How many times does the same power line have to snap before it gets buried?

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
Since late 2018, some residents of New Scotland, have lost power at least eight times, leaving a dozen homes without electricity.

NEW SCOTLAND — In just the past year, about a dozen homes on Hennessey, Tygert, and Koonz roads in New Scotland have lost power on at least eight occasions due to the same downed Tygert Road utility line, according to local residents. 

Christopher Thayer of Hennessey Road said that anytime the wind whips through the area at around 50 miles per hour, trees along Tygert Road topple over and take down power lines with them. 

Between November 2018 and November 2019, there have been at least eight storms in the western part of Albany County where wind gusts have reached between 46 and 61 miles per hour, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The most recent New Scotland weather-related event happened just a couple of weeks ago, on Halloween, when intense wind and rain knocked out power to the dozen homes. 

If someone doesn’t want to believe in climate change Thayer said, “I can tell you, it’s here because … all we’ve been getting is late-season rain storms and high winds,” which loosens the trees “and over they go.”

In the Northeast, since the 1950s, there has been a 67-percent increase in the number of two-day rain events in which two inches of water falls from the sky, according to Cornell University.

 

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
All knotted up: A utility pole on Tygert Road in New Scotland is tied off to a tree.

 

 

Jeff Freedman, a research associate at the University at Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, can’t say definitively if the weather in Albany County has become more erratic, but what he can say is, across the state, there has been an increase in the number of wind-related power outages. 

And that’s directly related to an increase in the number of “wind-damage” events, he said.

“So, that’s certainly been a trend we’ve seen over the past 20 years,” Freedman said of the increase in wind-damage events, adding that there has also been a trend in more extreme-weather events as well.

An analysis of power-outage data between 1984 and 2012 by Climate Central, a not-for-profit organization made up of journalists and scientists “providing independent and syndicated science coverage,” found that, over the course of the 28-year period, the number of extreme weather-related major-power outages — which affects more than 50,000 customers — in the United States has increased tenfold.

Between 2003 and 2012, a period in which data collection and utility reporting of major-power outages became more uniform, over 147 million customers were affected by weather-related power outages; over that period, 12 states had more major-power outages than New York — which had 32.

And to what can the extreme-weather events be attributed?

“There are attribution studies that look at climate change, and there’s no doubt you have a linkage between climate change and having more extreme [weather] events, especially in the northeastern U.S.,” Freedman said. 

While the climate system has some natural variability, there are also some distinct trends related to climate change, caused by humans — called anthropogenic climate change, he said.

The health — or lack thereof — of vegetation may also make it vulnerable weather-related damage, Freedman said.  

“Are [diseased] trees more susceptible in a changing climate? And the short answer is probably yes,” Freedman said, and, so, if there are more diseased or infested trees, then they could be more susceptible to damage from wind.

The natural and artificial physical features of an area also play a role, Freedman said, as is the case in New Scotland. 

For a quarter mile from the Guilderland border to where it ends and splits into Tygert and Koonz roads, Hennessey Road gradually rises in elevation from 360 feet to 400 feet. 

Moving parallel 500 feet off of Hennessey Road and onto the property owned by Peter Ten Eyck, the elevation drops 30 feet before rising again, in some places along the quarter-mile parallel Hennessey Road, to 390 feet while, in other areas, the elevation continues to drop. 

This topography creates a sort of 500-foot wide wind tunnel that blasts funneled air coming in from the north directly down Tygert Road. 

 

 

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
Straight trees, leaning poles: After a windstorm swept through the area in November 2018 taking down trees, National Grid installed equipment.

 

Calves die

The first time residents of Hennessey, Tygert, and Koonz roads had an outage, in November 2018, Thayer said, one homeowner lost more than just electricity. 

Adam Miller’s 63.5-acre farm on Koonz Road has four cows and about 60 chickens; in addition, Miller does some hay farming. 

On Nov. 3, 2018, according to NOAA, “A low-pressure system rapidly strengthened as it moved from eastern New York … resulting in strong winds across the region. Several downed trees and limbs, some resulting in road closures, were reported in the Capital District.” 

Wind gusts reached as high as 50 miles per hour that day.

