Powerful storms versus the power grid, Part I

Following the devastation that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria left in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, among other areas, TransmissionHub reached out to various entities, including NERC, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), PJM Interconnection, the Midcontinent ISO (MISO), and the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) to discuss main takeaways from the recent storms, as well as what can be done to prepare the power grid going forward.

As reported, Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key in the Lower Florida Keys on the morning of Sept. 10, a couple of weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane near Rockport, Texas, on Aug. 25.

According to a Sept. 23 Miami Herald article, “Florida’s official death toll from Hurricane Irma stood at 50 through Friday night [Sept. 22] – but those numbers do not appear to include 14 storm-related deaths in the Florida Keys or the 11 seniors who perished in a Hollywood nursing home. When combined, that would raise the total number of deaths caused by the storm to 75.”

According to a Houston Chronicle article that was updated on Oct. 9, “More than 75 people died in Texas as a result of Hurricane Harvey and the massive flooding it triggered, as well as in medical emergencies in which care may have been delayed because of the storm.”

Hurricane Maria made landfall along the southern coast of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Infrastructure Security & Energy Restoration “Event Summary (Report #39).”

Maria also affected other areas, including the U.S. Virgin Islands.

DOE’s Sept. 21 “Morning Event Summary (Report #40)” said that as of the afternoon of Sept. 20, nearly all 1.57 million electricity customers in Puerto Rico were reported to be without power. DOE’s Oct. 30 “Event Summary (Report #72),” noted that about 30.5% of normal peak load has been restored, and 39 of 78 municipalities are partially energized or have energized facilities.

According to an Oct. 29 statement from the office of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, there are 3,403 people in 77 shelters, and the number of deaths related directly or indirectly to Maria remains at 51.

The first of this two-part article looks at the main takeaways following the storms, Puerto Rico’s power woes, as well as how entities work together to ensure that the lights stay on.

‘We want to be better today than we were yesterday’

Scott Aaronson, executive director for Security and Business Continuity at EEI, told TransmissionHub, “One of the mantras of the industry is we want to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today.”

No two storms are ever alike, and likewise, no two responses are ever alike, he said, adding that all storms offer opportunities for improvement.

Hurricane Harvey, for instance, “was a tropical depression and then 36 hours later was a Category 4 hurricane slamming into the southeast coast of Texas – that didn’t give a whole a lot of warning, and it came with catastrophic flooding,” he said.

Aaronson noted that “at its max, in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, 350,000 people were without power,” as a result of Harvey.

He continued, “I view that as extraordinary, when you look at the amount of flooding, and to have the grid essentially operational for most of it – and the ability to respond and recover … fairly quickly – I think that that’s one example of some of the resilient infrastructures that this sector operates.”

Irma was a completely different storm that brought “hurricane-force winds in every single county in Florida” and had an “impact in all … counties in Georgia,” he said.

Aaronson said that Irma “was a historic storm, with historic impact, that required historic response.”

There were eight million people, give or take, without power at the max of that storm, he said, adding, “We had 60,000 of crews dedicated to the restoration efforts in Florida and Georgia; 95% of all customers were restored within five days, and somewhere around 99% within nine days, so that is its own brand of resilience.”

He also noted that while some people like to say that the industry “dodged a bullet” with Hurricane Nate – which made landfall near Biloxi, Miss., earlier this month, according to the National Hurricane Center’s website – “I wouldn’t say we dodged a bullet, I would say we were prepared for it, and I think that that speaks to some of the lessons that we’ve learned over the years given these storms about how to both be resilient in the face of them, but then also how to respond and recover when there is impact.”

All customers were restored within 36 hours following Nate, he said.

Puerto Rico in peril

Aaronson noted that “what worked really effectively on the mainland” U.S., differed from what is occurring in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

“We are working with them to restore power to the people of Puerto Rico as quickly as possible, but when you look at the economic state of the island and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority [(PREPA) or Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE)], they have not been able to invest in their infrastructure the way that we have on the mainland, and so you then see that not being able to harden infrastructure over many years has consequences when a storm comes through.”

The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration and AEE did not immediately respond to TransmissionHub’s requests for comment.

Aaronson noted that while with Irma, “we were able to … preposition crews in order to be able to hit the ground running as quickly as possible once the storm cleared. You can’t do that on an island for fear of the responders becoming victims themselves.”

A real problem during the first couple of weeks following Maria involved logistics challenges – that is, being able to get crews, equipment, and material into the impacted area, he said.

“You had a focus on life and safety, so anything that we were bringing from the mainland was focused on just life safety issues,” he said. “Anything that would have come from the electricity sector might have been displacing critical commodities.”

Noting the large amount of debris on the island, he said that access to and around the island were troubling.

