Utility companies make system-wide improvements after 2009 ice storm

The January 2009 ice storm may be something you want to forget, but the damage helped improve the infrastructure you and your family rely on today —seven years after the lights went out at half a million homes.

"It was by far the largest amount of damage and destruction that I had seen in my time in the industry," said David Smart, president and CEO of West Kentucky Rural Electric.

It took 19 days to get all of his 31,000 customers back online. An inch and a half of ice did $17 million in damage, destroying almost 2,000 power poles.

"It was like doing a year’s worth of work or more in 19 days," he said.

Kentucky’s Public Service Commission came out with a 170 page report in late 2009. It outlined the lessons learned and the recommendations power companies should take to better prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

"We almost rebuilt entire systems in a couple weeks to a month, which took 50 years to build," said Chris Perry, president and CEO of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives.

They include better mutual aid agreements with states, required scenario planning and inspections and the hardening of power grid systems

Perry said those upgrades often come with a cost and a decision, creating a dilemma for companies.  "I can give you 100% reliability. Can you afford it? That’s the question," Perry said.

Smart, and West Kentucky Rural Electric, made the investment. Their Mayfield office is new since 2009. It was built to withstand any future disaster including an underground, 24-hour dispatch center. With advancements in technology, his employees can better track outages and respond quicker to emergencies.

"Therefore, we are able to get more and more information real-time from the field," Smart said.

One major change from 2009 is how customers get their information.  All of the state’s co-ops use social media to report outages or provide emergency information. It’s free, easily accessible and notifications can be sent to your cell phone in seconds.  "Some of our co-operatives are doing that a little more than others, but all of them are moving in that direction," Perry said.

Another takeaway from 2009 is improving how hazardous trees are removed from right-of-ways. Smart requires his crews to remove any trees or branches that are within 30 feet from a pole. In 2009, much of the damage by power lines was caused by falling trees that couldn’t withstand the weight of ice.  "Obviously, we benefited from having a better system, a more hardened system, after replacing some of the stuff that was damaged," Smart said.

He believes the lessons learned from seven years ago will make your family safer, as well as those who work to keep your lights on.

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