Severe weather keeps power companies busy

Power companies have had to cope with additional work and expenses after an unusually high number of severe weather events so far this year.

 

Shawn Smith, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in West Columbia, S.C., said 225 severe storm warnings have been issued in his coverage area, which includes the South Carolina Midlands and the Central Savannah River Area. That's more than twice the warnings that were issued in the same period last year, and the highest total in at least four years.

Severe storms mean winds of at least 58 mph or hail 1 inch or larger, both of which can be a menace to power lines. Add lightning to the equation, and it's not uncommon for these storms to knock out power for tens of thousands of people.

Georgia Power Co. spokesman Jim Barber said it "has definitely been one of our worst years in terms of storms," beginning with damaging ice and snow in January. That was followed by nine severe storms that knocked out power for nearly 2 million customers throughout the state between April and June.

South Carolina Electric and Gas spokesman Robert Yanity said more than 10,000 of the utility's 650,000 customers in southern South Carolina have lost power on five or six occasions this year, with the biggest storm turning off the lights for about 53,000 residences.

"Each one of these presents its own challenges," he said.

If a storm hits a large circuit that provides power to many people, it's easy to spot and becomes the top priority because fixing it restores power to the most people.

Other outages can take longer to restore, he said, especially when trees knock down individual power lines or lightning strikes the company's equipment.

When disaster strikes on such a large scale, the restoration effort goes well beyond those employees who are on call.

Jefferson Energy Cooperative spokesman Steve Chalker said everyone has to be ready to spring into action.

"It's a very inclusive plan that involves all departments," he said. "Obviously, the gist of it is that a storm hits and we work."

Barber said efficiency has been greatly improved by cooperation between local power companies, along with the work of 3,300 people from outside the region to repair damaged lines in the past three months. Both Barber and Chalker also gave credit for improved efficiency to new "smart meters," which can inform workers of outages before they're even reported.

Barber wasn't sure about the impact of the storms for Georgia Power, but Yanity and Chalker both said the repairs and overtime for workers caused by this year's storms have exceeded their company's budgets for emergency relief.

Those extra costs will come out of other expenditures, rather than the wallets of consumers, they said.
For the next three months, the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center expects above-average rainfall in the Southeast, but Smith said it's hard to say how many of those rainstorms will be severe.

"Every time we have a storm, we go through lessons learned," Yanity said. "We check to see what we can be doing better, what we have done right."

 

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