“Until you can do a really fulsome assessment, you can’t begin the process of doing an effective restoration,” he said. “A lot of those issues are being addressed, but there have been a lot of challenges along the way.”

According to DOE’s Oct. 30 Event Summary, installation of two generators installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) at the Palo Seco Power Plant site was complete on Oct. 26.

According to an Oct. 29 statement, Rosselló Nevares has requested that AEE proceed to immediately invoke the cancelation clause of a contract with the company, Whitefish Energy, which, according to an Oct. 25 letter from the governor to the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, entered into an emergency master service agreement with PREPA for PREPA’s electrical grid reconstruction.

Under that contract, Whitefish has been providing recovery services to PREPA in the aftermath of the hurricane, which completely destroyed the island’s electrical grid system, according to the letter.

Rosselló Nevares on Oct. 25 said on Twitter that he has asked the Office of Inspector General to conduct a review of the contracting process of Whitefish Energy by AEE.

Whitefish Energy representatives did not immediately respond to TransmissionHub’s requests for comment.

In an Oct. 27 statement, FEMA said, “Based on initial review and information from PREPA, FEMA has significant concerns with how PREPA procured this contract and has not confirmed whether the contract prices are reasonable.”

FEMA added that it is engaged with PREPA and its legal counsel to obtain information about the contract and contracting process, including how the contract was procured and how PREPA determined the contract prices were reasonable.

FEMA noted that the decision to award a contract to Whitefish Energy was made exclusively by PREPA, and that FEMA has not provided any reimbursement to Puerto Rico to date for that contract. FEMA noted that it will verify that PREPA has, in fact, followed applicable regulations to ensure that federal money is properly spent.

AEE’s verified Twitter account posted an Oct. 29 article from elVocero.com, which reported that AEE Executive Director Ricardo Ramos received the petition to cancel the $300m Whitefish Energy contract, with Ramos stating that the contract’s cancelation does not pertain to an acceptance that there was something unlawful about the matter.

According to an Oct. 30 statement from Rosselló Nevares’ office, the governors of Florida and New York will send teams via the Emergency Management Assistance Compact to compensate for the Whitefish teams that will leave.

Main takeaways following storms

In a response provided to TransmissionHub, Sam Chanoski, director of Situation Awareness and Event Analysis at NERC, said of the recent storms: “While our analysis continues and meaningful insights are forthcoming, the bulk power system experienced outages during the hurricanes but generally performed well.” Overwhelmingly, widespread, long-term outages were contained to the distribution side of operations, Chanoski said.

NERC’s Event Analysis program serves as an integral part of the industry’s learning process, providing insight and guidance by identifying and sharing valuable information to industry, Chanoski said, noting that past weather-related analyses include the 2012 Hurricane Sandy analysis and the 2014 Polar Vortex analysis.

A PJM spokesperson noted that there are certain extreme weather scenarios that will take out some portions of the grid.

“There is no way to harden against all threats,” the spokesperson said. “However, having restoration plans and the necessary equipment and personnel to implement those plans is key to quickly restoring power.”

In a response provided to TransmissionHub, Todd Hillman, vice president, MISO South Region, said that for MISO, a critical element to helping manage and recover from a hurricane or other extreme weather event is communication.

“That certainly held true during the Hurricane Harvey event,” he said. “This is part of what we practice so often in our drills.”

Hillman continued: “We have to be able to stay organized in times of crisis. This means that our internal teams have to communicate with each other ­– to make effective decisions. We have to collaborate with our member utilities – and we have to work with our local, state and federal partners.”

He noted that in terms of public communication, one of the phrases that MISO uses often is “One Voice,” meaning “that we reduce chaos and improve understanding by ensuring that everyone involved in the response effort is aligned on the message. MISO does not operate in a vacuum. We must work and make decisions collaboratively with our member utilities – that often have people on the front lines of these storms. The safety and wellbeing of human life is always our top priority.”

Bruce Rew, SPP vice president of Operations, said in a response provided to TransmissionHub: “Our continued planning is a critical piece to grid resiliency. The recent hurricanes have showed that while you may not be able to prepare for all scenarios the prior planning greatly aids in the response during these ever-changing dynamic events. Through coordination and planning, you can better ensure you can weather the storm regardless of what form that storm takes.”

In a response provided to TransmissionHub, Dan Woodfin, ERCOT senior director of System Operations, noted that ERCOT’s role during a hurricane or other severe weather event is to maintain overall system reliability. As such, the key takeaways were preparation, coordination and agility, he said.   

How entities prepare

Aaronson noted that through the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), of which he is secretary, CEOs of the affected companies, ESCC members, and government partners, including DOE and FEMA, “have been having regular calls” though this entire storm season.

