THE delay in restoring power after a typhoon can be frustrating. Even days after power has been restored, I still read and heard some complaints from consumers upset over their inconveniences.
We now live in a world wherein electricity has become an essential part of our everyday lives. An outage can have a massive disruption and impact. Extended outages during severe weather are associated with intangible impacts to a utility’s consumers such as despair, discomfort, anxiety and helplessness. In addition to the intangible impacts, there are considerable direct economic impacts on customers resulting from lost economic activity, food spoilage, looting, etc. These tangible and intangible impacts challenge the electric utility industry.
But for those who do understand the complex process of restoring power, or at least the topography of Baguio-Benguet, wait patiently. Just know that BENECO crews are already on the ground whenever power goes down.
It really depends on your location, the geographical characteristics of the area, vegetation and fauna, the capability of the utility that serves you, and the cause of the outage.
The problems facing many Baguio-Benguet utility consumers most often pale in comparison to the weeks-long outages experienced in many areas in the Philippines, especially in the Visayas. They often have to rely on Task Force Kapatid, a mutual assistance program/agreement among electric cooperatives providing increased manpower and technical assistance to restore power in hard hit areas.
Restoring electricity, even after a regular storm in Baguio-Benguet, takes more than just clearing downed trees and restringing lines. Electrical distribution systems are complicated machines.
First linemen and engineers have to get out and do assessments.
Electric systems vary, and the ability to locate and repair permanent faults varies too. There are cases where the fault involves the failure of irreplaceable equipment, which takes a really long time to rectify.
The trouble has to be Isolated before it can be fixed. Power outages can be caused by failed transformers, downed power lines, damaged insulators, blown up fuses, or other faults on the distribution system. Faults may also be caused by knocked down poles, high winds causing wires to cross, trees falling across wires, rats and birds and other reasons. Broken hardware can be dangerous and labor intensive.
Power lines are often remote and hard to access. When large outages hit, it can take days in the mountains to find all the downed trees. Massive storms do massive damage and there are thousands of kilometers of lines to repair.
In Baguio-Benguet, trees represent the biggest threat to power lines. Secondary to that is soil erosion which causes rock fall and landslides. BENECO is sometimes particularly susceptible to outages during bad weather because of the mountainous terrain and there are many trees and wooded areas throughout its service territory. Falling branches are the most common cause of blackouts. The tree damage is extensive and branches are continuing to fall under the weight of the heavy rain and wind. Major storms not only bring down trees, but frequently weaken them, so damage can continue long after the winds subside. The single most time-consuming repair is the replacement of a utility pole.
Poles do not come down on their own. It’s about trees hitting lines for the most part or soil erosion.
Rain itself can cause havoc on insulation of high voltage lines by reducing the insulation properties of electrical transformer bushings, switches, and the pin insulators that attach the lines to the poles.
Insulators play an important role in keeping the flow of electricity moving and not shorting out on structures. Any crack or breakage of an insulator allows water, mostly in the form of rain, to cause a failure. This failure interrupts power by blowing a fuse.
Generally, it is easier and faster to restore power in cities like Metro Manila after storms because of the absence of forested areas and difficult terrain.
Restoration from a widespread outage has to be done step-by-step.
What to fix or check first? There is a protocol in responding to any widespread outage.
It starts with the power plant. Power generating stations and repairing any damage is a priority of any utility after a storm.
Transmission lines are the next focus in the restoration. These connect the power to the people, those lines strung on tall towers. If one goes down, no power is going to get to the neighborhoods that use it. This is what is known as the grid which is run by the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP).
Problems with power plants and the grid aren’t so common though.
Damaged substations come next in the order. A substation is used to step down the power from the high-voltage transmission lines, sending it at a lower voltage into neighborhoods and industrial areas. These are now the responsibility of our Electric Distribution Utility.
Substations are particularly vulnerable to problems that can affect thousands of people. Faults also occur in circuit breakers located at the substations.
Linemen are then sent to restore service lines to industries and businesses, and then finally service lines to individual homes. The most labor-intensive part of the effort in getting customers back after a storm is widespread downed lines, which takes time to fix.
