Ice storm worse than a hurricane, utility crews say - - Columbia, South Carolina |

Ice storm worse than a hurricane, utility crews say

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As weather conditions improved Thursday afternoon, the state's 20 electric cooperatives continue to assess damage in their service territories.

This week's winter storm dealt a significant, crippling blow to five co-ops, with outages affecting more than 50 percent of their members.

"The amount of damage we have here is equal to Hurricane Hugo," says David Felkel, president and CEO of Edisto Electric Cooperative in Bamberg. Portions of the territory served by Edisto Electric received more than one-inch of ice, interrupting service to more than 80 percent of their consumers.

"Some of our co-ops have never seen the damage on this scale before," said Todd Carter, vice president of loss control and training for The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. "For them, this has been a storm of historic proportions."

Damage at Coastal Electric Cooperative is remarkable. At the height of the storm, all of Coastal‘s 11,500 members did not have electricity.

"Coastal Electric has 50 broken utility poles," said Mike Couick, president and CEO of The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. "The worst storm they endured before now was a hurricane that broke 21 of their poles. That gives you an idea of the magnitude of the repair job they have ahead."

Santee Electric Cooperative in Kingstree reports the largest number of outages in the state--more than 37,000 of their members do not have power. That total represents more than 80 percent of their entire system.

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, approximately 144,000 co-op consumers did not have electricity. The outage totals increased overnight, highlighting the complexity of repairing power lines after a winter storm.

"An ice storm is worse than a hurricane," says Bob Paulling, CEO of Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative in Lexington. "With a hurricane, the storm blows through, does its damage and it's gone. An ice storm is like a hurricane followed by a series of mini-hurricanes. You restore power to an area, but then the ice comes back and the same area goes down again."

In addition to local crews already working full-time on repairs, nearly 300 additional line workers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia will help South Carolina's cooperatives. Crews will work around the clock to restore service, but the damage at a small number of co-ops is so vast, some consumers will be without power until next week.

"A few of our co-ops have a huge task ahead," says Carter. "A few systems are nearly decimated. Even under the best conditions, restoring power to some rural areas is a big challenge. The number of downed trees is a huge hurdle—there are crews that are literally cutting their way to get to broken lines."

Utility providers continue to ask the public for patience as they work to restore power.

Here are several frequently asked questions, to help you get through a power outage:

Q: Which of South Carolina's electric cooperatives were hardest hit by the storm?

A: The co-ops that are experiencing the most outages now are Aiken Electric, Berkeley Electric (Moncks Corner), Coastal Electric (Walterboro), Edisto Electric (Bamberg), Horry Electric (Conway), and Santee Electric (Kingstree).

Q: How serious is the damage?

A: The answer varies from co-op to co-op. Coastal, Edisto and Santee electric cooperatives have 80 percent or more of their systems without power. Approximately 50 percent of Aiken Electric's service is out at this time.

Q: How does damage from this winter storm compare with that of other storms?

A: It's hard to determine that right now, but Edisto Electric CEO David Felkel called damage at his cooperative "equal to Hurricane Hugo."

Bob Paulling, CEO at Mid-Carolina Electric, went one step further. "An ice storm is worse than a hurricane. With a hurricane, the storm blows through, does its damage, and after it's gone, you can get to work doing repairs. An ice storm is like a hurricane followed by a series of mini hurricanes. You restore power to an area, but then the ice comes back overnight and the same area goes down again."

Coastal Electric's predicament supports Paulling's statement. Coastal is working to replace 50 poles on its system, more than twice as many as were broken by the last hurricane to blow through the area.

Q: How long will it take to get power restored?

A: With so many variables, it is difficult to give an accurate answer. Out-of-state crews are now assisting or are on their way to assist the co-ops that need help the most. While some co-ops believe power could be restored in the next day or so, others believe it could be as long as two weeks before all power is restored.

All co-ops in the upper part of the state and Palmetto Electric near Savannah anticipate total restoration by midday Friday. Co-ops in the Midlands, except Aiken Electric, expect restoration by the weekend or early next week. Aiken Electric and Berkeley, Black River, Horry and Santee electric cooperatives expect to have total restoration by the middle of or late next week. Coastal and Edisto electric cooperatives, whose systems were almost completely out of power, may be a two- to three-week process.

Q: How do co-ops determine the order of priority in restoring power to homes, neighborhoods and businesses?

A: It may help to think of electric power like water flowing through a garden hose. If the hose is cut and leaking near the spigot or source, you have to fix the leak there before you address other leaks down the line. The same thing applies when restoring power. First, crews are working on the single sources of the most outages — transmission lines, which supply power to substations. Then, they will work their way to distribution lines and finally to individual homes where service has been knocked out.

Q: What about consumers who have special needs?

A: Electric cooperatives are aware of members with special circumstances. They strive to restore power to those individuals as soon as possible, but they encourage these members to seek alternative means for power. Once power is restored to a special needs consumer, the co-op calls the consumer to verify that power is on.

Q: What can people do to help?

A: A couple of things:

• Be patient when calling about power outages. Phones at the co-op may be out, but even if you are struggling to get through, most co-ops have systems that inform them when power is out in your area or at your home.

• Understand when you see line crews doing their job, their work zone is a hazardous area. Stopping to talk with them may put you in danger, and at a minimum slows down the repair process for everyone. However, a wave or a "thumbs up" is always appreciated.

Q: What else would co-ops like South Carolinians to know?

A: We appreciate Governor Haley's efforts to smooth the way for out-of-state crews to help restore power. Thanks in part to her efforts, there are 300 additional line workers already here or on their way to South Carolina from Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. We're also grateful to Dukes Scott and the state Office of Regulatory Staff for helping us coordinate resources with other states.

What it takes to repair a powerline

The damage repair challenge for power systems can vary widely by type of weather situation, type of damage caused, and the individual situation at the specific repair site. However, I thought it might be helpful to provide you an illustration.

So, whether used for publication/broadcast or simply for your internal understanding, we have prepared this general example, for illustration purposes only, of a scenario of line repair in an ice storm.

Consider a situation where multiple spans are damaged. A span is a length of conductor wire between two poles.

1. The weight of ice on trees or the wire itself breaks the wire and/or poles.

2. The tension on the wire as it breaks may pull it the distance of two or more poles – the length of a football field for each span of wire between two poles – 300 feet.

3. The repair crew arrives. It may be a bucket truck or it may be lineworkers who are climbing the poles with gaffs (an apparatus worn on the lower leg).

4. If a pole or poles have been broken, simply removing the 400-pound broken pole, re-digging a hole, and setting a new pole can take as much as 45 minutes per pole.

5. The ice must be broken off the wire for the entire span being repaired.

6. The line workers must pull the broken wire back into place.

7. A new span of wire is put in place and connections between existing and new wire spans are made.

8. The wire is connected to the pole-top transformers.

9. The service wires (that go from pole to home or business) must be re-strung and connected.

10. The line must be re-energized by manually closing the circuit in the field (at the fuse, main line or substation).

This time-consuming and multi-part process can add up to many hours for only a few spans of wire. Then in a frustrating and not uncommon turn of events in an icing situation, another section of that same power line can later break because of the weight of ice on nearby lines or trees.

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