Utilities aren't the only ones facing questions about power outages.
“Typically, tree-trimming is the most cost-effective way to reduce outages from the failure of transmission lines, but some towns are hesitant to do that because they like the leafy images that trees offer,” said Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy at Rutgers University.
As for dealing with power outages caused by downed trees, communication is key, he said.
“You’ve got to identify the locations, decide which ones need to be cleared first and how to move the trees in a safe manner,” Felder said. “You also have to coordinate supply chain — what tools and other equipment are available, where they are and how to get them to where they’re needed in a timely manner.”
A utility company may have much of this data available electronically, but it gets more complicated when other utility companies — especially from out-of-state — are brought in to assist, he noted.
“You can automate some of the activity but not all of it,” Felder said. “Finally, you still need people on the ground before you re-energize, to ensure that no one’s too close to the power lines.”
He added: “Utilities should be reporting the number of outages, the causes, and how many people were affected, along with other information. This needs to be done for multiple periods, so you can establish a baseline and isolate common issues. Then engineers, economists, analysts and others should examine the data as part of the process of identifying and measuring the effectiveness of ‘best practices.’”
Even with all that, utilities and regulators are not likely to arrive at a one-size-fits-all solution.
“Severe weather patterns will impact different states differently,” Felder said. “Even within a state, geographical and other conditions will mean that a weather event will have different impacts. So to some degree the solutions will be localized.”
If all power lines were buried underground, that would help, but that’s an expensive retrofit, especially in suburban and rural areas. “So for the foreseeable future, power lines are likely to remain above the ground,” he said.