By Jenny Neyman
Few things kink our technology-entwined lives these days like a power outage. But as computers and electronics continue their integration into all aspects of our work and play, they also offer additional ways to be informed about outages.
Homer Electric Association recently rolled out an outage map on its website, www.homerelectric.com, showing outages as they occur and are resolved throughout the HEA coverage area. Currently the map is only available during business hours — 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, because it requires someone in the dispatch center to input and update outage information and the dispatch center is only staffed during regular hours. But by the middle of June the dispatch center’s hours are to be expanded so that it’s staffed around the clock, and the plan is to expand the outage map’s operational hours, as well.
“The goal is that it will be a 24/7 tool, but it’s just going to take a little bit more work on our end here to make that happen,” said Joe Gallagher, HEA spokesman.
Just knowing about an outage is useful, but being updated on progress to fix the problem is even more comforting. For that, technology — specifically, social media — again offers improvement.
“Over the past year or so we have used Facebook and that has just been a huge tool for information,” Gallagher said.
The standard procedure for letting members know about outages is to send press releases and updates to local media outlets, which distribute the news but with an inherent time lag. Newspapers take at least a day to distribute, and even radio stations can have a delay, particularly on nights or weekends when staffing is low.
“We work closely with all the media outlets and they do a good job but there’s always that time lag. The availability to get that information out quickly was not always there and we would just do the best we could,” Gallagher said.
Even posting information on a website isn’t always a direct means of distribution. It is available instantaneously, but only to those who are actively visiting the site. But with Facebook — or Twitter, on which HEA also operates an account — anyone who follows HEA has updates show up automatically.
“With the advent of Facebook it’s able to pretty much be instantaneous. When we have information about an outage it is immediately put on our Facebook page and it’s available to thousands of people right off the bat,” Gallagher said.
And, sure, computers and Wi-Fi connections need power, but smartphones with juice in the battery — or access to a car-charger cable — can connect to the web even when wired-in Internet services are snuffed out with the electricity.
Lately, this functionality has been put to use, as outages have plagued residents of the Sterling and Funny River areas.
“There have been a rash of outages and it’s just been a strange weather pattern that we’ve had. It was a heavy, wet snow followed by freezing rain. The trees got weighed down by this heavy mixture of snow, rain and ice and just fell over onto the power lines. … We didn’t really see it anywhere else but for our members in Sterling and Funny River it’s been a difficult month, for sure,” Gallagher said.
Overall it’s been a typical winter for HEA, Gallagher said, with scattered outages here and there. But at least one stretch of more-frequent outages also is typical for the winter.
“It always seems like we’re going to have a two- to three-week period where the weather turns on us and we’re faced with outages,” he said.
One area that does still depend on tried-and-true technology is in reporting outages. HEA requests that members pick up a phone and call 888-8OUTAGE (888-868-8243).
“The system is at the point where we can tell when there’s an outage at a meter, but with 30,000 meters it doesn’t necessarily come to us right away,” Gallagher said. “So there’s always the possibility that if there’s an outage and it’s not called in we’re not necessarily going to know about it. That remains a very important function of our membership.”
Clearing trees away from transmission lines in the utility right of way is an ongoing annual project, but one which only goes so far — 20 feet, to be exact — in preventing tree-related outage problems. The right of way is only 10 feet on each side of the centerline, Gallagher said.
“That’s really not that great of a right of way because obviously the trees are larger than that,” he said.
More effective in preventing problems is removing threatening trees on private property beyond the right of way, but that’s not covered by HEA’s annual maintenance budget. The Kenai Peninsula Borough, however, got a $1 million legislative appropriation in 2012 to do just that. HEA examined its transmission lines and outage patterns and determined where the money could best be put to use — neighborhoods in North Kenai, such as South Miller Loop, that have seen frequent tree-related outages in recent years. The borough contacted property owners and began work clearing trees this fall.
Residents all the way from Soldotna to Nikiski will benefit from another project currently underway, one which they’ve likely seen happening. All along the Kenai Spur Highway crews are swapping out power poles and stringing new line to upgrade a redundant loop to a higher capacity. A 115-kilovolt transmission line carries power along that corridor, with a 69-kV backup loop at the ready in case there’s a problem with the main line. But the 69-kV line simply isn’t robust enough to carry that load, so the redundant line was essentially useless.
Another state appropriation, this one in 2011, provided $18 million to upgrade the backup line to provide a full 115-kV loop serving the area.
“Before, if one part went down, we couldn’t transfer everything over because we just didn’t have the capability to do that with the 69-kV line. Now we will have a redundant loop which will be a huge impact and a great source of improved reliability,” Gallagher said.
Work along the highway should be completed by April, though the project will require some additional work at the Soldotna substation to finalize the upgrade. That part is scheduled to be completed in the fall.
Soldotna through Nikiski isn’t the only area to enjoy an increase in power reliability.
A new substation on Swanson River Road in Sterling went online in October. That project cost $8 million, with the state kicking in $1 million.
“Before, if there was a problem in the Soldotna area, lots of times it would extend all the way into the Sterling area. The substation in Sterling will be able to provide reliability to the Sterling area,” Gallagher said.
Work continues on the new Soldotna power generation plant and is scheduled to be completed this spring. Tours of the Soldotna and Nikiski plants will be offered to the public around HEA’s annual meeting, to be held May 1 at Soldotna High School. A ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Nikiski plant also will be held at that time.
Currently the Nikiski plant generates the lion’s share of the power for HEA, and the Soldotna plant will be a backup generation site, Gallagher said. As of Jan. 1, HEA accomplished its goal of generating all its own power, rather than buying power from Chugach Electric Association. HEA is still linked to Chugach and the two can share power in cases of emergency, but HEA is no longer a consumer, rather a self-sufficient generator of power.
The bulk of energy generation still comes from natural gas, however, whether it was purchased through Chugach or generated by HEA. And that means that fluctuations in the price of natural gas still will be reflected in the rates HEA members pay. Rates went up Jan. 1, with the average homeowner seeing an increase of about $13 per month, bringing their bill from $133 to $146 per month.
Natural gas will be the powerhouse for the foreseeable future, Gallagher said, although HEA is still investigating building a 5-megawatt hydroelectric plant on Grant Lake near Moose Pass. HEA also is continuing a partnership with Ocean Renewable Power Company, which wants to run a pilot project investigating tidal power in Cook Inlet.
“They’re working hard to find some funding to get that project in the water to see in fact if it’s a feasible technology,” Gallagher said.
HEA members can have a say in all these decisions through the HEA board of directors, and the nomination period for annual board elections is about to open. Candidate application packets will be available by the end of the week and are due by Feb. 28. The HEA board has nine members, with three seats representing each of HEA’s three districts — District 1 covering Kenai and Nikiski, District 2 covering the Soldotna area and part of Kasilof, and District 3 covering Kasilof south. Board members are elected by district, and one seat from each district comes up for election each year.
Ballots are sent to HEA members in the spring and the last chance to vote is at the annual meeting. For more information, visit www.homerelectric.com.