What a relief: power’s back on | Don Brunell

An old TV commercial for an antacid once asked heartburn sufferers, “How do you spell relief?”

An old TV commercial for an antacid once asked heartburn sufferers, “How do you spell relief?”

For thousands of western Washington people left in the dark by winter storms, the word is “p-o-w-e-r.” And it took more than a couple of Rolaids to deal with it all.

Normally, we flip a switch and the lights come on. We think nothing of it until a storm knocks out our power. Then we realize how important electricity is to our everyday lives.

The Pacific Northwest periodically experiences heavy snow, ice storms and high winds, but generally not all in the same week. That is exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago, and more than 400,000 customers lost electricity, including many who had their lights come on — only to go out again.

On Jan. 18, people woke up to anywhere from eight to 18 inches of snow and 150,000 Puget Sound Energy customers lost power. PSE crews restored electricity to all but 15,000 customers when an ice storm hit later that day, jumping the outages to 280,000. Then, as power was coming back on, high winds hit the Puget Sound region and outages surged again. The series of storms kept some PSE repair crews in the field around the clock for five days.

As bad as it was, it didn’t quite compare to the 2006 storm that hit in mid-December when 70 miles per hour wind gusts blasted through western Washington.  In its wake, 1.5 million customers — almost half served by PSE — lost electricity.

Then, as now, the storm stopped nearly everything in its tracks, left people in the dark, shuttered businesses, closed schools and left hospitals and fire stations on backup power. But emergencies like these would turn into disasters if we weren’t prepared.

In 2006, 500 crews and 2,000 workers from as far away as southern California and Kansas were called to restore power in western Washington. At the peak of this year’s storm, about 300 crews (about 900 people) responded to the outages, including workers from California, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Alaska. Back at the PSE office, another 1,000 employees provided engineering, logistics and customer service support.

Interestingly, if you lined up all the power and tree crews bumper to bumper, it would form a line 10 miles long.

Many of us don’t realize that restoring power is much more than replacing a transformer or removing a downed tree from a power line. It is a coordinated effort between road crews, law enforcement, utilities and tree removers. It is a massive undertaking we seldom see in its entirety. But if it weren’t coordinated, we’d feel it immediately.

While this year’s toll hasn’t yet been tallied, PSE reports it repaired 56 transmission lines, hung 70 miles of new wire, replaced 250 power poles and repaired 70 substations and 326 distribution circuits.

Undoubtedly, the 2012 response will be studied and lessons will be learned.

Following the December 2006 storm, PSE stepped back and looked at what it could do better. For example, customers recommended that PSE do a better job communicating with its customers about outages and restoration times.

This year, as soon as the storm hit, former KIRO-TV meteorologist Andy Wappler, now PSE’s vice president of corporate affairs, was on radio and television providing detailed situation reports and giving regular updates of outages and repairs. In addition, the PSE website featured outage updates and provided a list of shelters available to those without power. PSE even used its Twitter and Facebook accounts to communicate with customers and the public.

While the final analysis of the 2012 storm will be months in coming, PSE and other affected utilities responded well. It’s a relief to have the power back on — and to know we have dedicated, skilled and knowledgeable people working around the clock massive emergencies.