Home News and Features Outage: Over, Could Cost $1.3 million

Outage: Over, Could Cost $1.3 million

A chunk of an electrical pole dangles over a back road in East Montpelier recently. Photo by Carla Occaso.
All power has been restored in Washington County as of Dec. 29, and just a few outages linger statewide according to VToutages.com, compared with 75,000 at the height of a recent holiday storm.

The restoration for this unusual weather catastrophe could cost as much as an estimated $1.3 million according to Washington Electric Co-op General Manager Louis Porter in a phone interview with The Bridge Dec. 29. The co-op has budgeted $300,000 per year based on past years’ costs to cover power outage restoration. Some years have two to three outage events, while other years do not have any significant outages. 

Louis Porter, general manager of Washington Electric Co-op. Provided by Louis Porter.
“We budget $300,000 for all major storms in a year. We have outages frequently — trees fall on the line; cars hit poles. (The annual budgeted amount is) based on a five-year average on what it costs us. Obviously we’ve blown through that,” Porter said.

Washington Electric Co-op has 14 linemen on the payroll to work the day-to-day operations and handle outages as they crop up, but Porter pulled in 60 people to handle this event. Porter characterized this as an “unprecedented” amount of extra workers for one event. But without them, outages would have lasted much longer than they did.

Early in the outage, which began as a wind and rain storm early on Dec. 23, WEC relied on the organization’s 14 workers and some crews from Burlington Electric. But by 12/27–12/28, crews came in from Stowe Electric, Green Mountain Power, two utilities in Massachusetts, and some contract crews — including tree-cutting crews. Washington Electric also had two dispatchers working around the clock through the holiday during the entire outage that lasted seven days.

“We gave the crews a couple of hours off Christmas morning so they could see their family,” Porter said, but then the crews were back on the job. Porter pointed out that many workers also had power out at their own homes, so they were working 5 a.m.- to 10 p.m.-shifts — leaving their own cold, dark homes to restore power at other peoples’ houses.

Additionally, as general manager, Porter had worked through the Christmas holiday to recruit linemen from other areas, deliver food to the ones working long hours, and answer calls from “angry customers,” he said. And now that the bulk of the problem has been solved, Porter has succumbed to a case of the flu and said he was planning on going home somewhat early.

For full disclosure, this author lives in East Montpelier and went six days without power. Porter explained why East Montpelier — the headquarters of Washington Electric Co-op — took such a hit. East Montpelier remained one of the towns with the most outages throughout the storm. Power went out in East Montpelier for many customers around 8 to 9 a.m. on Dec. 23. At the height of the rain/wind/sleet/snow storm, 702 customers from that town were without power, or over 90%. In all, around 5,000 to 5,500 WEC customers were left without power, which amounts to 45% of the total 11,000 to 12,000 customers serviced by 1,300 miles of power lines.

The reason for the complications and delays in East Montpelier, while other towns went back on line on Dec. 26 and 27, was that eight utility poles had been broken to pieces by trees falling. There were a total of 30 poles broken in the entire utility’s district. 

“Replacing a broken pole in the middle of the night is a challenge,” Porter said. Also, several of the poles were set on rock ledges, so the rock had to be drilled before the poles could be set. East Montpelier had a series of difficult breaks, many in the middle of the woods, which could only be accessed with off-road vehicles. Another setback was that the advance metering infrastructure system on the East Montpelier substation was damaged, so information that was usually available could only be obtained by people calling in to report outages rather than from the a meter. That made accurate information hard to come by.

And even though power is back for all customers, the work is not over. Porter said there is a lot of clean up in the wake of all the restoration. It will take a couple of more weeks to complete that work.

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