As noted on its website, the ESCC serves as the principal liaison between leadership in the federal government and in the electric power sector, with the mission of coordinating efforts to prepare for national-level incidents or threats to critical infrastructure.

Chanoski noted that while NERC does not own or operate utilities on the bulk power system, NERC Reliability Standards focus on ensuring reliable operations of the grid at all times, including weather-related events. As an enhanced yardstick of reliability, resilience is reflected throughout NERC’s programs, Chanoski said, adding that NERC’s definition of “adequate level of reliability” includes a performance outcome providing for expeditious recovery from major system disturbances.

NERC has a family of emergency preparedness and operations standards covering such topics as blackstart capability, system restoration coordination, and geomagnetic disturbance operations, Chanoski said, noting that NERC published a report on severe impact resilience and has collaborated with FERC and regional entities on the industry’s response and recovery plans.

NERC also assures reliability through various other activities, including seasonal, topical and long-term reliability assessments; analysis of collective performance, as well as root cause analysis into specific events of interest; and facilitating learning and information sharing through the Event Analysis process, Chanoski said.

The PJM spokesperson noted that PJM notifies members of impending storms or other major threats via the declaration of emergency alerts and associated procedures. Those procedures include cancelling and deferring all maintenance activities, operating in a conservative posture, opening more frequent lines of communication with neighbors, increased staffing, and other activities to ensure people are prepared to work through a long-term event, she said. In addition, PJM and its members maintain comprehensive system restoration plans that are drilled on multiple times per year to ensure proficiency in restoring the grid from a black out scenario, she said.

Hillman noted that MISO spends a significant amount of time preparing for extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

“[W]e partner very closely with our member utilities, which own the generation and manage the local power distribution system,” he said. “Our South region team conducts joint exercises with our members. This practice helps us all better understand what to expect – and how to work better to protect our combined system.”

MISO’s team monitors weather developments carefully, he said, noting that during hurricane season, that includes daily reports on potential weather systems. MISO coordinates closely with its members well ahead of hurricanes and other extreme weather reaching its region, Hillman said, adding that that helps ensure needed generation and transmission resources are available and may include returning assets to service or delaying planned outages.

He noted that MISO issued a severe weather alert in anticipation of Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 24, which helped prepare MISO’s members and stakeholders for weather-related challenges and potential actions that were needed to protect the grid.

Proactive planning and operating procedures assist MISO operators in maintaining reliability during extreme conditions and challenging events, he said.

Rew said that SPP continually evaluates the bulk electric system (BES) to ensure reliable operation for any given contingency. For a multiple contingency event, like a large tornado or severe ice storm – more likely impacting events for SPP’s footprint – SPP runs special studies and prepares the system ahead of time as best it can, he said. That includes working with SPP’s local transmission operators and generator operators to take facilities out of service or re-configuring the transmission system before the event occurs, Rew said.

Woodfin noted that ERCOT has established hurricane procedures and conducts annual training drills for severe weather events, including hurricanes, which include both ERCOT and other power system operators across the ERCOT region. 

During Harvey, ERCOT had extra staff from multiple engineering and IT groups on-site around the clock to ensure the availability of its monitoring and analysis tools, to perform additional reliability studies and develop solutions in response to rapidly changing system conditions, as well as to provide regular reporting of information about system conditions, Woodfin said.

A spokesperson for the California ISO (CAISO) told TransmissionHub that the CAISO has a robust grid restoration plan in place that meets or exceeds NERC standards. 

“We reassess our plan regularly and collaborate with participating transmission and generation owners, as well as state and federal energy agencies to identify enhancements,” the spokesperson said. “We have periodic restoration drills to practice and test the plan – and we study extreme event scenarios to determine best practices. Luckily, in the West we don’t have a problem with hurricanes, but in California, we are concerned with major earthquakes and so we are proactively engaged in preparedness planning and activities. More recently, the ISO identified a need for procuring more black start resources in the San Francisco Bay Area and commenced a stakeholder initiative to work out the procurement and cost allocation details.”

He noted that a black start related tariff amendment was filed with FERC on Aug. 3, and its decision is pending.  

Part II of this article will be posted shortly.

Further information can be found here for Texas; here for Florida; and here for Puerto Rico.

About Corina Rivera-Linares 3286 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares was TransmissionHub’s chief editor until August 2021, as well as part of the team that established TransmissionHub in 2011. Before joining TransmissionHub, Corina covered renewable energy and environmental issues, as well as transmission, generation, regulation, legislation and ISO/RTO matters at SNL Financial from 2005 to 2011. She has also covered such topics as health, politics, and education for weekly newspapers and national magazines.