Storm track: Fortis, Fiona and modern utility response
Posted on October 21, 2022 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments
Floods, wildfires, heat waves, storm surge — when you’re an electrical utility in 2022, you’re thinking about worst-case scenarios, as utilities have for many years. The difference now is the baseline is shifting. The “worst case” is expected to be even more challenging and extreme events are generally expected to be more common in the years ahead.
Climate change and the energy transition are ever-present topics at the heart of regular utility business; in engineering, forecasting electricity demand, capital plans and rate setting. Extreme weather events are obviously another element. It’s worth your time to consider these events from a utility’s perspective.
For one thing, you can see the real scale of the challenge our environment can pose. Environmental events are typically reported in a localized way in the everyday world. National outlets will prioritize reports on events forecast within national borders, while regional and local outlets ramp up coverage when a high-risk or devastating event reaches into their area. That said, a single storm system can reach across borders. Even when a major event is isolated to a single province or a few counties, the same can rarely be said of the response.
Governments will cooperate around emergencies. The same is true of multi-national utility companies. It’s essential, given things would have long since become unmanageable for many local utilities if left on their own. Without assistance, power outages caused by major environmental events would last months versus weeks or days. Systems would not recover in time before the next major event. Utilities have long shared resources, however there is new scale and focus on developing efficient and effective responses inside of multi-nationals. These systems are constantly being put to the test.
Take Fortis Inc., an umbrella company headquartered in St. John’s with 10 power utilities in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean and $60 billion in total assets. Over the last 20 years, the corporation has been maturing major event response through formalized employee programs, utility mutual assistance agreements, rapid response protocol and corporate-level management of essentials beyond what individual utilities have.
Not everyone might know, for instance, working as a Fortis power line technician can include having a ‘go bag’ by the door, with a passport at the ready and inoculations recommended for travel to multiple countries. Of about 9,100 employees, Fortis has 1,500 volunteers on “the list,” as senior managers sometimes refer to it, available for rapid deployment. With these staff and through further internal cooperative efforts, individual utilities in the corporation are offered relief. The system isn’t perfect, but its existence is essential.
Atlantic Business Magazine recently spoke with the CEOs of three Fortis utilities in two countries and an executive vice-president of Fortis Inc. about response to a single, named storm system: Fiona. Scientists are researching the exact effects of climate change on hurricane frequency and intensity but are clear on the increased risk to life, infrastructure and steady power supply being caused by rising sea levels, more intense rainfall and increasingly powerful storm surges weather systems can churn up. So, how did Fortis fare with Fiona?
Turks and Caicos — Fortis TCI
Fiona had already killed five people before arriving in the Turks and Caicos Islands, an archipelago North of Haiti. Reports were of one person dead in Guadeloupe, to the South, on the eastern side of the Caribbean Sea, with another four people killed as the storm moved west, striking the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Continuing west, Fiona reached the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday, September 20, coming closest to the political capital of Grand Turk and passing as a Category 3 hurricane. Throughout the more than 40 low-lying islands making up the whole of the country, water plowed onshore and winds blew up to 185 kilometres per hour (km/h).
Fortis TCI provides electricity to over 16,000 customers (utilities count accounts not people, so more than 16,000 people) on the Turks and Caicos Islands, including the economic capital of Providenciales, more commonly known as Provo, as well as on North Caicos, Middle Caicos, East Caicos, South Caicos and adjacent cays. The utility’s headquarters on Provo was built to withstand Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, acting like a shelter for staff who are able to work through major storms, in addition to being an operations centre.
The staff on Provo and beyond had already been through other hurricanes, including the vicious double hit of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria in 2017. Irma might be a familiar name to many, as it caused a reported 52 direct deaths and more than $106 billion (US$77 billion) in damages before it was done. In Turks and Caicos, it brought winds topping 280 km/h. Maria followed only about two weeks later, killing 19 people across the Caribbean and bringing over 200 km/h winds and more storm surge.