Nov. 3, 2018, however, wasn’t the coldest of days.

At 6 a.m., the temperature was about 55 degrees but it would only go down from there; by 6 a.m., the next morning, the temperature had dropped to 39 degrees. 

It was during this outage, Miller said, that he lost two calves to pneumonia because there was insufficient heat in the barn overnight.

“Research shows that bacterial populations [like the ones that cause pneumonia] in calves’ noses are as much as 7 times greater when they’re exposed to colder weather,” according to Russ Daly, a public-health veterinarian and professor at South Dakota State University. “So, the effect of cold weather here is indirect: more germs in the nose means more of a chance they’ll hit the lungs.”

“In colder air temperatures, research shows that the mucus moves more slowly …  and the transport of bacteria and other debris up and out of the respiratory tract slows down,” according to Daly.

 Respiratory problems, like pneumonia, accounted for the highest percentage — nearly 27 percent, about 512,000 — of all non-predator calves deaths in the United States in 2015, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Miller said that he didn’t call National Grid in November 2018 to tell the utility company that two of his calves died as a consequence of losing power. At the time, he said, it seemed like it would be a one-time issue. “How could you blame anybody?” Miller said. “But it became an ongoing thing.”

Miller was raising beef cattle, but he said he hadn’t calculated what he lost due to the calves deaths. As of January, according to the USDA, beef cattle were selling for $121 per 100 pounds of cow; finished cattle can weigh between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds.

Patrick Stella, a spokesman for National Grid, told The Enterprise that the company does have a claims department, and said that customers can go to the National Grid website to file a claim. 

“We look at those incidences, and if we’re culpable for an outage — if it was a piece of equipment that we didn’t inspect or something that we were somehow negligent, we do pay claims,” Stella said. “If it’s storm damage, that’s a different issue — but we look at those all individually.”

 

Underground lines?

After the fifth or sixth power outage in under a year, Thayer said he asked National Grid why the line couldn’t just be run underground. He said he was told by a National Grid spokeswoman that placing the utility wires underground would be too expensive, but she failed to give him any estimate of cost. 

Stella told The Enterprise that there are a lot of considerations to take into account when “undergrounding” utility lines. 

The first is that overhead lines are much easier to maintain, he said as it’s much easier to spot where the issue is and get a crew there — and, theoretically, get it repaired in just a few hours. If there’s an issue on an underground line, the fix could take days because the problem isn’t immediately evident.

There are also right-of-way considerations, he said; for example, some power lines run through the backyards of customers’ properties. “Then you’d also have to consider,” Stella said, the underground-line placement in relation to the current overhead system; it’s not as if overhead lines could be undergrounded in the exact same place. 

So, yes, underground lines, in general see fewer outages, Stella said; however, the outages are generally longer when they occur. 

Stella also said that installing underground lines can be 10 to 12 times more expensive than installing an overhead system, a cost that would be reflected in customers’ bills. 

Recently, Mike Judge, the director of Electric Power, Regional, and Federal Affairs for the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, told public radio in Boston that placing utility lines underground is typically about two to four times more expensive as installing overhead wires.

A 2012 report from the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group that represents privately-owned electrical utility companies in the United States, estimated the cost of converting distribution lines from overhead to underground in a suburban area to be $313,600 per mile on the low end, all the way up to $2.4 million at the high end. 

The minimum cost of new overhead distribution-line construction in a suburban area, according to the Edison Electric Institute, was about $111,000 per mile; the maximum cost estimate was $908,000 per mile. 

If the new construction were to involve placing the lines underground in a suburban area, the estimated minimum cost was $528,000 per mile, with a maximum construction estimate of $2.3 million per mile.

Thayer wondered how expensive it would be for National Grid if someone were struck by a falling, live wire.

 

Exasperated

“It’s been a real aggravation over the last year,” said Lori Matulewicz, “trees keep coming down every time there is significant wind.”

Matulewicz has the last home on Hennessey Road that is fed from the Tygert Street line; she’s also the first house over the border from New Scotland in Guilderland. 

For Matulewicz and her husband, the new year brought electrical outages, indoor frigid temperatures, and the use of a generator to power just a few essential appliances.

