Some power lines just can’t be put underground, but in the heavily forested North Olympic Peninsula, it’s an option that’s always considered, say Clallam County Public Utility District officials in the wake of a storm that left 1,500 Joyce-area customers without electricity for five days.
Winds clocked at more than 100 mph ripped through the area on Nov. 18 and left 12,000 Clallam County Public Utilities District customers — and another 4,846 in Port Angeles — without power for several hours.
Although power was soon restored to most, the Joyce area was in the dark while crews repaired a transmission line that bridged a canyon and fell into the Elwha River.
“The power was out from Wednesday though Monday,” said Melissa Corey, who works at Joyce General Store, where a backup generator kept the lights on.
“We never lose power here,” she said.
Outages are customary during high winds, given the number of Peninsula trees that can fall on power lines.
If trees are the problem, why not put lines underground?
Roughly 60 percent of the PUD’s 2,000 miles of distribution lines are underground.
Transmission lines too large
But transmission lines — such as the one that fell into the Elwha River canyon and caused the Joyce outage — can’t be placed underground because they’re too large, said John Purvis, PUD distribution systems manager and engineer. They hold at least 24,500 volts of electricity.
Distribution lines can be placed underground, but doing so is expensive. The decision to dig is made after extensive analysis.
Such variables as terrain, soil and location are figured into a formula that uses the PUD’s new outage management system to determine where the high cost of going underground would benefit the greatest number of people and reduce maintenance and repair costs.
It would take “quite a bit of capital investment” to get enough lines underground to prevent storm-related outages, Purvis said.
Placing lines underground is “considerably more expensive,” than above-ground lines, said PUD spokesman Jeff Beaman.
“Whenever undergrounding comes up as a possibility, it has to be analyzed in multiple ways,” he said.
“Undergrounding is always one of the possible solutions, but not always the solution,” he added.
PUD officials point to a new substation as having the potential to reduce outages in the Joyce area.
The substation the PUD is building in Joyce will feed power from the Bonneville Power Administration into the grid. Power could then back-feed to customers near the Elwha River.
“That should eliminate a lot of the problems,” PUD Commissioner Hugh Haffner said.
The $1 million Silverado Substation is scheduled to be up and running by next storm season.
“The new substation is one part of what will make things better in the long run,” Beaman said.
PUD officials are using the recent spell of calm weather to assess their response to last month’s storms.
Outage management system
Two years ago, the PUD implemented an outage management system with an interactive voice response unit to help find outages.
Prior to that, outages were hard to pinpoint.
“You’d get a call and you would physically map them and group them,” Beaman said.
“It basically told you a group of people are out in a general vicinity.”
Haffner said the technology has enabled crews to “get the best bang for the buck” because they’re spending less time searching for the problem.
“We really have to look at where we were two years ago,” Haffner said.
“We were basically operating on stickies and a couple of phones. We’ve really come a long ways in terms of implementing certain software systems and ways of actively monitoring the outages.”
“This narrows the search,” Beaman added.
“It brings a lot of organization and order to a very stressful condition.”
The outage management system is helping the PUD determine where to bury distribution lines.
Much of the work to place lines underground has occurred in recent years as the Sequim area has grown, PUD General Manager Doug Nass said.
Lines were placed underground at Dungeness Meadows in early November.
The PUD is also going underground with 1.5 miles of distribution line between Deer Park and O’Brien roads.
In the spring, the PUD plans to bury a few spans of high-risk overhead line near the southern terminus of Mount Pleasant Road, Nass said.
Capital projects are in the works for underground lines on Forks’ Spartan Avenue near the high school and a circuit west of Sequim near Priest Road.
When the state department of Transportation widens U.S. Highway 101 between Kitchen-Dick and Shore roads in the next few years, the PUD will either relocate overhead lines or move them underground.
Another half dozen underground locations will be added to the list next year, Purvis said.
Up until about 10 years ago, underground lines were buried in the soil. Crews had to dig out the trench and clean off endless spans of line to find the trouble spot.
Now, the lines are encased in plastic piping. A conduit system can isolate the fault to a section of line between two junction boxes, Purvis said.
“That has been a big help,” Nass said.
Coordination with county
Power line repair response could be quickened through improved coordination with county road crews, Haffner said.
He described a symbiotic relationship in which the county relies on the PUD to confirm lines are grounded, and the PUD needs the county to help remove trees from roadways.
One idea, which would get both jobs done at the same time, is to assign a PUD crew to accompany the county on cuts.
“I suggested to management maybe getting together with the county Roads Department to maybe figure out a way to communicate with them better,” Haffner said.
“They are more than willing to help.”
Both entities have strict policies requiring the PUD to check downed lines before fallen trees can be cut.
Even an apparently dead line can pose a danger if a generator is running nearby, because a generator can back-feed power.
“We want to make sure wires are grounded,” Haffner said.
Clallam PUD also recently ordered six Global Positioning System-equipped laptop computers to help speed up storm response.
“We’re really looking for ways to reduce times without power,” Haffner said.
In calm weather, the PUD is out trimming trees that could interfere with power transmission during storms, Haffner said.
But no matter how much tree trimming or undergrounding takes place, outages will still occur, PUD officials said.
Even Bonneville Power Administration lines, which have a clearance of 100 feet compared to 10 feet for PUD lines, can fail as one did on the West End last month.
Six PUD crews cover 2,000 square miles and about 2,000 miles of lines.
“That becomes a real issue,” Beaman said.
“We have a real small operation for a large area of coverage.”
_______Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.