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Utilities work to 'harden' the system, post-derecho, Iowa Ideas Conference panelists say

'Personally, this hurt'

Oct 16, 2020 at 2:29 pm
    An Alliant Energy crew works on power lines along Bowling Street SW in Cedar Rapids on Aug. 12. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

    In the span of an hour, the Aug. 10 derecho storm wreaked havoc on parts of the region’s power grids, creating a workload that would normally take years to complete.

    Representatives from local power companies gathered for an Iowa Ideas Conference session via video conferencing Thursday morning and produced by The Gazette, to share some of the greatest challenges in getting back online, lessons learned, and the steps to full recovery.

    “For the first time ever in Cedar Rapids, not a single customer had power,” said Mayuri Farlinger, Alliant Energy’s director of operations for the eastern side of the state.

    She related an eerie feeling as she drove home from their operations center that first night with pure darkness over the city. “Personally, this hurt. It was devastating to see what the landscape looked like. We knew we had days and weeks of work ahead of us and that we were facing a monumental challenge,” she said.

    Alliant did receive a few hours’ notice from colleagues on the western side of the state about the approaching storm, Farlinger recalled, but that was not nearly enough time to make preparations.

    Joel Schmidt, the utility’s vice president of business development, added that the tree damage with this storm brought significant challenges.

    “Many relief workers told us that our trees were such an issue because, in hurricane areas, the trees aren’t able to grow as big because of more regular storms. Here you had 100-year-old trees come down,” Schmidt said.

    “And we amazed ourselves with out quickly we were able to get back online. Because once electricity is provided we can do so much more to recover.”

    The damage, as assessed by Alliant, was three times worse than the most devastating storm in recent memory — 2007’s ice storm.

    The call for outside assistance was critical.

    “Mutual assistance is a stronghold of our industry,” Schmidt said. “The first call went out just after noon on Aug. 10th and the industry, as always, stepped up to the challenge.”

    Dusky Terry, president of ITC Midwest, which transmits power for Alliant and other distribution utilities around the Midwest, affirmed the extreme destruction.

    “This storm pushed the limits of our crews, team and leadership,” he said, noting ITC has 145 transmission lines, approximately 2,100 miles, out.

    “We had three times the normal line crew numbers for a normal outage. We replaced 1,000 wooden and steel poles — we don’t keep that inventory on hand,” Terry said

    Because the damage was widespread, mainly along the Highway 30 corridor, collaboration was key to rebuilding.

    “The greatest lesson learned is that these partnerships are invaluable. We will do that going forward because it will take all of us working together on behalf of our customers,” Farlinger said, referring to ITC, Alliant and MidAmerican Energy crews working after the storm to repair each other’s power lines.

    As rebuilding continues, Alliant’s Farlinger noted Alliant is moving toward putting more lines underground.

    “It is aesthetically pleasing and reduces some issues,” she said. “But we still had underground cables damaged during this storm as massive root balls pulled them up.

    “There are always costs and benefits to consider.”

    All those on the panel continued to circle back to their gratitude for the support, patience and grace they received from those who came to help, their employees and customers.

    “And we know the job is not done,” Schmidt said.

    “We learn from every storm and every new experience,” Terry added. “We are learning to build a more resilient system.

    “When you saw hospitals and care facilities without power for days, it becomes more and more of an issue. When a major storm does come through, you do your best to build a more resilient system that they can sustain weather impact throughout the year.”

    ITC now incorporates storm structures that withstand higher tension in their lines that help to stop cascading and further outages, he said.

    “Hardening the system happens every day. It’s how we rebuild,” agreed Farlinger, noting that they focus on thicker, more insulated wire, and other alternatives such as microgrids, the introduction of renewables and putting lines underground.

    “We are acting for tomorrow. We always have a focus on what the grid and system needs to look like into the future, and the benefits of that are realized by our customers on a daily basis,” she said.

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