Conditions on Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos as Fiona passes by…. video from Tammarra Forbes pic.twitter.com/Fnzpuyywtq
— James Spann (@spann) September 20, 2022
Fortis TCI president and CEO Ruth Forbes remembers being at the utility’s headquarters during Irma and working throughout. She specifically recalls calls to Fortis’ corporate head office in St. John’s and continuing to settle details of the response to the ongoing devastation. Among the many measures at the time, for example, Fortis corporate was working on shipping cargo in for repair work, as go-to ports in Florida were also set to be in Irma’s path. Shipments included tools and materials specific to the industry but also vehicles, including a line of trucks sent initially by rail from Tucson, Arizona, home of Fortis subsidiary UNS Energy and Tucson Electric Power. Senior management was also coordinating travel for the Fortis Inc. early response team, with some of the staff on “the list” receiving calls at their homes even before the storm’s arrival in the Turks and Caicos Islands. One problem was commercial flights were on hold. So Fortis had a private jet used by the Toronto Raptors held on standby in Toronto, set to run as a special charter to move a group of Canadian line workers and specialists for Irma response. A commercial flight opened up last minute as the staff arrived at the airport.
That initial Irma response was followed by more extensive deployments. Over a couple of months, Canadian crews were helping supplement the all-out efforts of the local crews of FortisTCI to get the electricity system fully restored. The longer-term repair work involved not just restoring the system as it had stood before the storms but burying more wires, installing stronger poles and strengthening support facilities. The utility decided on specific measures in “hardening” the system, Forbes said, making it better prepared for Fiona.
“One of the themes of the restoration in 2017 was to build back better and we did that,” Forbes said, adamant system improvements in the years since are at least part of the reason why the utility fared so well when it came to initial damages, on top of the lesser severity of the wind.
“We definitely saw the dividends from that investment,” she said.
In the last two or three years, the CEO added, FortisTCI also paid “extensive attention” to stocks of critical materials like poles, transformers, wire and sleeves, given challenges reported throughout global utility supply chains. The local utility leverages the Fortis corporate name and Fortis’ reach with suppliers. FortisTCI also had performed standard hurricane drills as early as May, before the start of the current hurricane season. The utility performed site inspections and standard disaster preparedness checks before the storm, leaning on the specific storm prep developed for each island.
Similar to Irma, an early response team offering support from the “Fortis family” was called up before Fiona arrived. The team landed in the Islands September 21, the day after the storm passed. The 14-person group, with staff primarily from FortisOntario and Central Hudson Gas & Electric in New York State, was scaled for the less-severe forecast of Fiona versus Irma or Maria. The support staff worked under the FortisTCI emergency management and alongside local Fortis staff.
The Islands lost power during the storm. Providenciales fared the best at about 40% of customers there losing power. There were 40 utility poles found downed across the system, including 13 in Grand Turk and 27 in Middle Caicos. In Middle Caicos, there was also extensive wire damage alongside heavy flooding, with a wait required for water to recede in some areas.
Regardless, within three days of Fiona, roughly 92% of Fortis TCI customers were restored, including 99% of customers on Provo. From there, they worked on restoring smaller pockets of customers or buildings one-by-one, based on site-specific damages. An estimated 98% of customers were online by day 11. On day 13, the utility marked full restoration, with staff responding from Canada and the United States shuttled home last week.
“Fortis has been a strategic partner essentially to the Turks and Caicos Islands through the level of support we get – not just during the hurricane. (…) Fortis TCI has definitely benefitted from being a part of Fortis Group in many ways,” Forbes said.
Prince Edward Island — Maritime Electric
Over 2,800 kilometres to the North, staff at Maritime Electric in Prince Edward Island, Canada who were on the Fortis first responders list hadn’t been called up to ship out to Turks and Caicos. That’s because Fiona was headed North.
Internally, Fortis has developed the “Fortis Operations Group,” or simply “the FOG,” with membership including the vice president of operations for each of the Fortis-owned utilities. It is led by the Fortis corporate executive vice-president of operations. The group was the go-to for requests out of FortisTCI as Fiona passed. While still responding there, the FOG was also in contact with utilities in the Eastern United States and Atlantic Canada, looking at the forecasts suggesting PEI and Maritime Electric could (and would) be hit.
