What good is a web post in a power outage? Vermont asks utilities to improve communication
As climate change brings more wet and heavy snow storms to the region, state regulators are asking Vermont’s electric utilities to do a better job communicating with customers who are experiencing power outages.
The Public Utility Commission will hold special workshops this summer to try to improve the utilities’ communication networks following a series of storms this past winter that knocked out power in some areas for up to six days.
Representatives from Green Mountain Power traveled to more than 10 towns last month to meet with customers who lost power during a March storm.
And GMP Vice President of Field Operations Mike Burke told a crowd in Wardsboro that there will probably be more storms in the future.
“We actually only had one storm like this last year, and we’ve actually had four since Dec. 16,” Burke said. “We expect that the warmer air is going to continue to travel north, and we’ll have more and more of this type of weather statewide.”
More than four feet of heavy wet snow fell in some areas of Windham County, and Burke said it was one of the top 10 most damaging storms GMP has even seen.
At the meeting in Wardsboro the folks from GMP talked a lot about how the utility is trying to strengthen the grid by burying lines and putting up stronger cables that can hold up a tree that falls on them.
But they were also asked about how they expect to improve communications.
Anita Rafael, who said she couldn’t even open the door of her house in downtown Wardsboro for a few days, told GMP that all of the up-to-the minute information that was put out on the website was useless to her.
“As you know when the power goes down, here, most of us lose our internet as well,” Rafael said. “And we don’t have actual cell service in most of these places. And so when you call in and they say, ‘yeah, just go on the web, and you can you do this and do that.’ And I’m like, there is no web, there is no internet.”
“As you know when the power goes down, here, most of us lose our Internet as well. And we don’t have actual cell service in most of these places. And so when you call in and they say, ‘yeah, just go on the web, and you can you do this and do that.’ And I’m like, there is no web, there is no Internet.”Anita Rafael, Wardsboro resident
Tiana Smith works for GMP, and she heads up the communication network during storms, reaching out with selectboards, town officials and state emergency managers.
Smith said the storm that knocked out Rafael’s power was so bad it took two days just to clear the roads of trees and downed wires.
And as a warming climate changes the storms here in Vermont, Smith says the electric utilities have to figure out how to change their information system.
“These storms are different, and lasting longer,” Smith said. “And so some of the messaging we did in the past that you might have heard on the phone doesn’t quite fit for a storm like this where we’re spending just the first few days making things safe.”
Vermont Department of Public Service Public Advocacy Director Jim Porter said there is more pressure on the utilities now to make sure customers know how long they will be without power as more are working from home, and relying on electricity to power their cars and home heating systems.
“One of the big issues deals with communications with the customers,” Porter said. “And I think, you know, as we move more and more toward having more electrification, you know for our heating and for charging our cars, the reliability and the communication piece just become, I think, increasingly more important.”
“These storms are different, and lasting longer. And so some of the messaging we did in the past that you might have heard on the phone doesn’t quite fit for a storm like this where we’re spending just the first few days making things safe.”Tiana Smith, Green Mountain Power
The Department of Public Service asked the Public Utility Commission to get the utilities together to talk about ways to improve communications during storms after the state had to step in to help Washington Electric Coop following a storm around Christmas.
During the storm, Washington Electric lost a major piece of equipment that helps organize restoration work, and its customers were getting inaccurate updates.
So the Department of Public Service worked with another electric utility, Vermont Electric Coop, to call customers on their cell phones and landlines.
The power lines for Washington Electric run along dirt roads and up steep hillsides.
The utility serves 41 towns around the Montpelier area. Forty poles broke under the weight of heavy snow and falling trees following the Christmas storm.
And Washington Electric Coop General Manager Louis Porter says as climate change brings more heavy, wet storms, there is very little they can do to prevent trees from taking out poles and wires.
“People do need to recognize that as much as we might do to improve our operations and our system, the fact of the matter is if you live in a rural part of a utility service, whether it’s us, or Green Mountain Power, or Vermont Electric Coop, or anywhere else that’s rural, you are going to have outages at some point, and some of them are going to take a long time to fix,” he said.
Porter admits that Washington Electric was especially challenged by the Christmas storm.
More than 500 customers were contacted directly, and that’s never happened before in the utility’s 84-year history.
“We’re right at the intersection of climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation,” Porter said. “We are working hard to encourage people to use electricity rather than use fossil fuels to try to slow and mitigate the speed of climate change. At the same time we are seeing the impacts of it on our system, almost every day. And you’re seeing it right here in a small rural utility’s territory, both of those play out, and they’re related to each other."
The Department of Public Service hopes that a better plan is in place before the storms bear down on Vermont again next winter.
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