Pulling insights, lessons from a superstorm

John R. Johnson | May 20, 2014

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When Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast, the storm left billions worth of damages in its wake. Sandy's 14-foot storm surge devastated parts of New Jersey and New York, leaving millions in the dark and a re-building process that continues today.

A decade from now, when Sandy is a distant memory, the storm will perhaps be remembered as a major impetus for technology innovation within the utility sector, especially when it comes to substation technology.

In Sandy's aftermath, utility Con Edison was left with more than 1.1 million customers without power after nine of its substations and three facilities that generate steam for customers in Manhattan were severely flooded and damaged.

The utility quickly formed a response team to research new technologies, innovative engineering designs, and new operating strategies to prevent such severe damage from occurring again.

Despite damages that exceeded $500 million, Con Edison committed to deploying much of the new technology at its impacted substations by June 1-the official start of hurricane season.

Con Edison has poured $65 million into rebuilding its infrastructure and storm hardening the substations impacted by Sandy. The utility has budgeted to spend more than $1 billion for storm protection measures by 2016, which includes nearly a quarter-billion investment in the low-lying substations impacted by Sandy.

"We've made several benchmarking presentations to other utilities and as far as I can see, many of the other utilities are still in the planning stages," said Luciano Villani, a Con Edison department manager in project engineering. "I think it would be safe to say some of the attributes of our projects can be considered leading edge. We've been told that by other utilities."

The following is a look at some of the innovative engineering and cutting edge high-tech solutions that have been deployed over the last 12 months, how they were achieved in such a short time, and what technologies are down the road. While the immediate focus has been on the substations damaged by Sandy, the entire process to storm-proof all substations will take about three years.

For starters, Con Edison set out to minimize the potential for water damage in the future by successfully sealing the conduits that carry wires and conductors from one substation to another. As Sandy's storm surge rose, water that made its way into one substation travelled to other substations via open conduits, resulting in further damage. Con Edison found a foam material that not only prevents water from entering the conduits, but serves the duel purpose of acting as a fire retardant as well.

The utility is also migrating from copper wire to fiber optic technology for its control wiring, and will include fiber optic in all future projects when possible because it performs much better than its copper counterpart.

In one of the more interesting improvements, the Con Edison team designed crucial changes for lift relay panels that typically sit at about three feet off the ground and were inundated with water during Sandy. Con Edison workers fabricated a solution that allows the relay panels to be moved to an elevation of 10 to 12 feet whenever a severe storm is in the forecast. The keys to the solution are the flexible connectors that are attached to the relay panels and allow them to be raised and lowered. The system was entirely designed by Con Edison's engineering team.

While the current solution requires a station operator to turn a lever which raises the box, Villani's team hopes to eventually automate the solution, which would be especially beneficial at unmanned substation locations.

"These three initiatives have received a lot of attention from our counterparts in the utility industry," said Villani. "They are certain to be utilized by other utility groups in a similar manner and are destined to become best practices."

That will likely also be the case for the submersible 460-volt network protectors that Con Edison worked with manufacturers to design. Because salt water has such a devastating effect on its 460-volt equipment, Con Edison expects to complete retrofitting all 405 of the 460-volt network protectors in flood zones 1 & 2 over the next four years.

"There has never been a submersible design in the past, and we've created that design, we've installed several and that will continue over the next three years," said Kevin Davis, an engineer with Con Edison. "In many cases these network protectors are located right at the connection point to our customers, particularly our large high tension customers."

Villani says that it took a total team effort to expedite the internal review process of construction documents and to compact the purchasing cycle into six weeks. Construction was then completed in just two months, meeting the June 1 deadline.

"Our new substations and critical equipment are designed today well above new FEMA flood criteria," said Villani. "We've always relied on historical records and we've always had our equipment above the largest storm ever experienced at each individual location."

Many of the previous high water marks dated back decades to the Hurricane of 1938, which ravaged Long Island and southern New England with 14 to 18 foot tides. Now, Superstorm Sandy has its own place in Con Edison's history books and will forever be remembered for charting a storm of technology innovation within the utility sector.

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