Maritime Electric president and CEO Jason Roberts said as environmental events happen in a particular jurisdiction, there’s always thought to colleagues and people in the area affected as reports come in through the FOG and more general news coverage. Maritime Electric has sent people to the Caribbean and elsewhere in the past. Now, they would again be tapping their Fortis mutual assistance agreements, detailing protocol and costing, for help at home.
In terms of general storm prep, Maritime Electric goes through seasonal checklists, Roberts said. In the fall, that’s all the way down to checking chainsaws for fuel levels. The utility also has an outage readiness and emergency response plan, with specific guidelines for when there is a major storm incoming. It includes making sure backup generators are ready to go and checks of trucks for supplies, and communications to customers marking Environment Canada’s public notices while advising people to be prepared for the possibility of extended power outages.
Maritime Electric divides Prince Edward Island into a trio of service districts and, while maintaining crews in each, the utility shuffled and added to its resources in the Central and Eastern District in particular as Fiona approached, with arrival on Saturday, Sept. 24. The decisions around staff and resource placements were made before the noticeable shift in the weather, with people remarking on Fiona’s arrival by late Friday evening, with high winds, rain and heavy seas.
Rustico Harbour PEI #Hurricane #hurricanFiona #FionaPEI #StaySafePEI pic.twitter.com/AezxbC68ey
— Sadick (@svdick) September 24, 2022
The utility never closed its customer call centre that day and set up for calls throughout the storm. Late Friday night, Roberts spoke with an on-call service crew in the Eastern District who were forced off the road for safety reasons as the winds ramped up to gusts over 150 km/h. The crew decided to spend the night at the district service centre, knowing they’d be needed as soon as things started to die down.
Power went out across the island in the midst of the wind and a dump of more than 80 millimetres of rain. Daybreak brought a flood of calls to Maritime Electric.
“The initial reports from our employees and the calls we were getting from customers… (…) It was no other way to describe it, other than it was devastation across the island,” Roberts said.
There was damage to some homes and commercial buildings, trees downed and power lines downed. The views of the worst damage played non-stop on local, regional and national news.
As crews could get out, there was five to six hours of daylight. The Eastern District was clearly hardest hit in terms of electrical infrastructure, though crews were needed all over, with 83,000 of Maritime Electric’s 86,000 customers reported without power and roads impassable in some instances due to downed trees and debris.
The provincial government and forestry officials in multiple provinces were sending out chainsaw operators, while utility arborists and trained contractors were dispatched to specifically clear around power lines. With some access challenges and system assessments ongoing, about 4,500 customers saw power restored on the first day.
On the second day in, Roberts said, the utility was also able to get a helicopter in the air and get an overall view of the transmission system and damage. “It fared fairly well. There were some trees down on the lines. We knew where they were. We were able to get them removed and get the transmission system re-energized and out to our substations,” he said.
The bottom line was minimum damage at the level of generators, main lines and bulk transmission. It was then down to the distribution network. For that, the utility started adding to the early response, launching what it would refer to on social media as the largest storm response in Maritime Electric history.
Crews started work on the North River Causeway today. This video shows just some of the damage caused by Hurricane Fiona in that area. pic.twitter.com/AKJRWN4xct
— Maritime Electric (@MECLPEI) September 28, 2022
Maritime Electric typically operates with 40 to 50 crews available on the Island at any given time — utility crews plus contractor crews. At its peak post-Fiona, the utility had over 260 crews on the Island. They arrived in waves, flying in from FortisBC and FortisAlberta, people and trucks came from FortisOntario, crews drove up from Central Hudson in New York and 28, two-person crews, trucks and additional staff ferried over from Newfoundland. On top of that were private contractors familiar to Fortis utilities.
“As a small utility, we count our blessings to be part of the Fortis family. I’ll be honest with you,” Roberts said.