On Jan. 1, 2019, winds of 45 to 55 miles per hour, according to NOAA, “brought down trees and wires and took out power to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 customers.”

Then, just a few weeks later, Matulewicz said she was without power amid a foot of snow and sub-zero temperatures.

On Jan. 19 and 20, the region was walloped with its largest snowstorm to that point in the 2018-19 winter season as nearly two feet of snow fell in some areas. “Frigid temperatures followed the snow … with wind chills falling to -20 to -40F across most of the region,” according to NOAA. “The cold weather prompted the closing of schools and the opening of warming shelters across the region.”

Just a month after that, on Feb. 24, Matulewicz again had her power knocked out when “strong to damaging westerly winds developed over eastern New York … Gusts in excess of 50 mph were common across the area, with several sites recording gusts in excess of 60 mph. Gusts were measured as high as 69 mph near … East Springfield, NY,” according to NOAA. “The 61-mph gust recorded at Albany International Airport was the strongest gust observed during meteorological winter since 1987.” 

 Twice in April of this year, on the 3rd — when wind gusts reached as high as 55 miles per hour — the 15th — a day with heavy rain — and then again on May 8, the homes on Hennessey, Tygert, and Koonz roads lost power, according to Stacey Roussin, a Tygert Road resident. 

Matulewicz said the pipes in her home never froze, but there were times, a few hours at least, that the couple was without heat. And she doesn’t want to go through another winter like she did last year. 

“What if my husband isn’t able to start the generator and we go through 20-below like we did on [Jan. 21, 2019] and we had a power outage?” Matulewicz said. 

And whenever she calls National Grid, the automated system only leaves her exasperated.

In addition to calling National Grid, Thayer has also reached out to the New York Public Service Commission, which regulates and oversees the state’s utilities, who told him they’d call National Grid but, still, he said, nothing has been done. 

Like him, Thayer said, most of his neighbors have also called National Grid and the public service commission — and still nothing. “I mean, I don’t know who else to call; that’s why I called you,” Thayer told The Enterprise. 

For his part, Stella said that customers who call National Grid can, by traversing the automated-phone system, speak to a person. He said that it’s more cost-effective for National Grid to have an automated system to take care of routine calls but a person can be reached.

 

Prevention

“To bury every power line in New York State, that would be expensive,” Freedman said, and is something that would be a long-term solution.

In North Carolina, following a devastating December 2002 ice storm that  caused unprecedented power outages across the state, there was a public outcry to bury the 68,275 miles of overhead distribution lines owned by the state’s utilities. 

It would take 25 years and cost $41 billion to complete the project, and would raise the average residential customer’s electric bill by more than 125 percent.

New York State, according to The New York Times, has double the line mileage of North Carolina.

Since the power lines won’t be buried anytime soon, Freedman said, one thing utility companies are doing — or should be doing — is identifying wires that are susceptible to power outages caused by falling trees or tree limbs; so, the answer, in part, is engaging in more tree-trimming. 

The companies are also incorporating new technologies; for example, drones are used to identify wires that could be taken down by a falling tree limb. 

Freedman is currently part of a research team working to develop a forecasting modeling tool called the Wind Extremes Forecast System, which, when operational, could produce wind-speed forecasts at the county level that could help curb power outages by letting utility companies know with a degree of certainty the location of a future extreme-wind event, allowing the company to mobilize crews in advance. 

Stella said that there are new field-installed technologies that are helping utility companies to reduce the number of customers who lose power when an event occurs. 

For example, he said, a “recloser” can isolate outages — acting almost like a fuse. If a tree falls on a line, National Grid can isolate the outage to fewer customers than, say, a decade ago, Stella said, when a limb would have knocked out power to 3,000 customers, now with the “recloser,” that number could be down to 1,000.

More Regional News

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  • The current project rehabilitated the airport terminal and expanded parking with a new, multi-level, 1,000-space parking garage — a component of a $72.1 million state investment that upgraded the airport and the roads leading to it, including the creation of Exit 3 off the Northway after decades of delay.

  • Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said of the 14 positive COVID-19 tests in a single day, “Even though today may be a blip, 14 cases is a big concern … This is a direction that can take us backwards.”

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