Restoring Power During Major Storms

Bonners Ferry Lineman Brent Gunter installs avian protection
guards. Photo by Jen Lanaville

Northern Lights Inc. (NLI) has had a relatively quiet year for major outages caused by storms. We had an outage in April that lasted about 24 hours. Most recently, heavy snow followed by wind caused multiple outages during the first weekend of November.

When outages occur, all hands are on deck to make power lines safe and restore power for NLI members. All available lineworkers, dispatchers, engineering technicians and supervisors work storm events no matter the time of day or day of the week.

As far as what gets fixed first, there are priorities we generally follow. Transmission line damage causes widespread outages across a large area. The transmission lines are mostly lines owned by another utility that provides transmission service to NLI.

During the early November windstorm, the Bonneville Power Administration had an outage on its transmission line that runs between Albeni Falls dam to north of Sandpoint. This caused about 40% of NLI members to experience an outage. BPA owns and operates transmission lines through a large geographical area, and it can take some time for its crews to arrive to remove a tree off a line or make a repair. NLI crews often will spot the issue and let BPA crews know so they can head right to the impacted area.

If a transmission line goes out it is difficult for NLI to assess which of its own equipment is damaged. Once the transmission line is back in service, distribution line damage can be assessed.

If you see damage—trees, broken poles or crossarms, lines in the road—please call and let us know what you see and where it is located.

As a reminder, always stay away from downed power lines and trees on lines. The line could still be energized.

Carl Moore and crew members finish a pole replacement during the November storm. Photo by Matt Price

For distribution line outages, we clear any blocked roadways first. This may mean ensuring the line is dead and cutting it to clear the roadway. Then crews return later to make repairs.

The areas with the biggest outages are the first ones crews repair. If an outage affects 280 metered accounts and another has four metered accounts, the crews will prioritize the larger outage. To gauge when crews might get to your location, look at the outage map online to see how many others around you are without power.

If the largest outage is caused by a broken pole, it can take hours to fix. Because a new hole has to be dug, dispatch must call 811 for an underground locate. Our crews must wait until any underground utilities have been located before they can start work. An emergency locate can take several hours. Once the crews have been cleared to do the work, replacing the pole can take a few hours, depending on the location, terrain and configurations of lines on the pole.

In some cases, NLI supervisors will call in contract crews to help. During the storm in November, NLI had 11 broken poles. NLI brought in two line contractor crews to replace most of the broken poles. In addition to using line contractors to make emergency repairs, NLI also has mutual aid agreements with other electric utilities for more lineworkers and equipment. NLI will also provide help to others when able.

Line crews can end up working long hours during a major storm. They are allowed to work up to 32 hours straight before a mandatory rest period. If outages remain after that, typically they will work around 24 hours and take a rest break. Hopefully at that point, lineworkers can resume normal hours.

NLI is thankful for our members’ patience and the information members provide us during outages.

Kristin MettkeNorthern Lights Engineering & Operations Manager Kristin Mettke is an electrical engineer and has worked in the electric utility industry most of her career.