Hurricane Sandy blackouts hit millions. Can power companies cope?

With days of warnings that giant hurricane Sandy would hit the Northeast, power companies positioned supplies and thousands of extra line workers to deal with the onslaught of blackouts.

Seth Wenig/AP
Waters flood Ocean Ave. in Sea Bright, N.J., Monday, Oct. 29. Hurricane Sandy continued on its path Monday, as the storm forced the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds and soaking rain.

The number of power outages caused by hurricane Sandy as it barreled toward the New Jersey shore shot up Monday afternoon and then soared in the evening, posing a growing challenge to utility companies that were bracing for the storm’s worst effects.

By mid-afternoon, with the giant storm still about 100 miles at sea and hours before its expected landfall in the evening, more than 300,000 consumers in 11 states were left in the dark. That was a big jump in overall outages from the six states and 36,400 customers that had reported being out of power just six hours earlier, according to the US Department of Energy's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

But the numbers reported to the DOE and relayed on its websites were quickly overshadowed by those reportedly directly by utilities: By 6 p.m. more than 2,100,000 customers were without power in 11 states: New Jersey utilities reported 606,671 in the dark, New York 593,992, Massachusetts 316,190, Connecticut 229,440, the Delmarva region 141,613, Rhode Island 109,182, Virginia 43,300, Pennsylvania 26,615,North Carolina 6,466, and New Hampshire 28,427.

It was not yet clear whether the disruptions caused by Sandy would rival or surpass those from hurricane Irene, which knocked out power to more than 9.3 million customers along the East Coast and Puerto Rico in August 2011, about 6 million of those in 13 East Coast states.

With days of advance warning, utility companies had busily pre-positioned supplies and secured thousands of line workers to help restore power after the storm makes landfall. Linemen and other workers from as far away as Midwestern states were on their way, although it was not known until late this weekend that the brunt of the storm was most likely to be felt just south of New York City.

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which represents investor-owned utilities representing approximately 70 percent of the US electric power industry, said Monday that its member utilities were moving to restore power as fast as possible.

“EEI is working with the Federal government, including FEMA and the Department of Energy and first responders to coordinate response,” Brian Wolff, senior vice president of the Edison Electric Institute said in a statement. “EEI’s member companies in Sandy’s path have mobilized thousands of storm and field personnel, and have called upon extra workers and resources from all across the country and as far away as Canada and Mexico, through the industry’s Mutual Assistance Network.”

Utilizing the industry's "mutual assistance" pacts, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) had ordered extra power restoration crews and tree trimmers from Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, Texas, Florida, California, and Iowa. Con Edison, serving New York, reported Sunday that more than 700 extra line workers, tree crews and damage assessors had been called in to help with storm restoration. Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey reported 1,179 contractors, linemen and tree crews on hand for outage response. Similar preparations were reported in North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia.

Other energy suppliers, too, were taking action as well. Refineries along the East Coast reported they were throttling back or shutting down operations.

Phillips 66 reported that it had shut down its 238,000 barrel per day refinery in Linden, N.J. Production was cut back at Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ 335,000 bpd refinery in Philadelphia, and PBF Energy’s Delaware City refinery with 182,200 bpd.

Nuclear power stations in the region were also reported to be taking extra precautions and added federal monitoring in the event grid outages were to leave the stations on backup power only to cool their radioactive cores, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington reported.

On-site inspectors were equipped with satellite phones to remain in steady contact with NRC's Incident Response Center in King of Prussia, Pa. as well as the agency's Operations Center in Rockville, Md.

"Nuclear power plant procedures require that the facilities be shut down prior to any projected hurricane-force winds on-site," the NRC said in a statement. "The plants’ emergency diesel generators are available if off-site power is lost during the storm. Also, all plants have flood protection above the predicted storm surge, and key components and systems are housed in watertight buildings capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds and flooding."

Plants getting "enhanced oversight" during the storm include: Calvert Cliffs, in Lusby, Md.; Salem and Hope Creek, in Hancocks Bridge, N.J.; Oyster Creek, in Lacey Township, N.J.; Peach Bottom, in Delta, Pa.; Three Mile Island 1, in Middletown, Pa.; Susquehanna, in Salem Township, Pa.; Indian Point, in Buchanan, N.Y.; and Millstone, in Waterford, Conn., the NRC reports.

Nuclear power industry critics, however, said concerns remain despite those steps. The nuclear plant at Oyster Creek, for instance, is offline to unload spent fuel from its core to the plant's spent-fuel pool, but does not have a backup power system to power the pumps that cool it and so could be vulnerable to an extended outage, says Paul Gunter, director of reactor oversight at Beyond Nuclear, a nuclear power watchdog group.

"I don't wish to paint any worst case scenarios about this storm," he says. "I'm more concerned about the slow regulatory response since Fukushima in requiring that there be power backup systems for these spent fuel pools. Now we're faced with this colossal storm and it does raise concerns."

If US homeowners and other power customers have the feeling that power outages are becoming more prevalent – they're right. Power outages hit many more utility customers more frequently and when they did affected a larger number of customers in 2011 compared with 2010, the DOE reported in a recent review of outages over the past two years.

In 2010, there were 17 disruptions that affected 250,000 or more customers, with the largest outage affecting nearly 1.3 million customers, the DOE reported in a study of outages over the past two years.  By contrast, in 2011, there were 30 disruptions affecting at least 250,000 customers, with five outages affecting more than 1.5 million electricity customers. Twenty-nine of the 30 significant outages in 2011 were caused by weather, and one was manmade, the DOE found.

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