One of the main takeaways from Fiona in PEI in fact has been related to the required influx of personnel and related logistics at the local level. Early fall is a popular time for conferences in PEI, on top of the Island’s usual tourism draw, meaning Maritime Electric and the FOG were navigating challenges given the new scale (for PEI) of incoming staff, with accommodations, food and in some cases transportation needs. On top of the utility teams, about 600 members of the Canadian Forces were deployed at this time across Atlantic Canada, with hundreds sent to PEI, clearing trees and debris and helping Maritime Electric.
Six days in, over 49,000 customers who had lost power were restored. By 11 days in, power was restored to over 72,000 customers. Work to restore power was still ongoing when Atlantic Business Magazine spoke with Roberts late last week, with a few hundred customers offline since the storm. The utility followed up to mark full restoration on Saturday, 22 days after the storm.
PEI had seen major storms before. In 2019, Dorian arrived as a post-tropical storm with gusts of 120-130 km/h and the largest storm impact the utility had dealt with. It left power out for more than a week and cost Maritime Electric about $3.5 million. Since costs are recovered over multiple years, to minimize impact on utility rates, Dorian damage was just being paid off before the latest storm season.
“At this point, our estimates are that Fiona is probably in the range of four to five times more significant (than Dorian) in terms of damage and difficulty in restoring power to customers,” Roberts said. Costs are to be determined.
Newfoundland and Labrador — Newfoundland Power
To the East, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Newfoundland Power is the main electricity distributor and also a Fortis utility. It was represented on the FOG calls, also tracking Fiona from before the time it had landed in the Caribbean, while also seeing the initial damage reports out of PEI and Maritime Electric.
The forecast showed the storm coming up along the West coast of the island of Newfoundland. In this province, the size of the territory covered by the utility makes understanding where to place resources, staff, equipment and materials, all the more important.
Newfoundland Power president and CEO Gary Murray noted the island’s electrical utilities (including the main power generator, publicly-owned Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, supplying over 93% of the electricity Newfoundland Power delivers) typically work through construction and maintenance jobs on key infrastructure through the summer and into fall, given peak electrical demand from customers will come in wintertime. It means an impending, early-fall storm always requires a close review of the entire system before a storm arrives. There are also check-ins with contractors, from vegetation removal to pole installation contractors, who are similarly aware of winter demands, to be sure of who and what is available.
The effects of Fiona started during the daylight hours on Saturday, Sept. 24, just hours after the storm passed through PEI. “Very quickly into the storm unfortunately we saw the devastation in Port aux Basques from the ocean surge and saw the impact of that. Prior to that we weren’t seeing a lot of outages on the system, a minor number of outages,” Murray said.
Port aux Basques is one of the larger communities in the region and relatively accessible, yet storm surge had crushed homes all around the island’s southwest coast and pushed their material remains around like flotsam. Murray said the early hours of the utility’s response was tied to the storm surge and included a push to disconnect power in some cases to assure safe access to streets and homes for medical, fire and municipal first responders.
“One area where we weren’t able to respond, because the winds were so high, was the Codroy Valley and other areas around Port aux Basques outside of the storm surge area. Because the winds were so high, we had to wait the storm out to see what the results were. It was really not until late Saturday night and Sunday morning that we were able to get to some of these areas,” he said.
Newfoundland Power crews didn’t get into the Codroy Valley to properly assess the fallout until Sunday morning. When they did, Murray said, the area had the largest pocket of outages, thanks to downed wires. Restoration in this area took a couple of days.
At the height of the storm, Newfoundland Power had about 9,000 customers without power. The number of outages was exacerbated by a trip involving a separate utility’s line (specifically industrial service provider Deer Lake Power). After that line was restored, the count dropped significantly and only about 4,000 customers were without power by the end of that first day. By Sunday evening, it was under 1,000 customers offline. On Monday, working through individualized issues with electrical inspectors, all customers were restored except for the collection of less than 50 homes and buildings destroyed by storm surge, no longer there to reconnect or in need of extensive repair work first.
By now, Newfoundland Power had crews shipping off to Prince Edward Island, where Fiona had caused greater damage.
