Area outages cause some problems, but not serious

Posted: Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Wednesday morning, as a customer at the Kenai branch of the U.S. Post Office waited for a clerk to print out a money order, all the lights in the building went out and the printing stopped.

But just for a moment.

Within seconds the lights were up again, and after several minutes, the computer printing the money order completed its function.

"It happens at least three times a month," said Kenai Post Master Vicki Shillam. "In the winter it's worse."

What happened was a power surge, and it was the second one the post office had experienced in as many mornings, Shillam said. Because the building is connected to a backup generator, however, the power loss was brief at the most. But there were still some minor effects.

"It takes time for the computer to switch to the backup generator," she said.

She pointed out that some of the building electrical functions aren't connected. "The garage doors won't open for trucks to get out."

This problem wasn't isolated to the post office, though.

"I noticed that we had a couple of little blinks about 8:30 or 9 (a.m.)," said Maggie Sullens, who was checking out guests at the Uptown Motel in Kenai.

"I said, 'Oh no. We won't be able to run the credit card machine.'"

Both last Tuesday and Wednesday's brief outages were caused by road construction work Homer Electric Association had contracted out between Kenai and Soldotna on the Kenai Spur Highway, said HEA spokesperson Joe Gallagher.

"As part of the road work, we needed to clear some trees," he said, "and the contractor (Alaska Road Builders) dropped trees into Homer Electric power lines. We had to rush a crew over there and get the tree off the line."

In addition to the short power skips the incidents caused, Galla-gher said the second one also created outages for members in the Beaver Creek area for about 20 minutes.

Shillam said she didn't fear the worse, however. Although the Kenai Peninsula has seen its share of significant power loss "events," Homer Electric officials said there is little danger of its customers experiencing a power failure to the magnitude of the one northeastern United States and Canadian cities suffered through last month.

Bob Zacharski, assistant manager of engineering for Homer Electric, said because the grid in Alaska doesn't have the multiple links that connect those northeastern cities and much of the contiguous United States to a web of power transmission lines, problems easily can be identified and cut off at the source.

"Each utility protects itself from problems in a neighboring utility," he said.

Homer Electric is part of the Rail Belt grid that is connected from the south peninsula to the Fairbanks area. There is only one line connecting the peninsula with Chu-gach Electric in Anchorage, the next largest electrical matrix in the grid, and consequently, a partial source of peninsula energy.

Zacharski said major outages originating from problems with that connection rarely happen and rarely last long.

"Once or twice a year, we have some problems with that transmission line that goes to Anchorage," he said. "We've survived without taking down a majority of our customers. Once in awhile, we'll lose a portion of our customers for 45 minutes. But we have more generation on the peninsula than we really need, so if there is a disconnection, it's really not in a bad spot."

This is what happened Sunday afternoon when about 4,500 Homer Electric members in Kenai, Nikiski and Homer lost power for about 25 minutes. A 100 megawatt generation unit owned by Anchorage Municipal Light and Power tripped at 2:20 p.m., creating a widespread outage in Anchorage and the peninsula. The cause of the problem hasn't been determined, Gallagher said.

He said the member-owned utility is frequently fine tuning its transmission lines and checking for stability and reliability. The company also reassesses its emergency responses after every major power-loss event, like the windstorms that ravaged the south peninsula the past two winters.

"The plans worked pretty well," Gallagher said. "The main thing is to have a plan and to put it to work after each event."

Chugach Electric spokesperson Phil Steyer said, for his company's part, major efforts are being made to bolster the reliability of the power it delivers to other utilities. A northern intertie connection is due to be completed to the Golden Valley Electric Association of Fairbanks, although Homer Electric pulled out of a plan to complete a southern intertie to the peninsula in June fearing the project wasn't cost efficient.

"That's (the southern intertie) an example of a project that builds redundancy into the grid," Steyer said. "Not only does it allow you to move more power between Anchorage and Kenai, but it improves reliability."

Zacharski said Homer Electric employees fly over all of the towers holding up power lines each year to inspect them. They conduct physical inspections, making a closer checkup on the structural and foundation strength of every fifth wooden or steel tower each year. They also make sure the guy wires, which provide additional anchoring for some, have the proper amount of tension and that the porcelain insulators that insulate high voltage lines from the wood are in place.

How are HEA bills broken up?

According to Homer Electric's 2002 budget, operating expenses for that year were $43.4 million. The cost of power (purchased from Chugach Electric) was $27.8 million, or 61.9 percent of the total operating expense.

The remainder of the operating expenses for Homer Electric (distributing power to members, maintenance of distribution lines, customer service, administration, depreciation, taxes, etc.) totaled $15.5 million or 38 percent of expenses.

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