As an exceptionally severe snow storm moved across the Northeastern United States and Canada on the evening of Friday, February 8, a familiar litany of reports soon chronicled the growing number of power outages.
According to USA Today, by 5:20 a.m. on Saturday, February 9, more than 650,000 homes and businesses across the region were without electric power. Reportedly, utility officials were warning customers to prepare for power outages lasting for days. And by Monday, government officials such as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick were sharply criticizing local Boston power utilities NStar and National Grid for their rate of power restoration.
Noting that tens of thousands of customers were still living in unheated and unlit homes four days after the storm hit, Governor Patrick urged utilities to redouble their reconnection efforts. “Patience is going to start to wear thin for everybody if the utilities don’t continue to make significant progress,” Patrick told the Boston Globe. (By February 13, both National Grid and NStar had issued statements saying power had been restored to nearly all customers in Massachusetts.)
But, shivering in the dark, such was the scale of the disruption that utility customers could at least console themselves that their power supplier most likely knew they were without power. And that it almost certainly knew the cause: the snow, freezing rain, and howling winds brought by a blizzard that has been variously described as “unprecedented,” and “historic.”
Less fortunate customers are those hit by power outages in more normal times. In other words, when isolated tree falls, landslips and equipment failures disrupt electricity supplies to homes and businesses numbered in the hundreds, rather than the thousands or tens of thousands.
In such situations, says Rick Nicholson, group vice president of analyst firm IDC’s Energy Insights division, it can be vastly more difficult for a utility to know that disruption has occurred. “The average utility doesn’t have any sensing capability below their major high voltage systems,” he says. “They know if a part of their high voltage network goes out, but once you get into the medium-voltage distribution networks that serve individual neighborhoods, there’s no sensing equipment at all. They’re relying on consumers calling in and saying: ‘My lights have gone out.’”