In the restoration process, you start with the main roads and work your way down to the secondary surface streets and finally the residential streets.
While distribution utilities prioritize the work that affects the most number of consumers, there are service enterprises with critical infrastructure like hospitals.
They have to make sure the hospitals, medical emergency facilities, communications, and those with necessary life-saving and disaster response equipment, are attended to first.
Then you work down to smaller and smaller outages.
From the power station where electricity is generated, to an outlet where you plug in your appliances, there is an unseen highway of transmission lines, substations, and transformers, all connected together, controlled by circuit breakers, relays and transmission line isolators, until a line brings the electricity from a pole into your house. They are all connected to the national power grid – a highly interconnected and intricate network designed to let utilities share electricity and back each other up.
While most of us are in the safety and comfort of our homes during these weather disturbances, electric utility workers often work long hours doing emergency power restoration services.
Power linemen are often responsible for restoring power during and after major storms. They are exposed to extreme temperatures, heavy winds, rain, and flooding. The falling debris, slippery surfaces, and heavy wind gusts that occur during significant weather events create additional dangers for linemen.
Many of us understand how they miss holidays, birthdays, family meals, and so much more to keep the lights for the rest of us. Their job is one of the most dangerous in the world and the risks they face increase during adverse weather conditions. They also face exhaustion from physically challenging and longer hours of work.
Thank you, linemen, for working hard whenever it’s required and for as long as it takes. And for staying safe in the process.
On another note, whenever a major weather-related catastrophe occurs, the question of placing overhead power lines underground surges. Many ask, “Why can’t overhead power lines be placed underground?”
Many European countries routinely bury cables that connect homes to power networks, protecting them from wind and ice. While countries like the Philippines and even the US hesitate because the largest obstacle to placing overhead power lines underground has been the higher cost of installation and maintenance for underground lines. Some Baguio-Benguet consumers have been suggesting to bury lines for years but I’m sure they wouldn’t be willing to pay hundreds of millions per several kilometers just to bury wires.
Electric cooperatives are not capable of carrying the cost of burying lines. The project would require government subsidy. Either way, the burden of payment will eventually be passed on to the consumers.
The system Is also not fail safe.
There is no system that is solid and flawless. Whether you bury it or put it up on poles, some force of nature can get to it. As much as we like to think how superb modern technology is, human designs are imperfect and do have their limitations.
Buried infrastructure isn’t impenetrable to threats. They are vulnerable to damage from floods, deterioration of pavements, earthquakes, erosion, and various uncoordinated excavations like those of the DPWH and communication companies.
When underground cables are damaged, people can be killed and injured by electric shock, electrical arcs (causing an explosion), and flames.
When underground systems do require repairs or maintenance, not only are they so much more expensive than overhead lines, it takes even longer to restore power. When you think of the cost to bury the Baguio-Benguet electric infrastructure, and the trade-off you make between outages and duration of recovery, I think the current structure is probably the best.
In addition, easement agreements or right of way requirements could be troublesome.
It is also so much more difficult to locate underground cable damage. In comparison, a fault or break in an overhead conductor usually can be located almost immediately and repaired within hours or a day or two. Overhead power lines are easily tapped, rerouted or modified to serve customers; underground lines are more difficult to modify after the cables have been installed. Such modifications to underground power lines are more expensive because of the inability to readily access lines or relocate sections of lines.
Underground power lines are much more suitable and easily installed in new subdivision and condominium community developments since these could be included in their plans. Nevertheless, it would jack up the prices of properties and also property maintenance costs because of the additional expenses.
While we have seen these done in some lowland development projects, they have not been brownout free and they would need constant maintenance work to ensure insulation safety which will also be disruptive because of the duration of outages and excavation work near the properties.
Taking these into account, I don’t think it’s worth that kind of upgrade. It is best to continue upgrading the strength of the poles, wires, and other equipment and to regularly trim tree branches as well as check on their age and decay.
For those who need continuous electrical power for reasons of work and school, having a backup system such as a generator is the solution. Even with that, you need to make certain considerations, like your neighbors.