideways and trees are crashing down left and right, residents seem more willing to content themselves with just trying to keep their feathers from blowing away while they wait for linemen crews to complete repair work.
“It’s those power outages in the middle of the summer when it’s a perfectly beautiful day and the power goes out that you might have an irate customer or two. But during these outages it’s been good dealing with people. We’ve had people bring by stuff for the crew — cakes and cookies — it’s kind of cool,” Gallagher said. “… They’re hardworking guys. They’re professionally trained to respond to the outages. It’s tough, hard, long hours in the field and sometimes the conditions are much less than favorable. The outages have been coming in bunches so it has been a long month for the guys, but they’re ready to go.”
In November and so far this December, HEA has recorded 422 storm outages, and the month isn’t even over. Compare
that to 292 in November and all of December 2010, 190 in November-December 2009, none in November-December 2008 and 58 in November-December 2007. Gallagher said that the average cost incurred each year over the last five years for storm-related outages is $175,000. So far this year HEA has incurred well over $2 million, with the vast majority of that coming in November and December, Gallagher said.
Borough Mayor Mike Navarre declared a local disaster emergency Nov. 22 following windstorms and freezing weather from Nov. 1 to 19 that resulted in approximately 17,300 homes and businesses losing power for up to 48 hours. On Dec. 12, Gov. Sean Parnell signed a state disaster declaration for the peninsula. If approved at the federal level, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds would become available to help cover the costs HEA has incurred in repairing damages from the storms.
Most of the damage has been a result of trees blown down in the storms.
“It’s circumstances related to the weather,” Gallagher said. “It’s just one of those winters so far where we have seen an inordinate amount of strong winds, and electric systems and wind do not make good partners. I would say probably 99 percent of the outages we have seen are due to the wind knocking trees into our power lines, and either hitting the line hard enough to create an outage or actually toppling over and bringing the wire down onto the ground.”
There’s not much to be done to prevent or remediate wind-caused outages other than just responding whenever there is a problem. Gallagher said that HEA has stepped up tree-clearing efforts in the utility right of way in recent years to try to limit potential damages to power lines and poles from falling trees, spending about $1 million per year over the last six years.
“HEA has been pursuing a much more aggressive right-of-way tree-clearing program than we had in the past,” he said. “We have almost completed the whole HEA circuit, but the situation is that, for the most part, we only have a 20-foot clearing limit, which means 10 feet from centerline on each side.”
Most mature trees on the peninsula, particularly those old enough to be significantly weakened by an infestation of
spruce bark beetles or some other tree malady, are taller than 10 feet. But to clear beyond the utility right of way would require obtaining approval from property owners. Gallagher said that HEA is working with the borough on a legislative request that would appropriate $2 million in state dollars to be used by the borough and its Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program to work with property owners in clearing trees outside the utility easement.
Another option to avoid blown-down tree damage is burying power lines. Gallagher said that most new power extensions are putting lines in underground, but that’s only done at the request of land developers or property owners and at their expense to cover the additional costs. HEA has no plans to bury its already existing overhead lines.
“The overhead lines we have, they work, they’re great. It would not be a financial benefit, even though we do spend a lot of time on outages, to try and bury everything that’s overhead. There’s been investment made in the lines, and until they’re past their useful life it just wouldn’t make good economic sense for the co-op to bear the expense of putting them underground,” Gallagher said.
And even buried lines are no guarantee against power outages. Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, for instance, has had two power outages in the recent storms, and the power lines feeding to the campus are buried. One outage was wind-caused, occurring farther away in the grid. The campus also lost power the evening of Dec. 11 and didn’t have it restored until early Monday afternoon, Dec. 12. College Director Gary Turner closed the campus until 1 p.m. that Monday, during finals week.
“I’ve been here 10 years and it’s the first time I’ve had to either open late or whatever for a mini power outage,” Turner said. Up until this year Turner has only closed the campus early once, in 2003, for a snowstorm, he said.
“The hardest part for us is judging when power is going to come back, based on what HEA and our maintenance staff
says. The challenge is, ‘OK, if HEA says it’s going to be back at 11 or 12,’ usually about an hour before that time comes I have to make another decision, ‘Is it really going to come back up?’ Because we have people driving from Nikiski to go to school — faculty, staff and students — so we have to make our best guess,” Turner said.
In the Dec. 11 to 12 outage, one of the three underground feeder lines leading to the college failed. The lines were going on 40 years old.
“Like everything else, even underground lines have a lifespan. And with the construction around here it’s been added onto and changed around a couple of times, so there are a few splices underground. We’re not sure where exactly it failed — there are three power lines that come into the campus and one of three failed and took us offline,” said Phillip Miller, facilities, operations and maintenance supervisor at KPC.
Miller said that the campus does have enough backup generator power to operate some essential functions, such as emergency lights, but is considering getting a larger-capacity generator so that the campus can function more normally in the event of outages — especially with the planned addition of classroom space and a student housing facility.
“You can’t cover all of your bases, but it will allow us to operate some more lights and heat and equipment in the building,” Miller said.
Turner said that Gallagher was great in keeping him updated during the outages, and that the work of the linemen has been particularly appreciated.
“My gratitude to HEA, particularly their people that are working the lines in unbelievably terrible weather at all hours of the day and night with not a lot of sleep. I wish them happy holidays, my heart goes out and gratitude,” Turner said. “It’s an impact (to lose power) but, my gosh, they’re doing great with the resources they have available, and with the historic weather we’re having, they’re doing everything they can.”