Get Ready for More, Longer Blackouts

Source: By Will Wade, Bloomberg • Posted: Wednesday, April 15, 2020

This year’s storm season is going to be a doozy, and the coronavirus will only make it more difficult to get the lights back on.

The council of utility executives, called the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, is developing guidelines for organizing restoration efforts that involve crews from multiple companies. The goal is to maximize available manpower while limiting situations that could transmit the virus.

This spring already feels different for Kris Anderson, a former lineman with Duquesne Light Co. in Pittsburgh, who helped repair equipment in northwest Pennsylvania and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. That storm cut off power to more than 8.5 million customers in 21 states, prompting the biggest mutual-assistance response ever. More than 57,000 crews of workers from across North America were deployed, but even so, more than 800,000 were still without power more than a week later.

The storm that battered the U.S. this week unleashed tornadoes in the Carolinas, Mississippi and elsewhere. By Tuesday afternoon, there were still 250,000 homes and businesses without power from Texas to Maine, according to utility websites.

About 1,200 tornadoes strike the U.S. each year, peaking in May or June in the Midwest and even earlier in the south. On March 28 alone, tornadoes reportedly touched down in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Arkansas, while hail and wind damaged trees, power lines, and buildings in 13 states. Meanwhile, Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1, and initial forecasts from Colorado State University and other meteorologists call for it to be an especially active one. CSU also says there’s an above average chance that a single storm could knock out power to 1 million or more people along the Eastern Seaboard.

Working Side By Side

Power-line crews work in close proximity and often bunk together in shared trailers, tent cities, or hotel rooms when they’re sent out following disasters—conditions that could easily facilitate the spread of the highly contagious virus. This year, workers probably won’t travel as far. “How do you mandate a six-foot separation in the cab of a pickup?” says Jim Slevin, president of the Utility Workers Union of America and a former lineman who spent almost two decades repairing Consolidated Edison Inc. systems in New York City.