Defining ‘better’ for the build back
There are no breaks for electrical utilities anymore, particularly a multi-national utility company like Fortis Inc. An individual utility or municipality might be lucky enough to go years between major environmental events but leaders within Fortis, thanks to the company’s reach, have a good chance of weighing in or contributing directly to emergency response, regardless of where they are in the world.
Fortis Inc.’s executive vice-president responsible for operations and innovations, at the helm of the FOG managers, is Gary Smith. He was previously responsible for Eastern Canadian and Caribbean operations and before that led at the individual utility level as president and CEO of Newfoundland Power. By trade, he’s an electrical engineer and came into executive roles out of engineering work, including with FortisAlberta. Smith said he helps mainly with coordination, smoothing response for the different individual utilities. Staff aside, Fortis corporate has sites packed with materials and equipment essential for utilities to disaster response. Corporate also helps with the A to B, getting what’s in hand to where it’s needed.
“When you’re going to an airline, it’s simple things,” Smith said. “Like you can’t take a chainsaw unless it’s brand new in the box. If it’s had fuel in it already, the airlines won’t let you take it on. So, we have chainsaws and other material that’s never been used, brand new in the box, that we can take it to an airline and go.”
While Fiona response was ongoing, Smith and the FOG, along with Fortis staff particularly in the Cayman Islands, had also started to respond to Hurricane Ian, though that storm system thankfully stayed far enough West of the Caymans to avoid any major damage. Off the top of his head, thinking of notable, extreme events Fortis has responded to in some way in recent years, Smith said there were hurricanes like Irma and Maria, but also the flooding in British Columbia last year, wildfires in Alberta, extreme heat waves in Arizona, powerful derechos (wind moving in a straight line instead of a spiral like a hurricane but just as capable of downing transmission lines) in the U.S. Midwest. It took no time to develop a long list.
“I can write it on my calendar now that between next June and next November, of our 10 utilities, we’re going to have two or three for sure that will have experienced more severe weather than typically we see,” Smith said.
He underscored, in the case of infrastructure, damage can be immediate, but it can also be minor damage reducing the lifespan of an access road or pole or piece of equipment over time. And there is also the anthem now of “build back better.” Engineering and reliability standards for utilities have long been set by organizations like the Canadian Standards Association based on past experience with an environment that’s obviously changing. In looking to the future and even deciding in the here and now on what exactly the “better” is, it’s unclear exactly how both regulators and utilities must approach new standards.
In broad strokes, utilities could build so there is never a power outage. Customers would not be able to afford such systems. Acknowledging the cost issue, Smith refers to the Fortis perspective generally as a desire for a gold standard, not for gold plating.
The corporation is alongside heavy hitters in utility and systems management in Canada and the U.S., including Bruce Power, PG&E, ConEdison, WEC Energy Group, the Southwest Power Pool, American Electric Power, the California Independent System Operator and more in participating in the “Climate READi” (REsilience and ADaptation initiative) of the Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI). It’s a three-year, industry-wide effort to produce a comprehensive approach to “physical climate risk assessment.” It will help settle for utilities how they might approach individual regulators going forward on the subject of grid resilience, in a world where the “1-in-100-year storm” baseline is shifting as we speak.
What utilities should and can spend on their systems is no small matter, given it directly affects power rates. Already, there is tension with consumers and governments demanding clear evidence to show higher costs for power will result in more reliable systems that are more robust and able to face long-term climate stressors. Changes in regulation, like Public Utilities Act amendments on the table in Nova Scotia right now, emphasize the point.
Also a part of the climate change discussion for electrical utilities is the fact they have broadly used fossil fuels to produce power. The use of fossil fuels contributed to higher greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn contributed to climate change. There are plenty of people watching now — every dollar spent, every piece of lobbying — to judge their contribution to climate change response.
Separate from its emergency response work, Fortis overall has been clear on its direction, with a corporation-wide target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions from operations by 2050. In March 2022, the company issued its first Task Force for Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and Climate Assessment Report. While the details of its path to decarbonization are hotly debated, the corporation retired another 170MW of coal-fired power generation in June.
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