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Irene leaves 5.5 million without power. Can power companies do better?

Some 5.5 million people were without power in the wake of hurricane Irene Monday, but damage-forecasting models aimed at improving power companies' response are showing promise.

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New forecasting systems are seen as one key way to drive down such numbers in the future. The models would help utilities order sufficient numbers of repair crews in anticipation of storm damage, scientists say. Because it can cost millions to bring in crews from out of state, the issue is vital for utilities.

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Using utility data on where outages occurred, scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore developed forecast models. The models take into account myriad elements that could cause poles or trees to topple on power lines, including wind speeds, soil moisture, topography, and land use.

Calculations before Irene hit suggested that utilities in the Maryland region were likely to need far more personnel than they initially planned, says Seth Guikema, assistant professor of environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins.

One utility, he said, announced before Irene arrived that it had a couple hundred crews to handle an expected 100,000 outages. But thousands of crews were eventually needed to handle about 630,000 outages.

"Our model was forecasting about 500,000 outages just for Maryland," Mr. Guikema says. "If they had worked from that, they would have been better prepared. We think we have something utilities will be able to use going forward."

Others suggest utilities should move toward putting more power lines underground. More than 3 million miles of electrical cables are strung overhead across the country, according to a study by Underground2020.org, a group organized to lobby for more underground utility lines.

"The cost is higher to put them underground, but that's a short-term view," says Don Buckner, who heads the group. "The utilities could easily justify putting them underground if they calculate the entire cost – including people losing heat, losing their refrigeration.... But the utilities companies don't want to spend the money to put them underground. That's the challenge."

About half of all capital spending on power lines by US investor-owned utilities has been for underground wires, Mr. Buckner's group reports. Currently, about 70 percent of the wires that take electricity the last few miles to homes and businesses have been built overhead.

But the cost can be steep, the industry says. A 2005 study in Virginia put conversion costs at $800,000 per mile – about $41 billion overall.

"Virtually all objective observers in recent years have termed the effort prohibitively expensive," utility Dominion Resources reports on its website – an assertion Buckner disputes.

Current estimates put the total costs of hurricane Irene – beyond utility costs alone – as high as $10 billion.

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